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Pennant Race Flashback: September 9, 1983

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Darryl Norenberg-US PRESSWIRE

For a full third of the season, the 1983 Pirates seemed a test of even manager Chuck Tanner's trademark optimism. Thirty-six losses in 54 games between April 12 and June 19 dropped the Bucs into fifth place in the National League East, 8.5 games off the top spot. Game #54 of the spring-long bear market loomed as the most disheartening: the Phillies, long the Pirates' most bitter divisional rival, staged a Father's Day parade around Three Rivers Stadium's basepaths in a 14-2 rout. "Is there such a thing as a humiliation threshold, a point where no further nonsense can be tolerated?", ruminated beat writer Russ Franke in the next afternoon's Pittsburgh Press.

As paperboys delivered Franke's downcast commentary to the front porches of Western Pennsylvania, however, the Pirates' fortunes started to shift dramatically, defying the expectations of everyone but Tanner at his most Panglossian. A walk-off tenth-inning Richie Hebner home run capped a Bucco rally in the first game of a doubleheader with Chicago that night; gutty performances from two rotation mainstays with recent arm troubles, Jim Bibby and Don Robinson, enabled the Bucs to outlast the Cubs in thirteen innings in the nightcap. A nine-game winning streak ensued. In July, the Pirates went to the West Coast, long a journey of despair for the franchise, and won nine of ten games. By the morning of August 4, the Bucs had won 36 of the last 49 games and stood in first place in the division by 2.5 gamesand had just enjoyed their second lopsided home win over the Phillies in as many nights. "The Pittsburgh Pirates and their legendary bats were buried near the bottom of the National League East at the All-Star break. But since then they've been baseball's hottest team," gushed Steve Wulf in that week's Sports Illustrated.

While not subject to Sports Illustrated's infamous cover jinx (instead, Howard Cosell's toupee-capped visage would grace the mailboxes of America), the Pirates would then regress to ordinariness. Several Pirate regulars experienced significantly diminished offensive production in August, possibly stemming from Tanner's disinclination for giving his regulars healthy downtime (four regular members of the Bucco lineup played in at least 151 games, Bill Madlock would have joined them had he not missed time in June and September with injuries, and Marvell Wynne seldom received a day off after arriving in a June trade). The Bucco bullpen scuffled, losing five games between August 18 and September 5 that the Bucs had led in the eighth or ninth innings and two more that had been tied entering the opponent's last at-bat. In 36 contests from August 4-September 7, the Pirates struggled to a 15-21 mark.

Yet you did not require Tanner's level of optimism to talk pennant in early September. Four divisional powersthe 1979 World Champions, the 1980 World Champions, the 1982 World Champions, and a star-laden squad once heralded as the "Team of the '80s"had spent the summer in a death struggle of parity. With roughly 85 percent of the season complete, the Pirates, Phillies, Cardinals, and Expos all possessed realistic chances of winning the division flag and advancing to the postseason tournament. All four also possessed realistic chances of finishing with losing records. Sports fans reading the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on the morning of Friday, September 9 saw this pecking order:

  1. Montreal       71-66     -
  2. Philadelphia 71-67     0.5
  3. Pirates           71-68      1.0
  4. St. Louis        70-68      1.5

With a three-game series commencing that evening at Three Rivers Stadium, the Pirates and Phillies had an opportunity to separate themselves from at least part of the pack. They would open with a Friday night duel between the two best left-handed starters in the National League. The Bucs' John Candelaria seemed like he had been around forever, but he was still two months shy of his 30th birthday. Less than three months earlier, he had earned his 100th career victory in a win over the Phillies. Philadelphia's Steve Carlton actually had been around forever; that night, he sought his 298th career victory. So respected was the 38-year-old Carlton at that stage of his career that, of the dozens of left-handed pitchers appearing in major-league box scores in 1983, only Carlton was known industry-wide as "Lefty." Franke's sidebar in that afternoon's Press offered advance warning that his game story would not feature insight from either starter; Carlton had avoided talking to the media for the past decade ("because of a series of what he considered botched quotes and misreporting," per Franke), and Candelaria had ceased giving interviews a month earlier (with the triggering event being a Press article that quoted him as saying that he had once used marijuana).

ACTION: Over the first five innings, the Pirates enjoyed a noticeable advantage on the field—but failed to convert that edge into much of a margin on the scoreboard. Candelaria lived up to his big-game reputation by retiring the first 15 Phillies he faced. Against Carlton, a Bucs' lineup drawing heavily from righty-swinging reserves like Lee Lacy, Brian Harper, and Gene Tenace consistently moved runners into scoring position with fewer than two outs, but the four-time Cy Young Award winner consistently stranded them there. The Pirates yielded nothing from Lacy on third with one out in the first, Lacy on first and Dale Berra on second with one out in the third, Tenace on second with one out in the fourth, or Lacy's leadoff double—which likely would have been a triple had the Bucco center fielder not stood in the batter's box to watch his handiwork—in the fifth. All eight of the baserunners through the first five innings wore black and gold, but only Jim Morrison's home run to start the fourth registered in the runs column.

The game turned slowly in the sixth. Leading off the inning, Bo Diaz's hit batsman ended the perfect game. Two outs later, Carlton had replaced Diaz on first, and Joe Morgan, at 10 days shy of his 40th birthday one of the few active players older than the Phillies' starter, grounded a 3-2 pitch to third base. Morrison, handling third with Madlock out with a calf injury, fielded the grounder, looked to second, switched his feet, and threw wide of Tenace at first for a throwing error. The next Philadelphia batter, Pete Rose—at 42 years old one of the few active players senior to Morgan—singled to break up the no-hitter and drive in the tying run.

An inning later, the Phillies surged to a 3-1 lead on an RBI single by Diaz and a run-scoring double by Ivan de Jesus. Carlton seemed to hit his stride in the sixth and seventh innings, and he entered the eighth just six outs away from career win #298.

But the 1983 Pirates were nothing if not resilient. Dave Parker, who had left Lacy on third with one out in both the first and fifth innings and who had left two runners on with two outs in the fifth, led off the bottom of the eighth by driving Carlton's hanging curveball for a home run, cutting the deficit to one run. One out later, Tony Pena tied the game by golfing a low pitch for another home run. Tenace followed with his second double of the night, but Phillies' manager Paul Owens called on former Bucco Al Holland to relieve Carlton. Holland retired Johnny Ray and Berra to maintain the draw.

The game then became a battle of the bullpens. Cecilio Guante gave the Pirates scoreless eighth and ninth innings, and Kent Tekulve then added three scoreless innings of his own. The Phillies countered with their own stellar back-end-of-the-bullpen: Holland and Willie Hernandez would hold the Bucs hitless for the rest of the game.

In the thirteenth inning, Tanner turned to Bibby to keep the scoreless string going. Bibby had missed the entire 1982 season with a torn rotator cuff, and his return to the rotation in '83 had been a disaster: an 8.83 ERA at the All-Star break had relegated the 38-year-old right-hander to the bullpen. But Bibby had contributed solid work since then, with a 1.77 ERA in light usage.

Bibby started the inning well, retiring "Wheeze Kids" Morgan and Rose. Hernandez looked like a likely third out, but the relief pitcher lined a single off Bibby's glove. Mike Schmidt followed with a walk on a 3-2 count. When Bibby's pitch to Joe Lefebvre bounced in the dirt, Hernandez advanced to third. Lefebvre then hit Bibby's next offering into left field to drive in Hernandez with the go-ahead run.

Hernandez capped his thirteenth inning to remember by setting down the Pirates in order to close out the 4-3 victory. The Phillies now stood alone in first place; the Pirates fell to fourth, 1.5 games back.

OBSERVATIONS: Tanner was playing for one run, recognizing that Carlton, on any night, can be very tough. In the end, it was Holland and Hernandez who were tough to hit, and that was as much of a difference in the outcome of the game as any strategic move.

- Charley Feeney, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

They should have been back in the hotel at an early hour, laughing about the modest seventh inning rally which gave Steve Carlton a 3-1 lead over John Candelaria and the Pirates. But nothing comes easy to this team, baseball's Bickersons. Manager Paul Owens and pitching coach Claude Osteen succumbed to "Lefty's Law," a postulate which states that the old ballgame is not over until Steve Carlton's arm is ready to fall off.

- Bill Conlin, Philadelphia Daily News

There will be bigger games down the road in a National League East race that will be taken to its limit. And if last night's epic 13-inning grinder between the Phillies and Pirates is any indication, the September four-team duel to the death will more than salvage the eminently forgettable first five months.No matter what happens later, few Phillies victories will be more satisfying than last night's 4-3 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates, who now have lost five of their last six.

- Peter Pascarelli, Philadelphia Inquirer

POSTSCRIPT: A wild swing in fortune lurked just around the corner—these were the '83 Pirates, after all. On Saturday night, the Bucs spotted the Phillies 3-0 and 5-3 advantages, but rallied to tie the game both times. The two-run eighth-inning rally, in fact, came at the expense of both Hernandez and Holland. In the bottom of the tenth, the Pirates, drawing upon a roster with a disproportionate percentage of catchers, sent up Tenace, Harper, and Milt May consecutively, and wound up with a dramatic victory when Gary Maddox picked up May's single to center, gunned the ball to third in an attempt to cut down pinch-runner Doug Frobel, and then watched in dismay as his throw bounced past Schmidt into the stands, allowing Frobel to score the winning run in the Pirates' 6-5 victory. The Expos now occupied first, followed by the Phillies, Pirates, and Cardinals.