BACKGROUND: A disastrous late August-early September swing through California and Canada threatened to undo the 1970 Pirates' hard-fought climb to the top of the National League East standings. Three games ahead of the second-place Mets after wrapping up their second win in three games in Los Angeles on August 23, the Bucs promptly dropped back-to-back decisions to a second-year Padres team destined to lose 99 games that year, and followed that ignominy with four consecutive losses in San Francisco, squandering a seven-run eighth-inning lead and getting swept in a doubleheader in the process.
The still-in-first-place-Pirates showed signs of righting their course in Montreal by halting the losing streak on September 1 and rolling to a 6-1 lead in the sixth inning a night later. The second-year Expos, however, struck back with nine runs over the next four innings against Bob Moose and five relievers, capping the comeback with John Bocabella's walk-off home run. Rain mercifully canceled the final game of the 3-8 road trip, and the Pirates returned to Allegheny County with a half-game lead over the Cubs and single-game margin over the Mets.
Returning home led to winning with greater frequency—the Bucs emerged from hosting Philadelphia, Chicago, and St. Louis with five victories in eight games—but failed to strengthen their grasp on first place. By the time the Pirates next headed on the road, to begin a two-game series at Wrigley Field on September 12, the NL East pennant chase remained tight:
1. Pirates 76-67 -
2. Mets 76-68 0.5
3. Cubs 75-68 1.0
Bob Moose outdueled Ferguson Jenkins in the first game in Chicago, denying the Cubs' ace his 20th win of the season. Dave Giusti, who had struggled on the previous road trip, relieved Moose in the ninth and closed out the 5-4 win. Danny Murtaugh sent Steve Blass to the mound on Sunday, with the mission of sweeping the brief series.
ACTION: With a brisk wind at his back on a rainy afternoon, Blass appeared up to the challenge. The Cubs clipped him for a second-inning run on singles by Ernie Banks, mound opponent Bill Hands, and Don Kessinger, but Joe Pepitone's bunt single an inning later would represent Chicago's last hit for a while. Between the fourth and eighth innings, Blass limited the Cubs to two walks and no hits.
Baserunning blunders kept the Pirates off the scoreboard early. The Bucs enjoyed a three-single inning of their own in the first, but failed to score after Billy Williams gunned down Matty Alou's attempt to take third on Al Oliver's single. An inning later, Hands picked Sanguillen off first base.
In the fourth inning, however, the Pirates managed to grind out two runs off Hands. Oliver started the rally with a bunt single. Two outs later, Sanguillen drove him in from second with a single. Sangullen would then move up to second on a passed ball, and score when Jose Pagan's blooper to left fell just out of Williams' grasp.
For most of the game, those runs seemed all Blass would need. He entered the ninth inning with a five hitter and 2-1 lead. Only the bottom of the Cubs' order separated him from victory.
Blass retired Johnny Callison and pinch-hitter Paul Popovich on ground balls to second baseman Dave Cash. Cubs’ manager Leo Durocher then sent up Willie Smith to bat for Hands.
Smith lofted a fly ball towards center field and a waiting Alou. Bob Prince, deploying the "can of corn" metaphor that he used to describe fly balls bound for the leathery fate of an outfielder’s glove, informed the television audience, "Well, there goes 210 pounds of golden bantam." As reported by Charley Feeney in the next morning's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
Alou waved his arms signaling he had the ball under control. Blass leaped off the mound. The wind carried the ball toward the infield and Alou followed it. It seemed like a routine catch. Matty decided to one hand it.
The ball hit his glove and bounced out. Blass stood on the mound, seemingly in a daze. Smith, the tying run, was on second base and Ken Rudolph went in to run for him.
From that point, the Pirates’ downfall was swift. Kessinger hit Blass’ next pitch for a single to right field, scoring Rudolph to tie the game. When Glenn Beckert hit Blass’ subsequent offering into left for another single, Murtaugh summoned reliever George Brunet to put out the fire.
The Pirates had acquired the well-traveled 35-year-old Brunet from the Washington Senators thirteen days earlier. (The left-hander, who had gained notoriety earlier in the season when Jim Bouton's Ball Four quoted him on his disinclination for wearing underwear, would still be pitching with Veracruz in the Mexican League 19 years later at the age of 54.)
Bucco shortstop Freddie Patek moved towards second in hopes that Brunet would attempt to pick Kessinger off second, but Brunet threw a pitch to Williams. Williams singled to left, possibly within Patek’s reach had he been playing a normal shortstop position, and Kessinger came home with the winning run.
Murtaugh was in no position to analyze the two-base error by Alou. "To tell you the truth," the manager said, "I didn't even see the ball. I was on my way to the mound to congratulate Steve Blass for pitching a fine ball game."
Blass accepted his fate with exceptional calm. A cup of beer in his hand and evidence of tears around his eyes, the Pirate righthander pigeonholed himself in the far corner of the visiting clubhouse.
"I've messed up a hundred times on the mound," Blass said, "and I'm not about to put the blame on Alou. He's picked me up a hundred times with his bat, and I could have picked him up today by getting Kessinger out."
- Bill Christine, The Pittsburgh Press
After signing about four or five assorted scorecards and pieces of white pad paper, Matty began to walk slowly to the bus.
By this time, the entire group which may have totaled a couple of hundred knew that Matty Alou was in their midst. Some of them started to clap.
"You're our hero," one kid yelled. "You helped our Cubs win the game."
Some in the group snickered. Others laughed.
The remarks had to sting Matty Alou, but his face showed no anger.
He boarded the bus and went to a seat near the back.
The bus driver had the door opened as a few more Pirates approached.
The kids stood near the open door. Now their insults at Alou had gained momentum.
"Thanks a lot Matty," one youngster yelled. "You gave the Cubs the pennant."
Finally, came the crusher.
"Hey, Matty," said another kid, "how much did you get paid for dropping that ball."
- Charley Feeney, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
POSTSCRIPT: Missing out on a prime opportunity to extend their lead, the Pirates again found themselves with just a half-game lead over the Mets and one-game lead over the Cubs. Monday provided a day off to travel to Philadelphia; as Feeney noted ominously, the Bucs would "have almost 48 hours to think about today's crushing defeat." With the Pirates idle, the Mets won in ten innings in Montreal to move into a tie for first.
How would the Bucs respond? Tuesday night at Connie Mack Stadium provided the first indication. In the top of the first frame, Patek led off by drawing a walk against Phillies' rookie Barry Lersch. Alou followed with a bunt single. One out later, Willie Stargell, identified a day earlier in the Post-Gazette as one of several slumping Bucco hitters, drove Lersch's pitch over the fence for a three-run home run. Richie Hebner and Bill Mazeroski added home runs as the Pirates cruised to an 8-3 win, recapturing sole possession of first place in the process. They would take two of three games in Philadelphia and three of four in New York; when they returned to Pittsburgh on September 22 for the seasons' final homestand, the Bucs would hold a two-game edge over the Cubs and a three-and-a-half game lead over the Mets.