BACKGROUND: Ever since the Mets paved their path to the 1986 Commissioner’s Trophy with seventeen wins in eighteen games against Jim Leyland’s first Pirate team, the Bucs seemed intent on overthrowing New York’s reign as king of the National League East hill. In 1987, three hard-fought Bucco victories in September helped to derail the Mets’ bid for a repeat crown. The 1988 Pirates went mano-a-mano with New York for divisional supremacy for most of the summer, but ten Mets’ wins in twelve head-to-head encounters between late June and early August ultimately swung matters in favor of the men in blue and orange.
Their rivalry cooled in 1989, when an April rash of ill health short-circuited the Bucs and a surprising Cubs team took the division. With the turn of the decade, however, the Pirates and Mets regained top billing. The '90 Bucs (marketing slogan: "The Fire Still Burns"; official fight song: Ernie Pontiere's "You Gotta Believe") enjoyed an 18-4 spurt between mid-April and mid-May and dropped no lower than second place in the NL East after April 20. New York's 21-26 start would cost manager Davey Johnson his job, but replacement Bud Harrelson re-vectored the Mets to a .659 winning percentage in an 85-game stretch between the first week of June and first week of September. At the end of every day of play from June 28 onward, either the Pirates or the Mets held the top spot in the division, with the other hanging tough in second place.
The two front-runners skirmished a handful of times in the first half of the season, but from mid-June to early September they built their respective reputations and resumes through parallel campaigns of conquest. As the calendar passed Labor Day, however, the schedule eliminated any need to extrapolate or fantasize: the Mets, trailing the Bucs by a half game, arrived in Pittsburgh for a three-game showdown, beginning with a twi-night doubleheader on September 5. It would be the "most important series at Three Rivers Stadium in more than a decade," proclaimed Ron Cook in that morning's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
ACTION: The Buccos proved up to the challenge in the twinbill, submerging New York’s potent offense with a steady stream of left-handed pitching and seizing 1-0 and 3-1 victories.
Zane Smith, acquired from the Expos four weeks earlier for the handsome price of Moises Alou and Willie Greene, handcuffed the Mets in the opener. Before many in the enthusiastic crowd of 49,793 had settled into their seats, New York leadoff hitter Keith Miller lined Smith’s fifth pitch of the game into center field for a single. Fans not in place at that time missed the entirety of the Mets’ safe hitting against Smith. He issued a walk to Miller two innings later, and then proceeded to retire the final nineteen batters. Smith zipped through nine innings on 92 pitches, striking out seven along the way.
The Mets countered with a tough lefty of their own: Frank Viola, three seasons removed from World Series MVP and two seasons removed from the American League Cy Young Award. Viola turned in eight gritty innings, stranding twelve runners on base and keeping the Pirates scoreless. Seeking an infusion of offense, however, Harrelson pinch-hit for Viola in the top of ninth, and brought bullpen ace John Franco into the game in the bottom of the frame.
Franco immediately fell into trouble when Gary Redus singled to center and catcher Charlie O’Brien threw Jay Bell’s bunt past shortstop Howard Johnson, putting runners on first and second with none out. With Andy Van Slyke batting, Leyland called for another sacrifice, and the Bucco center fielder moved the runners up.
Harrelson walked Bobby Bonilla, loading the bases for Barry Bonds. The Mets' outfield drew closer to the plate, in hopes of cutting down the winning run.
To date, in a little over four years of major league service, Bonds had just one hit in fifteen career at-bats against the left-handed Franco. This at-bat promised more of the same: Bonds started off by taking a strike and chasing a pitch in the dirt. But he watched two balls to even the count. Franco then threw Bonds a change-up—the same pitch that had resulted in a swinging strike on the second pitch of the at-bat—but Bonds connected with the outside offering and drove the ball over left fielder Kevin McReynolds’ head for the game-winning single.
In the nightcap, the Pirates turned the scoreboard considerably earlier. Jeff King put the Bucs ahead in the top of the first with a two-out solo shot off New York starter Bob Ojeda. Two innings later, King completed his first career multi-homer game with a two-run blast off Ojeda.
King’s slugging would be all of the offense that Neal Heaton, Bob Kipper, and Ted Power needed. Ten wins in his first twelve decisions and a 2.89 earned-run average through June 24 had yielded Heaton an All-Star Game selection; an 0-6 record and 5.50 ERA between June 29 and August 15 had earned him a demotion to the bullpen. Now a spot starter, the 30-year-old left hander contributed five solid innings, with the only blemish coming when Darryl Strawberry briefly transcended the fans’ mocking chorus of "Darryl . . . Darryl" with a solo home run in the fourth, producing the only run that the Mets would manage in eighteen innings that night.
Kipper allowed New York single base runners in the sixth and seventh frames, but retired the side both times. When two eighth-inning walks brought the righty-swinging McReynolds to the plate as the potential go-ahead run with two outs, Leyland called on Power to throw the Pirates' first right-handed pitches of the doubleheader. McReynolds hit Power's second offering hard, but Bonilla tracked down the line drive in right center to preserve the lead.
After Power retired former Bucco Mackey Sasser on a ground out to end New York’s ninth, the Pirates had a two and a half game lead in the divisional race with twenty-six games remaining. The Bucs’ magic number—a phrase absent from Pittsburgh’s September baseball discourse for the previous eleven years—stood at twenty-four.
OBSERVATIONS: If there was a message carried in the accomplishments of the Pirates last night, playing and sweeping their fifth doubleheader of the year, it is the 1980s are history and this is a new decade and, quite possibly, a new era in National League baseball. In 1988, when the Pirates were pretenders who thought they were contenders, the Mets embarrassed them when push came to shove. Last night it was the other way around.
- Bob Hertzel, The Pittsburgh Press
This was the first day of the rest of the baseball season—the start of an eight-game, two-team tournament on which hung the fate of the Free World. Or, at a minimum, the championship of the National League East. The Pirates have mortgaged their future for the sake of this season. An administrative blunder deprived them of two of their best minor-league prospects. They traded the rest of their farm system for a left-handed pitcher named Zane Smith. They did it because the East's other pretenders, the New York Mets, are allergic to left-handed pitching in general and Zane Smith in particular.
- Bruce Keidan, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
POSTSCRIPT: Seeing no need to depart from a winning formula, Jim Leyland sent another left-hander to the mound for the following night's series finale: rookie Randy Tomlin, making his seventh major league start since his recall from AA Harrisburg a month earlier. Tomlin cruised to a complete game three-hitter in the Pirates' 7-1 win over the Mets. The Pirates' division edge now stood at three and a half games.