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Pennant Race Flashback: September 29, 1978

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Remembering another must-win situation in the season's waning days.

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Dave Parker's batting and baserunning proved decisive on one of the most memorable nights in Three Rivers Stadium history.
Dave Parker's batting and baserunning proved decisive on one of the most memorable nights in Three Rivers Stadium history.
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

BACKGROUND: The Pirates spent September 1978 laying desperate siege to the Phillies' first-place fortifications.  An initial barrage of 23 wins in 26 games drew the Bucs from an apparently hopeless fourth-place muddle on August 12, ten games under .500 and 11.5 games off NL East pace, to half a game back by September 5.  A subsequent salvo of seven consecutive wins enabled the Buccos to reduce Philadelphia's advantage to a single game on September 19.

But capturing first place proved elusive for Chuck Tanner's team.  Between those stretches of dominance, the Pirates stumbled maddeningly: a five-game losing streak that included a three-game sweep by the last-place Mets and a subsequent slump of three losses in four games against the non-contending Cubs and Expos.

Mostly, though, it was a case of a seasoned Philadelphia team, two-time defending division champions, taking care of business.  The Phillies had lost nine of twelve at the beginning of the Bucco hot streak in August, but followed with a 23-10 run, a 113-win pace over a full season.  By the close of play on September 27, with just a weekend of regularly-scheduled action remaining, Philadelphia held a 3.5-game lead over the second-place Pirates and a Magic Number of two.

Noted nineteenth century military strategist Antoine-Henri Jomini advised that "one who awaits his adversary on a prepared field, with all his own resources in hand, surrounded by all the advantages of being on his own ground, can with hope of success take the initiative."  Owing more to the league's schedule-maker and city's fickle weather than any of Tanner's strategic acumen, the Pirates' final shot at overtaking the Phillies would nonetheless reflect Jomini's ideal.  After Dan Driessen's tenth-inning home run gave the Reds a 4-3 win at Three Rivers Stadium on August 15, the 1978 Bucs achieved a home-field advantage nearly unparalleled in the game's history.  In 22 home games against Cincinnati, Houston, Atlanta, New York, St. Louis, Montreal, and Chicago between August 16 and September 27, the Pirates won 22 times, just four games short of the major-league record for consecutive home victories.

And a four-game weekend showdown with the Phillies on a prepared field of Three Rivers' Tartan Turf afforded the Bucs one last opportunity to take divisional initiative.  A rainout in the middle of a disheartening three-losses-in-four-games weekend in early August made Friday night's date a twinight doubleheader.  Single games on Saturday and Sunday afternoons followed.  Win all four, and the Bucs would have a half-game lead and the chance to consummate their comeback on Monday by winning the make-up of an August rainout in Cincinnati.  Lose once, and the Phillies would clinch their third consecutive crown.

As documented by Dan Donovan in Friday afternoon's Pittsburgh Press, Bucco morale entering the weekend ran high:

The Philadelphia Phillies have the Pirates surrounded, their backs up against the wall.  The Pirates' only choice is to come out shooting and take their chances.

Yet the Pirates don't look like a desperate bunch quaking in their boots.  They are loose, eager, more like Butch Cassidy making sure he insults the Sundance Kid one more time before they jump into the action.

"Tense?" repeats Pirate Manager Chuck Tanner.  "We haven't been tense all year.  Why should we be tense now?"

The Pirates should have been tense when they were in fourth place, 11.5 games behind the Phillies.  Because they need to win all four weekend games just to drag the National League East title race into next week doesn't mean the Pirates are feeling any pressure.

"Paying the bills, now that's pressure," says Pirate Captain Willie Stargell.  "This, why this will be fun."

The Pirates are longshots, and the only ones who think they really have a chance against the Phillies are the Pirates themselves.  Unlike the Clanton gang, the Pirates know and love the sight of this shootout.

Whether Pittsburgh's public shared their zeal remained an open question on game day.  Three weeknight games with the Cubs earlier in the week had drawn just under 20,000 spectators, combined.  As Charley Feeney's preview in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette observed

There are all sorts of guesses about tonight's crowd.  In Philly, it would be a sure sellout.  In Pittsburgh, maybe 30,000.

ACTION: Fan enthusiasm for the intrastate clash exceeded expectations.  An audience of about 20,000 watched the night's first pitch, but the crowd eventually grew to 45,134, Three Rivers Stadium's biggest gathering of the season.  Accounts of the game described the throng as "berserk" and "screaming from beginning to end."  And they witnessed two of the most memorable regular-season baseball games in Pittsburgh's history.

Phillies' manager Danny Ozark sent his second-best starter, Dick Ruthven, to the mound in the opener; Tanner countered with Bert Blyleven, the Buccos' best starter since coming from the Rangers in a four-team trade the previous December.  They matched scoreless innings until Mike Schmidt and Bob Boone singled to lead off the top of the fifth.  Ted Sizemore followed with an apparent double-play bouncer, but Pirates' shortstop Frank Taveras bobbled it and had to settle for a force out.  As a result, Blyleven's ensuing strikeout of Ruthven was only the second out of the inning, and Bake McBride followed with a two-RBI double for a 2-0 Philadelphia lead.

Bucco power and hustle in the bottom of the sixth reversed that margin.  Taveras led off with a triple to center, and Omar Moreno drove him in with a single.  After Moreno stole second, Dave Parker beat out a grounder to second for a single.  Stargell followed with a home run to right to give the Bucs a 4-2 lead.

Philadelphia responded with two runs of their own in the seventh.  Moreno failed to catch a Boone line drive that went for a leadoff triple.  One out later, Blyleven walked Tim McCarver.  McBride then hit another liner out of Moreno's reach; the two-run double tied the game 4-4.

The game was still tied in the bottom of the ninth, and Ozark called on Ron Reed to pitch.  Pirates' catcher Ed Ott led off against Reed.  Phil Musick would describe Ott's appearance in the next morning's Post-Gazette:

He skied a routine fly ball to right-center in the ninth, put his head down and ran as though the IRS was after him.

Phillie rightfielder Bake McBride appeared to call Garry Maddox off the ball and suddenly pulled up.  The ball fell between the Phillie outfielders.  Ott kept trucking between second and third, Maddox threw the ball into the television camera booth at the end of the Phils' dugout . . .

The umpires waved Ott home with the winning run, and the Pirates had a dramatic 5-4 victory, with Kent Tekulve earning the win with two scoreless innings of relief.

Ozark sent his ace, Steve Carlton, against Bucco veteran Bruce Kison in the nightcap.  Kison surrendered a bases-empty home run to Greg Luzinski in the second inning for an early Phillies' edge.  Carlton allowed singles to the Bucs' first two batters of the game and then retired 13 of the next 14 Pirates, with the only baserunner coming on an error.

All reasonable forecasts predicted that Carlton's streak would reach 14 of 15 when the 33-year-old lefthander jumped out in front of Kison 1-2 with two outs in the bottom of the fifth.  But Kison connected on a Carlton offering and lined it over the wall in left field for his second career home run, deadlocking the game 1-1.

Tanner summoned his bullpen after Luzinski's bloop double dropped just inside the right field line to lead off the top of the seventh.  Grant Jackson and Tekulve held the Phillies scoreless through the ninth.

Meanwhile, Carlton, undaunted by giving up a home run to his mound opponent, mowed down the Pirates on two singles through the eighth inning.  With ten strikeouts, Carlton took the hill again in the bottom of the ninth.

Parker, owner of a .402/.472/.712 slash line during the Pirates' August-September surge, led off the ninth with a line drive towards the gap in right center.  The ball caromed between the bottom of the wall and warning track and bounced in the air.  When Maddox failed to pick it up cleanly, Parker, wearing a football mask to protect his jaw and cheekbone after being broken in a June game, raced to third on the error.

Ozark ordered intentional walks of Bill Robinson and Stargell to load the bases.  He then summoned Warren Brusstar to face Phil Garner.  Brusstar's first pitch to Garner was in the dirt.

Stargell would describe what happened next in his 1984 autobiography:

Intent on winning, the forty-five thousand fans roared in support of their Buccos.  Three Rivers was rocking.  On fire with the entire situation, Dave began playing with Brusstar's already nervous psyche.  The stadium seemed to shake.  The dugout vibrated.  Most of us were standing up.

Dave began forcing the action at third base.  He jumped to and fro trying to distract Brusstar's attention.  Then came the play of the game.  Brusstar looked to catcher Bob Boone and got the sign.  He stepped onto the pitching rubber.  He began his windup.  Just then Dave faked a dash down the line.  Brusstar stopped in the middle of his motion.  "Balk," the umpire called.

Dave ran wildly down the base line and jumped on home plate, landing into the open arms of his teammates.  The fans roared with approval in the background.

With the 2-1 win, the Pirates had 24 consecutive home victories and now stood just 1.5 games behind the Phillies.

OBSERVATIONS:

Paramount rejected the script as too farfetched.  The producers of Battlestar Galactica wanted something closer to real life.

The writers of The Incredible Hulk thought the public would never buy anything so outrageous.  Yet it happened.

The Pirates and Phillies played out a weird script, and 45,134 berserk fans, some screaming announcers and an overloaded press box of gaping sports writers all actually saw it happen.

The Pirates, the type of underdog Spiderman couldn't save, beat the Phillies' two best pitchers in a doubleheader, 5-4 and 2-1, and now rest 1.5 games behind.  And they won both games without a game-winning hit or game-winning RBI, the winning run waved home both times by the umpires.

The Pirates won the first game on a routine fly ball that eluded two of the fleetest outfielders in the National League.  And after a scrawny pitcher kept the Bucs in the second game with a home run, they won it on a balk.

That clacking sound you heard last night was Philadelphia sports writers typing out the word "choke" and recounting all the other times in history that Phillie teams have faded.

- Dan Donovan, The Pittsburgh Press

In a Pirate tradition begun with the late Roberto Clemente, and perhaps recalling that he'd been booed at Three Rivers earlier in the year for failing to do so, Ott ran out his ninth-inning fly ball at flank speed.

"About 10 of us got together for a meeting before the game, no coaches or anything," Ott explained.  "Two nights ago, a couple of guys—no names—didn't run out a fly ball and a ground ball.

"We said tonight, 'run out everything . . . there may be a mistake.' It paid off.  It was the same thing for Dave Parker. He ran his tail off, slid and came up with a single [in the four-run rally in the first game]."

- Phil Musick, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Pirates, meanwhile, were elated by the fan turnout, in sharp contrast to the crowds of under 10,000 each the team drew for three games earlier this week with Chicago.

"They were screaming from beginning to end," said Tekulve, who held the Phils scoreless over the final 1 1-3 innings of the first game and the last two innings of the second game.

"I almost got stagefright when I walked out there for the National Anthem," said Ott.

"It should have happened a while back," said Parker, "but we appreciate it now."

- Associated Press

AFTERMATH: Bucco spirits were high entering Saturday afternoon's game and soared even higher when Stargell's first-inning grand slam against Randy Lerch staked the Pirates to an early 4-1 lead.  But the Phillies responded with an offensive show of force against four Buc pitchers, a 16-hit attack highlighted by the unexpected drip of two Lerch home runs against rookie starter Don Robinson, the go-ahead blow of Luzinski's three-run sixth-inning home run off Jackson, and the apparent coup de gras of ex-Bucco Richie Hebner's eighth-inning bases-loaded double off Tekulve.

Trailing 10-4 entering the bottom of the ninth, the Pirates stood three outs from elimination.  Stargell remembered their last stand in his autobiography:

But we still believed in ourselves.  We weren't about to back down to even a six-run deficit in the bottom of the ninth.  We were fired up.

The Troll [Ott] led off the inning with a single.  The crowd roared.  We scored four quick runs, and with only one out, Bill Robinson was on base.  I was standing at the plate.  We trailed 10-8.  Ron Reed was the pitcher.  This was the type of situation I'd dreamed of as a boy, it was almost a deja-vu.  But Reed's blazing fastball was much harder to hit than any bottle cap tossed softly in the air.

I stepped to the plate thinking only one thing—home run.  I was going to be guessing, swinging as hard as I could into the space where I thought Reed would throw the ball.  The season had come down to an educated guess.  But I guessed wrong and struck out.

With two out and Robinson still on base, Garner grounded out.  The Phils won the game and the pennant.

The Phillies advanced to their second consecutive NLCS date with the Dodgers. The Pirates awaited 1979.