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Pennant Race Flashback: September 17, 1992

Jay Bell's thirteenth-inning hit gave the Pirates some breathing room in the 1992 NL East race.
Jay Bell's thirteenth-inning hit gave the Pirates some breathing room in the 1992 NL East race.

BACKGROUND: It took back-to-back gems by a pair of newcomers to roust the 1992 Pirates from a late-July malaise. On the morning of July 30, eight losses in ten games had dropped the Bucs from a 5.0-game lead in the NL East into a first-place tie with Montreal. Prospects of a third consecutive division title appeared shaky. One metaphor-happy commentator described the team as "road kill waiting for the circling buzzards to clear the rutted asphalt of the National League East, major-league baseball's highway to hell."

But Danny Jackson, acquired in a trade with the Cubs nineteen days earlier, started the Bucco resurgence that night with seven shutout innings, leading the Pirates to a 4-0 win over the Cardinals at Three Rivers Stadium. An evening later, Tim Wakefield turned in a masterful 146-pitch major-league debut, yielding a complete-game 3-2 victory.

Mojo restored, the Bucs would win their next nine games, and 31 of their next 43 through September 15. July's figurative birds of prey had apparently flown over the horizon: their magic number stood at fifteen, with eighteen games to play.

Their former co-front-runners, however, refused to concede. Over the same period, Montreal went 27-16 and kept within 4.0 games of the Pirates. Seeking to narrow the gap even further, first-year manager Felipe Alou's team arrived at Three Rivers Stadium on September 16 for a two-game series.

The Expos achieved half of their objective in the series opener, stranding eight Buccos on base from the sixth to eighth innings and holding on for a 6-3 win. The Pirates' lead shrank to 3.0 games, and Montreal sent out 37-year-old ace Dennis Martinez a night later for the sweep.

ACTION: Martinez, taking the mound at Three Rivers thirteen years after getting knocked out in the second inning of Game Four of the 1979 World Series, stymied the Bucco bats, matching Jackson zero for zero through five innings.

In the top of the sixth, two other venerable Expos—and a youthful product of their productive farm system—snapped the deadlock. Tim Wallach, holding down third base in Montreal for the twelfth consecutive year, led off with a single. After 20-year-old rookie Wil Cordero followed with another single, Gary Carter, back with the Expos at age 38 for his final major-league season, lined Jackson's pitch down the right-field line for a double, scoring Wallach and Cordero for a 2-0 lead.

The Pirates got one run back in the bottom of the sixth when Barry Bonds doubled home Andy Van Slyke. Two innings later, the Bucs drew even. Van Slyke blooped a one-out single to center off Martinez. Alou summoned Mel Rojas, but Bonds kept the rally going with a single to right. Jeff King grounded to shortstop; Spike Owen fielded the ball on the short hop, but threw wide and high of first base, allowing Van Slyke to score the tying run.

At that point, the game settled into a tense battle of the bullpens. Jim Leyland followed Jackson's six solid innings by getting seven scoreless frames out of a combination of journeymen and youngsters: Roger Mason, Denny Neagle, Stan Belinda, Bob Patterson and Danny Cox. (Patterson's scoreless tenth and eleventh seemed especially welcome; he had surrendered go-ahead or game-winning three-run homer in three of his previous four outings.) What that quintet may have lacked in pedigree, it made up for in performance: the Expos managed just two hits and four walks against the Bucco bullpen.

Montreal's relievers, by contrast, preferred a "bend-but-don't break" approach. After surrendering the tying run in the eighth, Rojas allowed the Pirates to load the bases with one out, but retired Mike LaValliere and Dave Clark to preserve the tie. The Bucs again loaded the bases with one out in the tenth inning, but John Wetteland retired Don Slaught and induced Cecil Espy to chase a high and outside 3-2 pitch to keep the game going. King's eleventh-inning strikeout against Wetteland left two more runners on base.

With less than half an hour to go until midnight, Espy started the bottom of the thirteenth against Kent Bottenfield by hitting a hard grounder past second baseman Tom Foley.  When the ball rolled across the turf to the wall in right-center, the speedy Espy raced to third for a leadoff triple. Alou ordered an intentional walk to pinch-hitter Alex Cole.

Concerned that Bonds—who had four hits on the night as part of a .400/.546/.857 rampage through the season's final five weeks—lurked two batters away, Alou elected to pitch to Jay Bell, even though Bell had extended his hitting streak to 22 games earlier in the evening.

Bell grounded Bottenfield's 1-2 pitch between the drawn-in shortstop and third baseman, driving home Espy with the winning run in the Pirates' 3-2 victory. The Bucs would emerge from the series with their 4.0-game lead intact.

OBSERVATIONS: Jim Leyland has been in professional baseball for 28 of his 47 years. When the Pittsburgh Pirates manager ranks someone or something on his all-time list, it truly means something. Thursday night—make it early this morning—Leyland was still shaking his head over the Pirates 3-2 victory over the Montreal Expos that lasted 13 innings and four hours and 35 minutes. "This is one of the best games I've ever been associated with and that goes all the way back to my days on the sandlots as a kid," Leyland said. "This was something unbelievable. It was a great game. We're two teams fighting each other for a championship and it was a game worthy of a pennant race."

- John Perroto, Beaver County Times

The pestiferous Montreal Expos met the resourceful Pittsburgh Pirates tonight and learned why the Pirates remain on target for their third successive division championship.

- Murray Chass, The New York Times

POSTSCRIPT: Winning reduced the Pirates' magic number to 13. The Bucs would sweep the Phillies that weekend, allow the Expos to come no closer than 4.0 games the rest of the season, and clinch their third consecutive division title by beating the Mets at Three Rivers Stadium ten days later.