BACKGROUND: Unlike the 1970 Pirates, who subjected their followers to a series of tests of faith on the road to the franchise's first National League East title, the '71 Bucs minimized September's drama. Never out of first place after June 10, the Pirates opened up an 11-game lead by mid-July. A 4-13 slump between late July and mid August—coinciding with a rash of injuries and a rollicking Roy Blount Jr. Sports Illustrated cover story—allowed St. Louis to cut the gap to 3.5 games, but 20-year-old rookie Rennie Stennett stepped into the lineup and contributed an 18-game hitting streak, enabling the Bucs to regain their bearing. The Pirates clinched the title with a 5-1 win over the Cardinals on September 22, celebrated by flooding Busch Stadium's visiting clubhouse with several inches worth of champagne and water, and spent the next week waiting for the NL West to designate a challenger.
Their foe's identity remained a mystery until the final day of the regular season. For much of the year, Charlie Fox's Giants had appeared a cinch. San Francisco occupied at least a share of first place for all but two days of the season and opened up a double-digit divisional lead before Memorial Day.
Seeking their first postseason berth since losing the 1962 World Series, the Giants still relied on a venerable trio from that team: 40-year-old center fielder Willie Mays, 33-year-old first baseman Willie McCovey, and 33-year-old pitcher Juan Marichal. A gaggle of young talent augmented that Cooperstown-bound core. Outfielders Bobby Bonds and Ken Henderson, both age 25 in '71, flanked Mays with strong seasons. Twenty-one-year-old rookie shortstop Chris Speier would play in all but five regular season games. Fox's reserves included a 6'6'' Leviathan named Dave Kingman, drafted in the first round from Southern Cal in the previous June. Kingman made his major league debut as a pinch-runner against the Pirates on July 30. A day later, he hit a go-ahead grand slam off Dave Giusti, the Pirates' best reliever. The next day, he slugged two long homers off Dock Ellis, arguably the Pirates' best starter.
By September 4, the Giants enjoyed an 8.5-game edge over their archrivals from Los Angeles. But McCovey injured his hand attempting to field a grounder the next day, missed eight games in a row, and did not re-join the starting lineup until ten games later. Kingman had undergone an emergency appendectomy days before McCovey's injury, temporarily eliminating him as an understudy. San Francisco's contemporaneous 1-10 collapse promptly burned through all but a single game of their divisional advantage. It took the Giants until game #162 to secure the title.
The delayed clinching potentially impaired San Francisco's chances in the playoffs. Marichal had wrapped up the flag with a five-hit complete game in the season finale, but that effort would limit him to a single start in the best-of-five series. Instead, Fox would send Gaylord Perry to Candlestick Park's mound in the first game and John Cumberland in the second, saving his ace for Game Three at Three Rivers Stadium. Danny Murtaugh would counter with Steve Blass and Ellis in San Francisco; when the series returned to Pittsburgh, the Bucs hoped to deploy Nelson Briles, who had pulled a muscle in his right leg in their final regular season game.
Getting off to a strong start would require the Pirates to reverse their recent history on Candlestick Park's two-season-old Astroturf. The 1970 and 1971 division champions had turned in identically uninspiring 1-5 records in San Francisco's windy confines, including several losses of an especially demoralizing hue. Thirteen months earlier, a 9-2 eighth-inning advantage had disintegrated into a 10-9 loss. Kingman's July grand slam had facilitated a four-inning-long 13-1 surge off four Bucco pitchers, erasing a 7-2 deficit. The Giants have "the knowledge that anytime they've played the Bucs head-on here, they have looked like the strong club, while the Bucs often have resembled a bunch of humpties dumpties," opined Charley Feeney in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Bucco hopes of seizing the early edge fell victim to another San Francisco rally in Saturday afternoon's series opener. Blass struck out nine in the first four innings and held a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the fifth, but Speier led off with a single. Two outs later, the rookie shortstop stood on third and eccentric second baseman Tito Fuentes stepped to the plate. The switch-hitting Fuentes, who would hit only six regular-season home runs in over 3500 at-bats from the left side, swung at Blass's slow curve, interrupted its arc inches off the ground, and lifted it just over the right-field fence—and the outstretched glove of Roberto Clemente, who had climbed the barrier with his spikes—for a 3-2 advantage. Fuentes clapped his hands enthusiastically as he circled the bases.
Mays followed with his second four-pitch walk of the game. McCovey, irked that Blass apparently preferred to face him ("I think I deserve more respect than that," he told the media afterwards), crushed a fastball high into the still-under-construction right field upper deck to extend San Francisco's lead to 5-2.
The Pirates threatened to score several times after the Giants' fifth-inning salvo, but drew no closer than one run. Perry retired Clemente and Willie Stargell with the tying run on base in the top of the ninth to close out the 5-4 victory.
Striving to avoid a second 2-0 playoff deficit in two years, Ellis took the ball against left-hander Cumberland on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
ACTION: San Francisco started Game Two seemingly intent on skipping the "comeback" element of their big-inning offense. Before Ellis could record a second out, Fuentes had raced from first to third on a passed ball, Mays had driven him in with a double to deep left center, and the Giants had loaded the bases. But Ellis struck out Dick Dietz on a change-up and retired Al Gallagher on a grounder to keep the game from getting out of hand.
Hobbled by a knee injury, Bucco first baseman Bob Robertson did not hit a regular season home run after August 25. But Robertson offered an omen of better times ahead by leading off the second inning with a double into the left-field corner. Manny Sanguillen hit Cumberland's next pitch for a single to center to tie the game.
The Giants regained the lead in their half of the second on doubles by Speier and Henderson. Cumberland held the margin for one inning—until the first pitch of Robertson's next plate appearance. The red-haired first baseman drove the ball towards the right-field foul pole and an eight-foot-high fence. Kingman leaped and briefly wrapped his glove around Robertson's drive, but banged his hand on the fence. Dislodged by the impact, the ball descended on the far side of the barrier, tying the game.
The Bucs took the lead three batters later, when Jackie Hernandez's single to left off Jim Barr, who had replaced Cumberland, drove in Sanguillen from second base. Gene Clines homered off Barr to lead off the fifth, extending the margin to 4-2.
Consecutive dramatic innings would then decide the game. When Ellis began the bottom of the sixth by hitting Gallagher with a pitch and allowing a single to Speier, Murtaugh called in veteran right-hander Bob Miller, who had recorded a 1.29 ERA in 28 innings after coming over from San Diego in an August trade.
Fox sent up Frank Duffy to pinch-hit for reliever Don McMahon. He put the bunt sign on, and left it on until the bitter end: Miller retired Duffy on a foul bunt for the strikeout.
Strategic failure did not quash San Francisco's spirit. Henderson drew a five-pitch walk to load the bases with one out. Saturday's unlikely hero, Fuentes, approached the plate, with Mays and McCovey lurking on deck. But Miller recovered to strike out Fuentes. Mays then struck the ball solidly to right-center, but Clemente ran it down to retire the side.
Minutes after barely holding on to the lead, the Bucs blew the game open in the top of the seventh. Dave Cash, Al Oliver, and Clemente greeted reliever Don Carrithers with three consecutive hits to open the frame. Clemente's single drove in Cash for a 5-2 lead. Fox decided that he had seen enough of Carrithers and brought in left-hander Ron Bryant to face Stargell. Bryant fanned Stargell for the first out, but Robertson followed with a blast into the left-field seats for a three-run homer and near-insurmountable 8-2 advantage.
In the ninth inning, Fox brought in his third lefty of the day, veteran Steve Hamilton. Robertson capped off his hitting spree by driving a Hamilton offering over the center field fence. Only one previous player had hit three home runs in a postseason game: Babe Ruth, who had done it in the 1926 and 1928 World Series.
Mays chipped in a two-run homer off Miller in the top of the ninth, but its impact was cosmetic. Giusti recorded the final three outs to close out the series-deadlocking 9-4 win.
Tony Bennett left his heart in San Francisco and Bob Robertson, the Pirates' swinging redhead, broke the hearts of San Francisco fans yesterday at Candlestick Park. Robby crashed three home runs and a double, for five RBIs, to lead the Pirates to a 9-4 victory over the Giants before 42,562 fans, many of whom felt the Giants were prepared to sweep the Bucs in the horror chamber known as Candlestick Park.
- Charley Feeney, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Clemente jumped up, pounded his glove. "We chase jinx today and go to Pittsburgh and win next two in a row. Wait and see."
The Great Roberto, who is Bobby to his close friends, was right. With a couple of assists, one from the late, redoubtable Hoak and the second from another Bobby—Robertson, the Bucs blasted the San Francisco Giants and the Candlestick Park jinx to win the second game of the National League division playoffs by a score of 9-4.
Clemente ripped three singles, one in the important four-run seventh inning rally while husky Bobby Robertson walloped three long homers and a double while driving in five runs.
- Al Abrams, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A victory for the Giants yesterday would have put them in a commanding lead in this best-of-five series, but now the club has to win at least two of three in Pittsburgh.
The advantage is with the Giants in tomorrow's tilt because it will probably match Juan Marichal against Nelson Briles.
And manager Charlie Fox will probably come back with Perry on Wednesday, hoping that the pair can again rack up back-to-back victories to win it.
But should the Giants win just one of those two tilts, they could be in trouble. The action yesterday proved that after Marichal and Perry, the Giants pitching staff is not exactly of top notch caliber.
And the Pirates are not blessed with baseball's finest pitching staff. If this one goes five games, the finale could be a 20-19 contest.
- Darell Phillips, Modesto Bee
POSTSCRIPT: Briles went to the bullpen to warm up before Game Three, but discovered that his injured right leg impaired his regular throwing motion. Murtaugh turned to Bob Johnson, who had contributed an undistinguished season after coming from Kansas City in the Freddie Patek trade during the previous winter. Johnson, however, held steadfast against Marichal, finishing with eight innings of five-hit ball. San Francisco's only tally came in the sixth inning, when Richie Hebner threw Fuentes' bunt into right field and Henderson scored from first.
Marichal proved stingy as usual, but Robertson continued his power-hitting ways, lining an outside fastball over the 410-foot sign in center field in the second inning for this fourth home run in two days and third in three at-bats. With two outs in the bottom of the eighth, Hebner atoned for his error by sneaking a 1-2 screwball just over the fence in right field for a go-ahead homer. Giusti retired the Giants in order in the ninth, and the Pirates moved within one win of the World Series with the 2-1 win.