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Pennant race flashback: August 29, 1970

Jose Pagan started the Bucs' offensive onslaught with a two-run homer, but his eighth-inning error proved pivotal.
Jose Pagan started the Bucs' offensive onslaught with a two-run homer, but his eighth-inning error proved pivotal.

BACKGROUND: The 1970 Pirates made their move in the NL East standings around the same time that their mailing address changed from South Bouquet Street in Oakland to Stadium Circle on the North Shore. Two games under .500 and six games from first place on the morning of June 19, the Bucs won 19 of their next 25 and edged into first on the weekend before the All-Star break—just in time for their initial series at Three Rivers Stadium. By the time the Pirates started a California swing on August 21, they could claim a 2.5-game lead on the second-place Mets and ownership of first place in the division for all but two of the previous 41 days.

Their California trip started promisingly enough, with two wins in three games in Los Angeles. Roberto Clemente, who had turned 36 just days earlier, celebrated the weekend at Chavez Ravine in a manner worthy of his legend: five hits in a sixteen-inning game on Saturday night, followed by five hits in a day game on Sunday. But the Bucs then lost both games of a series to NL West cellar-dwelling San Diego and gave Juan Marichal his 200th career victory in the Friday-night opener of a four-game set in San Francisco.

On Saturday afternoon, Steve Blass took Candlestick Park's mound against rookie Skip Pitlock, hoping to contain the three-game losing streak before it could mutate into something more harmful to Bucco pennant hopes.

ACTION: The Pirates started the day intent on reversing their slide, knocking Pitcock out of the box with a pair of early long balls. Jose Pagan's two-run homer in the second inning scored Manny Sanguillen for a 2-0 advantage. An inning later, Bob Robertson's two-run blast drove in Sanguillen again, and the Bucs had a 4-0 edge.

Giants' manager Charlie Fox turned the game over to his bullpen; the Bucco bats did not let up. When Al Oliver singled home Clemente in the top of the eighth, the Pirates had a comfortable 9-2 lead—and the bases loaded with nobody out. Bill Mazeroski's ground out and Blass' double play grounder ensured that the lead would grow no more, but the missed opportunity seemed as insignificant as the two times that the Bucs had left the bases loaded earlier in the game.

Blass returned to the mound in the bottom of the eighth, six outs from victory. The second-place Mets had already lost; it appeared that the Pirates would end the day with a 3.0-game lead on Chicago and a 3.5-game lead on New York.

But Tito Fuentes led off the San Francisco eighth with a single and Willie Mays followed with his 624th career home run. Blass recovered to retire Ken Henderson, but Dick Dietz continued the rally with a double to center field. Deciding that Blass had contributed enough for the afternoon, Danny Murtaugh called on his closer, Dave Giusti.

Giusti did not put out the fire. Jim Ray Hart greeted him with another home run, cutting the Bucco margin to 9-6. Giusti recorded a second out, but Ron Hunt continued the rally with a double. Fox called on Willie McCovey to pinch-hit; Murtaugh elected to play the percentages, summoning lefty Joe Gibbon to face McCovey.

Gibbon performed as hoped: McCovey hit a grounder to third. But Pagan bobbled it for an error, and the Giants remained in business. Murtaugh went to the bullpen for the third time in the inning; this time, he waved in rookie John Lamb, who had started his career with eight scoreless outings.

Lamb, however, surrendered a three-run homer to Bobby Bonds, and the game was tied 9-9.

Two innings later, the deadlock remained, and Bruce Dal Canton took the hill as the Pirates' fifth pitcher. Hart singled to lead off the bottom of the tenth; two outs later, he occupied second and Bonds came to bat. The 24-year-old right fielder worked the count to 2-2 and then lined a single between short and third to drive in Hart. The Pirates had left fifteen runners on base, squandered a seven-run lead, and fallen to a crushing 10-9 defeat.

OBSERVATIONS: Baseball players exist on familiar terms with failure. Their bad trips are frequent but short, and the stylized mourning in the clubhouse rarely outlasts the night. But the Pirates may not quickly recover from Saturday's unpleasantness here. To be seven runs ahead in the eighth inning and one run behind at the end of the 10th is traumatic. It enforces soul-searching. In 15 years with the Pirates, Bill Mazeroski has played in something like 1,100 losing games; none could have filled him with anything like the dismay that was written all over his countenance as he looked back on Saturday's event.

- Roy McHugh, The Pittsburgh Press

It may be stretching the imagination a little bit, but just suppose the Pirates win the National League East and go on to win the pennant. If they do all that, it will be without a 15-game winner and that should be some kind of record. The only Pirate pitcher with the chance to reach the not-so-elusive figure is Dock Ellis, who has 12 wins, but he's not supposed to pitch any more this season. Next in line with wins is Luke Walker, whose pitching lately doesn't indicate that he'll win five games in September. That tells you something about the mediocrity of the National League East. If the Pirates had several guys driving in over 100 runs, that kind of pitching on a first place team would be understandable. But the Pirates probably won't have a player drive in more than 90.

- Bob Smizik, The Pittsburgh Press

POSTSCRIPT: Sunday brought two more Bucco defeats at Candlestick Park, extending the losing streak to six games. The Pirates traveled to Montreal, beat the NL East cellar-dwellers to snap the skid, and then gave away a five-run lead and lost the second game of the series on a walk-off home run. By the morning of September 4, the road trip had ended with a 3-8 mark and the division race had tightened: the Bucs led the Cubs by half a game and the Mets by a full game.