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Pennant Race Flashback: September 24, 1979

Kent Tekulve shut down the Expos in the first game of a key 1979 doubleheader, but Montreal struck back in the nightcap.
Kent Tekulve shut down the Expos in the first game of a key 1979 doubleheader, but Montreal struck back in the nightcap.
Sports Illustrated

BACKGROUND: The National League schedule-maker dictated that Montreal's second visit to Pittsburgh of the 1979 campaign would conclude with a Sunday doubleheader on July 1, but Mother Nature preempted those plans. One batter in, the skies opened; three hours later, the umpires called off the afternoon's action. "The two games will be made up when the Expos come to Pittsburgh during the last week of the season," noted the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

These midseason developments drew only cursory attention from the baseball world; the youthful Expos (six members of their starting lineup age 25 or younger) led the NL East, and the Pirates lingered 6.5 games behind them. By the team that the teams reached that last week of the season, however, the rescheduled games' importance had grown immensely. Montreal had lost their divisional edge when the Bucs got hot later in July, but surged back into first place on the strength of 17 wins in 18 games between August 28 and September 15. Consecutive close losses to the Pirates at Olympic Stadiumone via Don Robinson complete game and the other via Willie Stargell eleventh-inning home runhad flipped the Bucs into first by September 18, but three straight Bucco defeats restored Montreal's lead.

The Expos showed up in Pittsburgh with a half-game advantage and nine games left on their schedule. Eight games remained for the Pirates. What had been a scheduled Monday off-day drew over 47,000 "noisy, unruly" (per Dan Donovan in The Pittsburgh Press) fans to Three Rivers Stadium, eager to see the next chapter in this hotly contested pennant race.

ACTION: The Pirates had the look of champions in the opener. After spotting the Expos two first-inning runs, they laid low until the sixth inning, when Bill Robinson's two-run homer off Dan Schatzader tied the score and a pair of Montreal errors produced the go-ahead run. Bucco insurance runs in the seventh (on a Robinson triple) and eighth (on another Expos' error) innings gave starter Bert Blyleven (six innings) and closer Kent Tekulve (three innings) all of the support that they would need for the 5-2 win. The crowd chanted "dee-fense, dee-fense," as fans did at Steeler games, and gave the 36-year-old Robinson the first curtain call of his career. First place again belonged to the Bucs.

The nightcap seemed to follow a similar script. Gary Carter gave Montreal a 2-1 lead with a home run off recently-reacquired Dock Ellis in the fourth inning, but the Pirates drew even on a Tim Foli sacrifice fly in the bottom of the frame. An inning later, the Bucs capitalized on a Dave Cash errorone of three in the game from the former Buccoto score four runs off Rudy May and Stan Bahnsen for a 6-2 advantage. A sweep appeared at hand.

But Montreal would not surrender. Chuck Tanner turned the game over to the front end of his bullpen in the top of the sixth, and Dave Roberts allowed an RBI single to Pirate-killer-turned-Pirate-turned-Pirate-killer-again Duffy Dyer, who had entered the game when Carter jammed his thumb on a play at the plate. Joe Coleman got the Bucs through the sixth and seventh, but walked Rusty Staub and Dyer with one out in the eighth.

Tanner called on Tekulve, whose ground-ball magic paid off by inducing Ellis Valentine to ground into a force out. Larry Parrish followed with another grounder, but this one bounced high off the infield turf for an RBI single. Dick Williams summoned pinch hitter John Tamargo to bat for Rodney Scott. Tekulve threw the first pitch down the middle of the plate, and Tamargo smacked it to right field for a game-tying two-run double. (Crossing the plate with the tying run was the youngest Expo, 20-year-old pinch-runner Tim Raines, appearing in his fifth major-league game.)

Montreal completed their comeback in the top of the ninth; Valentine's two-out single off Grant Jackson scored Staub to give the visitors a 7-6 lead that they would never relinquish. The Expos resumed their occupation of the top spot.

OBSERVATIONS: But one afternoon in 1971, the dreams and the adjectives evaporated, and he was simply another prospect turned suspect, scratching out a living in a minor-league way station and thinking very seriously of bagging it. Then Bill Robinson changed his mind. Which was fortunate for the Pirates, because last night in the heat of a fine pennant race, he won the ballgame the Pirates had to have in a four-game series against young and tenacious Montreal, which will probably decide the final disposition of the National League East pennant.

- Phil Musick, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It's strange how the emotions change so suddenly in an evening. The Expos scored two runs in the first inning of the first game, and it looked as if the Pirates would be in for a long night. But then they capitalized on Expo mistakes, and it looked as if the Pirates could clinch the title by Thursday. But then the bullpen fell apart and the hitters melted.

- Dan Donovan, The Pittsburgh Press

The Montreal Expos, based in a province more conservative than Pittsburgh, aren't accustomed to the wild and wonderful and weird atmosphere of Three Rivers Stadium. Security men were chasing unruly rascals through the stands and off the field and catching some of them. The crowd of nearly 50,000 was warned repeatedly not to throw object onto the turf. A chic female slipped nervily into the Expos' dugout hoping to sit with the players. And a Montreal fan (well, maybe they're not that conservative) rushed into the clubhouse between games and exhorted the astonished Expos to win one for Le Gipp.

- Russ Franke, The Pittsburgh Press

POSTSCRIPT: They had squandered a sizable lead to their upstart rivals and lost their grasp of first place, but the Pirates hardly seemed discouraged. Over the next two nights, a barrage of twenty-seven Bucco hits peppered the turf, walls and seats of Three Rivers Stadium and a parade of twenty Bucco runs crossed home plate. Tuesday night's 10-4 win and Wednesday night's 10-1 triumph gave the Pirates a 1.5-game lead over Montreal with four to play. A division title appeared at hand.