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Pennant Race Flashback: August 11, 1979

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Looking back at an iconic comeback win in the summer of '79.

On a Saturday afternoon in 1979, Veterans Stadium was the site of one of the greatest comebacks in franchise history.
On a Saturday afternoon in 1979, Veterans Stadium was the site of one of the greatest comebacks in franchise history.
Al Bello/Getty Images

BACKGROUND: Inclement spring weather and the nearly-extinct practice of scheduled doubleheaders handed the 1979 Pirates a grueling itinerary coming out of the All-Star break.  Over the 18-day span of July 19 to August 5, the Bucs had zero off days and played 24 games, thanks to three scheduled doubleheaders and three make-up doubleheaders.  (For example, the Braves came to Three Rivers Stadium for a Sunday-Monday series on July 22-23.  Sunday's afternoon's scheduled doubleheader took ten hours, with a little less than half of that time occupied by rain delays, and resolved itself with two Pirate victories.  Monday night's twinight doubleheader included the make-up of a May 3 rainout, and wound up a split.)

Under the weight of this increased workload, a previously inconsistent team seemed to find itself: the Pirates swept five of the six doubleheaders and won 17 of 24 games.  At the All-Star break, they were in fourth place, four games behind Montreal, with a six-wins-in-seven games run through the eastern half of the NL West having pushed their record to 46-39.  When the dust settled on August 5, however, they stood a season-high seventeen games over .500, and had surged past the Expos, Phillies, and Cubs into a half-game division lead.

A five-game sweep of the Phillies at Three Rivers Stadium served as the capstone of this stretch.  The Bucs had finished second to Philadelphia in the NL East for three consecutive seasons, but the weekend romp seemed to herald a new balance of power.  Of the five games, the most memorable was the first game of a Sunday afternoon doubleheader on August 5.  The Phillies battered Bert Blyleven and staked Steve Carlton to an 8-3 lead in the fifth inning.  But the Bucs rallied on home runs by Lee Lacy and rookie Steve Nicosia and finally tied the game in the eighth inning off Kevin Saucier.  In the ninth, the Pirates loaded the bases with two out for Nicosia, who had four hits in the game.  Phillies manager Danny Ozark summoned left-hander Tug McGraw to preserve the tie, and Chuck Tanner responded with the unconventional move of pinch-hitting left-hander John Milner, known as The Hammer, for Nicosia.  Milner drove a first-pitch McGraw fastball over the right-field fence for a game-winning grand slam.  In his autobiography five years later, Willie Stargell remembered the moment fondly:

Our fans went berserk.  The electricity of the whole situation filtered through each of our bodies.  Some of us jumped, some clapped, some danced, some hugged each other, but all ran to home plate to great Hammer.  Hammer glided around the bases like he was walking on air.  We were all at home plate to lift him one our shoulders and carry him into the clubhouse.  No fan in his right mind was going to leave before the second game.

Hammer symbolically broke the backs of the Phillies with his grand slam that day.  Never had I been on a team so spirited.  The Phillies played the second game in a daze.  We'd broken their spirit.  They had no idea how to beat us.  We'd beaten their top starter and their top reliever and outscored their best offensive threats.

The coronation, however, would not follow smoothly or immediately.  After a long-awaited day off, three afternoons in Wrigley Field resulted in two lopsided losses and one extra-inning victory.  The Pirates then moved to Philadelphia for another five-game series.  In a Friday night doubleheader, the teams traded one-run victories.  Thanks to rain delays, a celebrity sports competition between games, and a twelve-inning opener, the final out occurred at 2:03 am.  The Bucs and Phillies commenced a nationally-televised Saturday afternoon game a little more than twelve hours later.

ACTION: The final strains of Debby Boone's rendition of the National Anthem barely had the chance to fade gracefully before the crack of Phillies' bats against Jim Rooker's pitches filled the air, likewise threatening to party like it was 1977.  Three extra-base hits in the second inning gave the home team a 2-0 lead.  Luzinski's two-run homer in the third made it 4-0.  One out later, Omar Moreno dropped a Gary Maddox fly ball for a two-base error.  Larry Bowa's RBI single drove in Maddox, and Tanner waved in Joe Coleman to replace Rooker.  Before Coleman could retire the side, the Phillies extended their lead to eight runs on a wild pitch and hits by Pete Rose and Manny Trillo.

Still trailing 8-0 in the top of the fifth, the Pirates appeared ready to concede the game when Tanner allowed Coleman to bat—and strike out—with none on and one out against Phillies starter Dickie Noles.

Moreno, better known for speed than power, followed with a home run to break the shutout.  Under most circumstances, Moreno's blast may have represented futile defiance of the inevitable.  To the Bucs' dugout, however, it was a catalyst.  As Stargell reminisced in his autobiography:

Though the homer only narrowed the gap to 8-1, many of my teammates and I felt we would win the game because of it.  Omar's homer was what we needed to get us started.

A single, walk and Stargell’s RBI single caused Ozark to replace Noles with Saucier. But Saucier, who had pitched both ends of Friday's doubleheader, could not quash the rally. After RBI hits by Milner, Bill Madlock and Ed Ott, the score was 8-5 and Ozark called on Rawly Eastwick to get the elusive final out.

Eastwick held the Bucs off the scoreboard in the sixth, but Dave Parker’s leadoff home run in the seventh resumed the comeback.  Two outs later, Madlock and Ott singled, and Phil Garner’s two-run double to left field drew the Pirates even at 8-8.  Luzinski's bat had boosted Philadelphia to an early lead, but the man known as "The Bull" had a more dubious involvement in Garner's game-tying double.  As a resigned Reading Eagle reported the next day:

There was uncertainty as to whether the ball was catchable by someone more skilled defensively.  (Someone more quick might have gotten back in time.)  "It was hit hard, on the line.  The wind was blowing. It hooked back, but it was over my head before it turned" asserted the Bull.  "Then I slipped on a wet spot when I tried to pick it up."

Ozark brought in McGraw, but pinch-hitter Mike "The Hitman" Easler, inserted by Tanner in another lefty-versus-lefty move, came through with an RBI single for a 9-8 lead.

Kent Tekulve had pitched both games of the previous night's doubleheader, but Tanner brought him back to protect the lead in the bottom of the seventh.  Maddox greeted the Bucs' closer with a double.  One out later, the Phillies threatened to tie the game or retake the lead with Maddox on third and Bowa on second.  Greg Gross grounded sharply to Garner at second.  With the contact play on, Maddox dashed for the plate and Garner threw home.  Maddox seemed to hesitate before sliding into Ott and the Bucco catcher tagged him out to preserve the lead.  Tekulve then induced Rose to ground out to end the uprising.

McGraw retired the first two Pirates in the eighth. On this afternoon, however, that merely meant that the Bucs had the Phillies right where they wanted them.  Stargell singled and Milner doubled him to third.  Ozark called for an intentional walk to Bill Madlock, setting up another left-on-left match-up with Ott.  McGraw came with a hanging curve ball; Ott drove it over the left field fence for his first career grand slam and a 13-8 lead.

The Bucs added a fourteenth consecutive run when Stargell’s single drove in Moreno in the ninth.  All but one of the Pirates' runs scored with two outs.  Seventeen of 23 Bucco hits likewise came after two outs.

Philadelphia finally broke through for three runs in the bottom of the ninth, and sent up Mike Schmidt as the tying run with two outs. Moreno tracked down Schmidt’s fly ball on the warning track to clinch a memorable 14-11 victory.

OBSERVATIONS:

"The Pirates showed the people around the country what we're made of today," said Dave Parker, and you might say that is a $5 million dollar quote.

Baseball teams that come back out of an 8-0 hole are made of something that just might carry the Pirates to the Eastern Division championship, even though their pitching at this point is decidedly not Cy Young-type.

Russ Franke, The Pittsburgh Press

The Bucs were trailing by 8-0 when they came to bat in the fifth inning. What followed was as fictitious as Senor Quixote.

"How did that happen," a Philadelphia writer asked Tanner. Tanner was sipping a beer in his office, still trying to sort it out, but the silly grin on his face suggested that he was not working too hard on the problem, merely rolling it around on his tongue, like a rich brandy.

"They just don't give up.  They believe they can win," Tanner finally said.

"Do you really believe that?" the writer asked.

"Well, you saw it," Tanner offered, grinning.

"It was 8-0," the writer said.  He spread his hands.  "This game was over.  Except this is the Pittsburgh team.  Is that the way they feel?"

Tanner smiled again. "Well, you saw it for yourself," he said gently.  Then Tanner, never reluctant to talk, became expansive.

"That's the way they've been since I've been here," he said. "I know people laugh at me.  They make fun of me in the papers, and on radio and TV. They laugh.  I know that.  But that's the way it is."

"When did they think they had the game?"

"When Moreno hit the home run," Tanner said.  The writer fell silent.

Marino Parascenzo, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

If they'd named the city after friendship instead of love, Saturday afternoon's baseball game could have been called the Amitydelphia Horror.

Debby Boone sang the National Anthem, and all the Phillies' pitchers had short lives and got lit up.  On T-shirt day, the Pirates didn't even leave the Phils' staff with its underwear intact.

It was the week's most spectacular torching east of the mountain forests; the biggest blowup north of the Mexican oil area.

After three innings Saturday, it was Philadelphia 8, Pittsburgh 0.  After nine, it was Pittsburgh 14, Philadelphia 11.

"I'm glad nobody was betting on the bench," said Pete Rose, "because I would have bet the mortgage and everything else on this one.  But maybe we got them wore out now."

John W. Smith, Reading Eagle

We all scurried up the runway to our clubhouse.  There was plenty of celebrating to be done.  But just as the last player entered the clubhouse, the Hitman, whose base hit had put us ahead for good, reached up and turned on his stereo tape player.  Mike must have pre-set the tape.  The disco tune "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now" began pulsating throughout the room.  It seemed so natural, everybody began singing.  Chills ran up and down my spine as I sang along with my twenty-five teammates, my friends, my family.

Willie Stargell, Willie Stargell: An Autobiography (Willie Stargell and Tom Bird)

AFTERMATH:  The Pirates and Phillies had a scheduled Sunday night game, but rain forced its postponement until September.  Monday's night's ABC-televised game went ahead according to schedule and the Bucs capped a successful weekend with a 9-1 triumph behind Jim Bibby's pitching and home runs by Moreno and Milner.  With three weeks of play against the California teams ahead, they held a season-best 2.5-game lead over the second-place Expos.