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Pennant Race Flashback: September 8, 1980

Bucco bullpen mainstays Enrique Romo, Kent Tekulve and Grant Jackson struggled during the 1980 pennant race, severely impairing the Bucs' hopes for a repeat title.
Bucco bullpen mainstays Enrique Romo, Kent Tekulve and Grant Jackson struggled during the 1980 pennant race, severely impairing the Bucs' hopes for a repeat title.

BACKGROUND: Omar Moreno squeezed Pat Kelly's fly ball, Willie Stargell jumped for joy, and everyone danced to Sister Sledge. As the calendar turned to 1980, the team that had spent the previous three seasons as a spirited-yet-unsuccessful challenger to Philadelphia's NL East supremacy now had a new identity: defending champions.

To mount their title defense, the Pirates charged unto the breach with essentially the same group of players who had gone the distance in 1979. General Manager Harding Peterson had augmented his first three Bucco teams with the sorts of high-profile swaps that yielded a second baseman, third baseman, shortstop, platoon left fielder, future Hall of Fame starting pitcher, and manager for the World Champions, but his off-season and in-season efforts in 1979-80 netted nothing more useful than minor acquisitions Eddie Solomon and Kurt Bevacqua. For years, the Bucs had fortified their roster with a steady stream of talent from the farm system; by 1980, however, their leading first-year contributors, Rod Scurry and Vance Law, played only supporting roles. And Andy Hassler's six-game Bucco career represented the sole return on Peterson's post-championship free-agent shopping. Clearly, if the Pirates wished for a second consecutive October celebration, it would have to bear more than just a passing resemblance to their first.

For about four and a half months, Peterson's approach appeared to be working. The Bucs shrugged off adversity—Bert Blyleven's brief "retirement," Bill Madlock's suspension for striking umpire Jerry Crawford, a fan's battery toss at Dave Parker—dropped no more than 3.5 games from first in the NL East, and enjoyed multiple stays in the division's top spot. When the Pirates beat Montreal in the first game of a doubleheader at Three Rivers Stadium on August 17, they stood in first place, 17 games over .500, and enjoyed a 3.0-game lead on the Expos and 3.5-game lead on the Phillies.

Little did they realize, however, that they had reached an unfortunate turning point. At age 39, Stargell's production had decreased from his MVP season, but his .262/.351/.485 output still represented a strong middle-of-the-lineup presence. But he left the second game of that Montreal doubleheader with a knee injury, and played no more in 1980. Another 1979 hero, Kent Tekulve, took the mound against the Expos with two on and the score tied in the top of the ninth inning, but surrendered two hits for the decisive runs in Montreal's 4-2 victory.

The schedule then matched the Bucs with the three eastern members of the NL West, but, unlike the 18-wins-in-21 games streak against Atlanta, Cincinnati and Houston that boosted the Pirates into the division race in August 1978 or the 13-wins-in-14 games surge against those same teams in July 1979, the Stargell-less Buccos crumbled. The Pirates went 5-14, dropping five more games where their bullpen took the loss or allowed inherited runners to score game-winning runs. At one point, they lost eight consecutive games in Three Rivers Stadium.

But the Bucs were not out of the race. Montreal and Philadelphia had broken even in their respective efforts against the California half of the NL West; when the NL East returned to intradivisional play on September 8, the Pirates trailed Montreal by two games and Philadelphia by one. The Buccos started the stretch in Philadelphia, against a foe who they had swept in Pittsburgh a month earlier—not to mention a rival against whom they had achieved many magical moments in the previous two stretch drives. Could the Bucs regain their bearing?

ACTION: The magic had shifted to the other dugout: the Phillies came up with clutch hits and high-leverage outs in the late innings to secure a 6-2 win over the Pirates.

Once again, a bullpen breakdown doomed the Buccos. Don Robinson's seven strong innings—in a duel with a fellow 23-year-old, Philadelphia rookie Bob Walk—had left the game tied 2-2 in the bottom of the eighth. Chuck Tanner summoned Enrique Romo, who allowed a leadoff single to Bake McBride. The powerful duo of Mike Schmidt and Greg Luzinski followed with broken-bat singles, and the Phillies had a 3-2 advantage.

Tanner called for Kent Tekulve. Two batters into Tekulve's stint, Larry Bowa hit a bouncer towards first baseman John Milner. The ball struck the turf and bounded over Milner's head for a two-run double. "[A]ll [Milner] could do was wave his glove and swear at it," noted Dan Donovan in The Pittsburgh Press. A suicide squeeze bunt by relief ace Tug McGraw provided the fourth Philadelphia tally of the decisive inning.

A year earlier, the Pirates' had solved McGraw with two decisive grand slams in the course of one unforgettable August week. On this night, however, McGraw closed out Bucco rallies in the seventh (retiring Ed Ott and Phil Garner with two runners on base to preserve the tie) and the ninth (striking out Garner with the bases loaded to end the game). An irate Ott confronted home plate umpire/Pirate nemesis Crawford on the field after the final out; the Bucs' downward spiral continued.

OBSERVATIONS: Chuck Tanner, who has watched his top relievers, Romo, Kent Tekulve and Grant Jackson, give up game-winning hits in three of the last four losses, watched his team lose after telling them in a pregame meeting that the "season won't end with this series." "I told them to walk high," he said. "Our relief pitchers will come back. They've done the job most of the season. They'll do it again."

- Charley Feeney, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

And the Phillies finally won a big skirmish with the Pirates. The Phillies broke open a tense 2-2 game with four runs in the eighth inning last night, defeating the Pirates 6-2, a big win not only because it kept the Pirates mired in a 5-16 slump, but also because the Phillies proved they could beat the big, bad Pirates. "The Pirates have dominated us somewhat," Phillies Manager Dallas Green said. "This win was a big win in that you want to beat the team that you have to beat in the standings."

- Dan Donovan, The Pittsburgh Press

POSTSCRIPT: The Pirates staged another grim fight the next evening against Steve Carlton, but Jackson and Tekulve allowed two eighth-inning runs to tie the game. Bob Boone's fourteenth-inning squeeze bunt pushed across the winning run in Philadelphia's 5-4 victory. The Pirates now trailed the Expos by 3.5 games and the Phillies by 3.0 games. They would get no closer to the top spot than 3.5 games, and Philadelphia would reclaim the NL East title on the season's penultimate day.