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Pennant race flashback: August 25, 1979

On a night when the baseball was free and the adversity plentiful, Dave Roberts came up big for the '79 Pirates.
On a night when the baseball was free and the adversity plentiful, Dave Roberts came up big for the '79 Pirates.

BACKGROUND: California may have blessed Don Henley, Glenn Frey and their hirsute allies with bountiful artistic and commercial rewards between 1976 and 1978, but the Golden State provided the opposite vibe for the Pirates' trio of NL East bridesmaids from those same years. In 54 games in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego, Danny Murtaugh's final Bucs' team and Chuck Tanner's first two Bucco squads combined to win only 18 times. Henley's narrator may have wondered whether he had reached heaven or hell; for the '78 Pirates, who finished just 1.5 games behind the Phillies after a 4-14 mark at Dodger Stadium, Candlestick Park and Jack Murphy Stadium, the question was not open for debate.

The 1979 Pirates seemed destined for more of the same when they opened their June California swing with three losses in San Diego, but they recovered to finish the trip with five wins in five games in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

By the time that the Bucs returned to San Diego on August 24 for their second round of baseball in Pacific Time, they had emerged as NL East front-runners with a three-game lead over the second-place Expos. The Padres, by contrast, found themselves mired in fifth place in the NL West, twenty games under .500. A peppier California tune now ruled the airwaves; would the Pirates' west coast fortunes be any different this time?

Friday night's series opener, however, evoked the you-can-check-out-anytime-you-like-but-you-can-never-leave gloom of previous seasons: San Diego overcame a 2-1 Bucco lead in the eighth inning with two two-out runs off John Candelaria, Enrique Romo and Grant Jackson, and Willie Stargell's game-ending double play grounder fragged the Pirates' bid for a ninth-inning rally.

If the Bucs needed further grounds for concern, Saturday night represented Gaylord Perry's turn in the Padres' starting rotation. Perry already had two complete-game victories over the Pirates on the season (although the Buccos had beaten him in Pittsburgh earlier in the month).

ACTION: Little more than three weeks before his 41st birthday, Perry vexed the Pirates just as much as in his earlier starts. He took a five-hit shutout and 2-0 lead into the ninth inning.

Perry started the ninth by sandwiching two ground outs around a Dave Parker double. One out from another complete game, Perry walked John Milner and surrendered a single to Bill Madlock, scoring Parker. San Diego manager Roger Craig called for relief ace Rollie Fingers, but Padres' catcher Bill Fahey failed to handle a Fingers pitch. Pinch-runner Matt Alexander scored the tying run on the passed ball.

An epic battle of the bullpens ensued. Home plate umpire Dave Pallone ejected Chuck Tanner and Madlock for arguing a third strike in the eleventh inning. Both teams pushed across single runs in their respective halves of the twelfth.

With the score still 3-3 in the sixteenth, veteran lefty Dave Roberts took the hill for the Bucs. Roberts had originally been Pirates' property more than a decade earlier, but the Padres had snagged him in the 1968 expansion draft. In June 1979, he returned to the Buccos as a low-profile component of the Bill Madlock trade; the Pirates were the 34-year-old's sixth major-league team in what turned out to be an eight-stop career. Replacing the traded Ed Whitson as a swing man, Roberts had handled low-leverage innings over his first two months in Pittsburgh.

On this night in San Diego, however, Roberts found himself in the center of some of the season's most pressure-packed moments. Jay Johnstone started the sixteenth with a single and moved to third on a sacrifice bunt and a ground out. Sensibly, Chuck Tanner had Roberts intentionally walk Dave Winfield and Fred Kendall to load the bases for pitcher John D'Acquisto.

Less sensibly, Roberts' first three pitches to D'Acquisto missed the strike zone. Roberts looked at second base and saw Winfield shouting at him and gesturing with his hands on his throat, giving him the "choke" sign. Roberts responded with three consecutive strikes, ending the threat.

An inning later, Roberts worked into an even deeper predicament, allowing San Diego to load the bases with none out. But he struck out Johnstone and retired Jerry Turner and Fahey on ground balls to escape.

The Pirates finally regained the lead in the nineteenth inning when Tim Foli doubled home Bill Robinson. Roberts, now on his fourth inning of relief, allowed a leadoff single to Ozzie Smith in the bottom of the nineteenth, but then retired the side to secure the 4-3 victory, six hours and twelve minutes after the first pitch (4:20 am on Sunday morning in Pitttsburgh). Smith turned out to be the Padres' 26th runner left on base, still one shy of the major league record.

OBSERVATIONS: "Roberts showed Winfield that he was not a choke-up athlete and, when he struck out D'Acquisto Roberts verbally blasted Winfield. 'I won't forget what he was saying to me,' Roberts said before [Sunday's] game."

- Charley Feeney, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

POSTSCRIPT: The Pirates routed the Padres on Sunday afternoon, took two of three in Los Angeles, and then swept four games in San Francisco, one of which concluded with Kent Tekulve catching Darrell Evans' fly ball in left field for the final out. The Bucs' passage back to Pittsburgh saw them in better shape than when they arrived; their lead in the NL East had had extended to 3.5 games over second-place Montreal (who had kept pace by winning six of seven games over that period).