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Pennant race flashback: September 5, 1978

Jerry Reuss contributed to the Pirates' late 1978 surge by shutting out the Mets.
Jerry Reuss contributed to the Pirates' late 1978 surge by shutting out the Mets.

BACKGROUND: Their two immediate predecessors had finished second behind Philadelphia in the NL East, but the 1978 Pirates looked unlikely to do even that well by the time the calendar reached the second weekend of August. The first-place Phillies had taken three of four games over the previous weekend at Three Rivers Stadium ("Bucs Dead, Funeral Date Pending," declared the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after Sunday's doubleheader sweep), and continued the beatings in their rematch at Veterans' Stadium: three victories by a combined 28-6 margin to start the series. The Beaver County Times had called the Phillies' five-run sixth inning in the Pirates' 10-1 defeat on August 12, "the sixth inning that undoubtedly drove the final nail in the 1978 Pirates' coffin"; with 17 losses in the Bucs' last 21 games, a 51-61 record, a fourth-place perch, and an 11.5-game deficit in the division race, that conclusion seemed hard to rebut.

But the Pirates salvaged Sunday's series finale, and the schedule turned to 21 games worth of home-and-home action with the Reds, Astros and Braves. After splitting the first two games with Cincinnati at Three Rivers, the Pirates won the final game of the series and all six games of a home series with Houston. Three more wins in Fulton County Stadium followed; by the morning of August 25, the Bucs had won ten games in a row and now stood just 3.5 games back of the Phillies.

A brief interlude of two losses in the Astrodome ended that winning streak, but the Pirates started another one promptly. One win in Houston and two wins in Cincinnati brought the Bucs back home for a four-game series with the Braves, which yielded a doubleheader sweep and two walkoff victories. The Pirates emerged from their 21-game stretch against the eastern members of the NL West with an 18-3 mark and a seven-game winning streak.

Returning to NL East play on Labor Day failed to slow the Bucco charge; on September 4, the Pirates swept a doubleheader from the Mets to extend the winning streak to nine and cut the deficit to a single game.

Initially, the schedule-makers had given the Pirates and Phillies the next night off. Rain, however, had postponed a game when the Mets visited Pittsburgh in July; the Tuesday open date gave the Bucs the opportunity to make up the game while Philadelphia sat idle.

ACTION: Jerry Reuss ensured that the Pirates would get through their expected off-day with as minimal toil as possible, limiting the Mets to four hits and a walk in a complete-game 8-0 victory, the Bucs' tenth straight triumph.

The 29-year-old lefthander had served an integral role in the Pirates' starting rotation for the previous four seasons, but 1978 proved difficult. Reuss had lost his spot in the rotation in April through a combination of ineffectiveness and the ascent of rookie Don Robinson. Two months later, General Manager Harding Peterson tried to trade him to Chicago for Paul Reuschel and Ray Burris, but Reuss vetoed the deal. Remaining in Pittsburgh, he had spent the season living the ghoulish existence of a swing-man, enduring ignominies like the Cardinals knocking him out of the box before he could retire a batter in a late June start and the Phillies driving him from mop-up duty in one of those mid-August disasters when Jose Cardenal's line drive struck his knee.

Still, Reuss had more than enough to dominate a weak New York lineup, zipping through the game on a mere 91 pitches, 63 of which found the strike zone. He worked so efficiently that matters concluded in just 2:08. Including Jim Bibby's shutout in the second game of Monday's doubleheader, Bucco pitchers had held the Mets scoreless for 20 consecutive innings.

The Pirates broke open a 1-0 game with a five-run outburst in the third inning. Frank Taveras started the uprising with a single, and came around to score when Mets' starter Jerry Koosman threw away Omar Moreno's sacrifice bunt. Bill Robinson's sacrifice fly, Manny Sanguillen's RBI single, and Duffy Dyer's turf-aided two-run double subsequently drained any remaining drama from the contest.

With 22 wins in 25 games, the once written-off Buccos now had a 73-64 record. They trailed the Phillies by the narrowest of margins: 0.5 games.

OBSERVATIONS: If there are detours to a division title in St. Louis, New York and Philadelphia, the Pirates have shown they can take adversity and often win in spite of it. This may not be a great Pirate club that has cut 11 games off the Phillies lead in 24 days, but it has proven a gutty one. Some players say their pride took charge. Others say they didn't want to embarrass themselves by falling out of the race in August.

- Charley Feeney, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Yet people keep saying the Pirates are just beating up on the weak teams. The last two teams the Pirates bludgeoned to death, the Mets and Atlanta Braves, are last in their respective divisions. The Mets tossed out a few kid pitchers, and certainly didn't look like world-beaters while the Pirates outscored them 22-4 in three games. During the Resurrection stretch, the only first division team the Pirates played was Cincinnati. Of course, the Pirates won four of five from Cincinnati.

- Dan Donovan, The Pittsburgh Press

POSTSCRIPT: The Pirates took their show on the road the next night, with no diminution in quality: Robinson's five-hit complete game against the Cardinals extended the winning streak to 11. (And he did it in 2:04, four minutes faster than Reuss' gem.) Five consecutive losses in St. Louis, New York and Philadelphia would then cool off the Bucco pennant pursuit, albeit temporarily.