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Pennant Race Flashback: September 1, 1965

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Remembering a night when the Pirates' quest to enter the pennant race had to go through Koufax and Drysdale.

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Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

BACKGROUND: The 1960 Pirates earned a well-deserved legacy as one of the iconic teams in Pittsburgh's sports history.  Breaking a 35-year championship drought, defeating the era's dominant franchise, and capping the triumph with one of the most famous feats in baseball history, Danny Murtaugh's Bucs gifted their fans and city the stuff of books, statues, and quinquennial celebrations well into the next century.

What those Pirates did not accomplish, however, was an enduring presence among the National League's elite.  Over the next four seasons, the Pirates finished with losing records three times.  Their sole winning mark was a superficially impressive 93-68 1962 campaign, built on the foundation of a 43-11 aggregate record against the worst team of the 20th century (Casey Stengel's 40-120 first-year expansion Mets, subsequently chronicled in a book titled Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?), a team employing one of the the most wrongheaded innovations in the sport's history (the 59-103 Chicago Cubs, run by the College of Coaches), and another first-year expansion team (the 64-96 Houston Colt .45's).  As a prominent New York baseball fan observed in the following decade, "80 percent of life is showing up."  The '62 Bucs were considerably less successful against the National League's competent entries, and finished in fourth place, never really challenging the first-place Giants.

By 1965, Murtaugh had departed the Bucs' dugout, resigning for health concerns at the age of 47.  Noted batting coach Harry "The Hat" Walker replaced him.  The Pirates' roster mixed 1960 heroes with younger players.  Names like Mazeroski and Clemente appeared in the lineup card, Law and Friend among daily pitching match-ups, and Face in the bullpen, but the ranks of position players featured fresh faces, like 22-year-old third baseman Bob Bailey, 24-year-old shortstop Gene Alley, and 25-year-old left fielder Willie Stargell.

Initially, Walker's first Bucco team did not appear an improvement over its predecessors.  The Pirates lost 22 of 26 games from April 21 to May 20 to fall into tenth place in the ten-team league.  The final game of that inauspicious stretch was an 11-3 loss in Cincinnati, when a seven-run first inning clinched the Bucs' eighth consecutive defeat.  "Pirate Defeats Getting Worse," lamented The Pittsburgh Press' headline the next day.  Les Biederman pondered Walker's predicament:

I really feel sorry for Walker because basically he's a good manager and a hard worker.  But he inherited an over-rated team and now the Pirates are on a treadmill and it could cause a minor revolution. . . . My private opinion is that the only way out of this dilemma is to make some trades, to shake up the boys and perhaps awaken the fans' interest.

The trainer's table, however, would give the '65 Bucs more of a boost than the trading market ever could.  The Pirates employed three future Hall of Famers, but injuries precluded Cooperstown-worthy contributions through mid-May.  A spring training broken foot kept Mazeroski from playing second base until May 19.  Stargell, recovering from off-season knee surgery, hit for power, but not average (.172/.250/.462 slash line through May 19).  And Clemente, weakened by spring training surgery for a blood clot and a malaria-like fever, was stuck on the sort of numbers that The Topps Company more commonly printed on the cards of forgettable utility infielders (.235/.276/.270 through May 21).

All three seemed to rediscover their health and greatness at the same time  Mazeroski's return allowed Alley to move to shortstop; the two would team up on a league-leading 113 double plays, even with the late start.  Stargell battered baseballs at a .358/.404./716 clip over 42 games from May 20 to July 3, including a three-homer barrage at Dodger Stadium on June 24.  And Clemente turned in pretty much the sort of performance that one would expect from Roberto Clemente in his athletic prime, batting .390/.432/.565 in 77 games between May 22 and August 12.  Buoyed by their stars, the Pirates won 12 consecutive games in late May and early June and moved back into respectability.

Still, the Bucs' struggles over the season's first six weeks had left them in a deep hole, and they appeared destined for another also-ran campaign after Clemente, struggling with the lights at Dodger Stadium, dropped Jim Gilliam's two-out liner in the bottom of the tenth on August 14, allowing Sandy Koufax to score the game's only run.  The Pirates lurked in sixth place, ten games behind Los Angeles.

But another well-timed winning spurt was imminent.  Starting by with a win over Don Drysdale to conclude the series in Los Angeles, the Pirates won 11 of 14 games through August 29.  Over the same period, the Dodgers went 6-8 and none of the other contenders managed anything better than an 8-7 mark.  The Bucs could climb to fifth place only, but they stood a not-hopeless 4.5 games behind Los Angeles, with the Dodgers coming to Forbes Field for a three-game series starting on August 31.

Roy McHugh's column in that evening's Press reflected growing optimism:

Joe Brown and Harry Walker are holding a press conference tomorrow afternoon.  Maybe it's to say, "I told you so."  Certainly no one could begrudge them the satisfaction.  Their restraint up to now has been almost inhuman.

For August has come and gone and the Pirates are in the middle of the pennant race.  They are four and a half games behind the first-place Dodgers.  They were four and a half games behind the ninth-place Mets in May.

In those bleak days, the general manager and the field manager always seemed to be chasing rainbows.  As the Pirates lost game after game, they kept saying it couldn't last.  They sounded like grim Pollyannas.

But it was right to have faith and wrong to have doubts.  The Pirates are in the pennant race, perhaps to stay.  With a little more power and a little more pitching, there would be no perhaps about it.

Rain prevented the Bucs and Dodgers from playing Tuesday night's scheduled series opener. At the urging of National League leadership, the Pirates rescheduled the game for the opener of a day-night split doubleheader on Wednesday. Rain continued to fall through the morning, however, and the Bucs decided to try again with a twi-night doubleheader that evening.

The rain finally stopped around 4:30 pm; three inches of precipitation had fallen in 24 hours.  The Pirates could now face their sole barriers to further progress in the pennant race: Koufax and Drysdale.

ACTION: With a 21-6 record and 2.20 ERA entering the first game of the doubleheader, Koufax was in Year Three of arguably the most dominant four-year stretch of any pitcher in the game's history.  He had beaten the Pirates in seven consecutive decisions, including all three in 1965.  (His outing When he struck out Stargell in the fourth inning, Koufax broke his own major-league record for strikeouts in a season by a left-handed pitcher with 307.

By that time, he already had a 2-0 lead.  Willie Davis started the scoring with a first-inning home run off Tommie Sisk, making a spot start in place of injured Bob Veale.  Gilliam added a third-inning unearned run when Clemente misplayed Ron Fairly's third-inning single for an error.

The Bucs started their rally in the fifth inning, when Jim Pagliaroni led off with a double.  Two outs later, Bailey's single drove in the Pirates' first run off Koufax in 22 innings.

An inning later, another two-out tally deadlocked the game.  Clemente started the bottom of the sixth by fouling off 12 pitches before striking out swinging.  Koufax would have less fortune against his two other Hall of Fame peers: Mazeroski singled to left and Stargell, who struggled significantly against left-handed pitching at that stage of his career, tripled to deep right-center to drive in the tying run.

The Pirates had pinch-hit for Sisk in the fifth, and Walker turned the game over to lefty Joe Gibbon.  While considerably less heralded than his mound opponent, Gibbon matched Koufax zero for zero, holding the Dodgers scoreless on three hits over six innings.

The score remained 2-2 when Walter Alston sent Koufax out for the bottom of the eleventh inning.  (It was Koufax's third start of the season to reach extra innings.)  Koufax seemed intent on prolonging matters further by inducing Donn Clendenon and Mazeroski to ground back to him to start the inning.

But Stargell drew a two-out walk, and Pagliaroni pulled an outside 0-2 fastball off the scoreboard in left, allowing Stargell to come home with the winning run.

Vernon Law spotted the Dodgers a first-inning run in the nightcap, but kept them scoreless afterwards.  Drysdale—his team's second-best starter, but still destined for a Top Ten ERA finish among NL pitchers—held the Pirates off the scoreboard through the fifth.  Bill Virdon finally broke through, leading off the sixth by homering off the right-field foul pole.

In the eighth inning, Virdon blooped a one-out single to short left field. Clemente—who had narrowly missed striking Drysdale with an earlier line-drive single—moved Virdon to third with his third hit of the game.

Alston replaced his starter with left hander Ron Perranoski; Walker countered by pinch-hitting future Dodger bench ace Manny Mota for Stargell. When a drawn-in Maury Willis bobbled Mota’s smash for an error, Virdon scored the go-ahead run.

Law closed out the Dodgers in the ninth to win his eighth consecutive decision, improving his season mark to 16-9. His ERA dropped to 2.07.

With the doubleheader sweep, Los Angeles’ hold on first place in the National League appeared increasingly tenuous. The Dodgers now stood in a virtual tie with the Reds, .001 behind Cincinnati. San Francisco trailed the leaders by a game and Milwaukee by two games. The fifth-place Pirates were a mere two and a half games out of first.

OBSERVATIONS:

Pagliaroni has been delivering some big hits for the Bucs in the past week. . . . "I was prepared for Koufax's fastball," Pag explained.  "If you don't, he throws it right past you.  I hit the ball good but knew I didn't hit it far enough.  I was hoping it would find the scoreboard but I had one good thing going for me—a fast man like Stargell running for home."

- Lester J. Biederman, The Pittsburgh Press

... Los Angeles writers trouped into the Carlton House both disconsolate and surprised the Bucs could knock off Koufax and Drysdale the same night.

"Guess we'll see the World Series here," said Jim Murray, one of the nation's top sports scribes.  Jim is the fellow who shook up Mayor Jim Barr and other city officials with his article a couple of years ago which put the knock on Pittsburgh.

Mayor Joe and the others didn't know that Murray cleverly puts the knock on every city he visits for the first time because it is the shortest route to gaining attention and a syndicated column.  Local people, including newspapers and radio, fell for it and made a big issue of the matter while Jim Murray laughed some 2,800 miles away.

"What's wrong with spending a few days here?" a fellow asked Murray.

"It's like spending a whole month," chorused Jim and Vince Scully, the Dodgers' announcer. "Your downtown is the largest and loveliest looking mausoleum we've seen!"

- Al Abrams, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

AFTERMATH: Claude Osteen shut down the Bucs in the series' finale, and the Pirates never came closer to first place than four games.  Los Angeles won 22 of their final 28 games to win the NL pennant.  Koufax would earn the Cy Young Award and Drysdale would finish the season by allowing just a single unearned run in 27 innings in his final three starts.  The Pirates went 19-10 in September and October to finish with a 90-72 record.  Their 81-48 mark from May 21 onward was the best in the NL by 3.5 games.