With the confidence of a World Championship in 1971, and the fact they were still a young team, there seemingly was no stopping this club from achieving whatever it was they wanted to.
The Bucs pulled out of Bradenton with a 15-10 mark and was led once again by big red, Bobby Robertson, who hit a team high’s in homers, 5, and RBI’s with 16. Wanting to prove that 1971 was no fluke, Rennie Stennett hit .409, which was the best mark of the spring. On the mound, the two Bob’s, Moose and Johnson were looking to improve on their disappointing ’71 seasons as they combined to go 7-1 with 1.96 and 2.52 respectively. While the club expected to come back to start the season in early April, they would be detained for a reason we have become all to familiar with in seasons since.
The season was begun a few days late due to the first work stoppage not only in major league history, but in that of Professional Sports in this country. The season didn’t get underway until April 15th and they lost 7 games due to the strike. With all the players back in place on the 15th, the Pirates could now begin their assault on a second consecutive world championship.
As had been the case in the past two seasons, April would not be kind to Pittsburgh. They were shutout on opening day in Shea Stadium By Tom Seaver, Tug McGraw and the Mets 4-0. Thanks to a six game losing streak, five of which came at the end of April, the Bucs finished the shortened month 5-8.
They still struggled a little in the beginning of May, and didn’t reach the .500 level until they beat the Cardinals 4-1 on May 15th. With the victory, the club embarked on a 9 game win streak that took Pittsburgh from fourth to second in the standings.
As the onslaught continued, the team swept a double header from the Phils to close out the month of May, to move within 3 ½ games of the Mets. In the second game, Bob Moose walked Ron Stone, to break his streak of 29 1/3 consecutive innings without giving up a free pass. Moose, who had a bit of a difficult 1971, showed spring training was no fluke as he improved greatly this season finishing not only with a 13-10 mark, but dropped his ERA from 4.11 down to 2.91.
It was not only Bob Moose that improved greatly but also the staff as a whole. Only a few years prior, the Achilles heel of the club had been their mound corps. By the time 1972 came around, it was among the best in the league. The resurrecting of the staff was one of the major reasons that despite the fact the 1972 club did not win a world championship; it is widely considered the best team of the decade.
They finished the season second in the league with a 2.81 ERA, only .02 behind the Dodgers. As was the case in 1971, the bullpen was the strength, the difference though was in 1972, and it was just about the deepest, strongest bullpen there was in all of baseball. While Dave Giusti again led the team with 22 saves and a sparkling 1.93 ERA, he did not have to carry most of the burden himself. Ramon Hernandez had blossomed into one of the NL’s strongest southpaw’s out of the pen with his 14 saves, 5-0 record, 1.67 ERA and a remarkable .194 opponents batting average.
Bob Miller also had a solid season with a 5-2 mark, 3 saves and a string where he held opponents without a run over 18 innings. Bob Johnson spent most of the season in relief finishing with 3 saves and a 2.96 ERA.
When the Pirates defeated the Dodgers 5-1 on June 9th, it completed a 7 game win streak and brought their record to 20-4 since they last were under .500. Even though they were on an incredible hot streak, they still could not capture 1st place, as they were still ½ games behind. It only took them another week to climb that hill as they swept the Giants in a double header on June 15th, vaulting them into first place for the first time in the season, a position they did not relinquish all season.
Four days later, on June 19th, Roberto Clemente would smack a home run in the Pirates 13-3 win over Los Angeles. The significance of the shot was that it made the great one the all-time Pittsburgh leader in RBI’s with 1,274. 1972 would be a season, where Clemente would reach several milestones. On September 2nd, he got a hit against the Giants where he passed Honus Wagner on the all-time Pirate hit parade with 2,971. 28 day later he doubled off of the Mets Jon Matlock in the fourth inning of a 5-0 win for his 3,000 hit of his long and illustrious career. It unfortunately would be the last as, of course, Roberto would give up his life in the off-season while flying supplies to earthquake ravaged Nicaragua.
On October 3rd, Clemente played in his 2,433 game surpassing Wagner, with the most games ever played by a Pirate. He ended the season 11th all time in the majors in hits16th in singles and 18th in total bases, while being the Pirate leader 6 categories that included Games played, Hits, At Bats, Singles, Total Bases and RBI’s.
The one man who had been a teammate of Roberto’s through the good times and the bad was second baseman Bill Mazeroski. For Maz, 1972 would also be his last year as a player when he retired following the season. In juries had taken there toll on the one time superstar, but he left the game with just about every significant defensive record for a second baseman in National League history and was in the top ten in nine offensive categories for the Pirates. He also captured the Sporting News Player of the Year in 1960. Even though he had hit only .188 in his last year, the swiftness of his pivot on double plays and his memorable homer against the Yankees to win game 7 of the 1960 World Series will always be foremost in every Pirate fans mind when thinking of number nine.
Although Maz slumped horribly because he was at the end of his career, first baseman Bob Robertson’s slump was a little more puzzling. After smacking 53 homers in his first two full major league seasons, and another 6 in the 1971 post season, Robertson had a horrible year, hitting only .193 with 12 homers. He never achieved those lofty numbers again that he did in ’70 and ’71 as his 16 homers in 1974, were the most he ever would hit.
As the season kept rolling along, so did the Bucs as there was just no stopping this team, including their top power hitter Willie Stargell. Between August 5th and the 8th, Stargell went on a tear that saw him hit as grand slam homer on the 5th to lead the team to a 7-4 win over the Expos, smack three shots in a doubleheader the next night, one of them traveling over 500 feet, and go 2-4 against the Phils on the 8th running his post all-star game average to .456 with 8 homers and 20 RBI’s in only 14 games. For the season, Stargell was solid again as he hit .293 with 33 homers and 112 RBI’s.
The next evening against Philadelphia saw a match up between perhaps the two best pitchers in the league, Steve Carlton and Steve Blass. Carlton, who won 27 of the Phillies 59 wins that season, defeated his counterpart 2-0. Regardless of the loss, it was a banner year for the 30-year old pitcher as Blass not only established himself once again as the ace of the staff, but won a career high 19 games, with a .704 winning percentage, 4th in the league and a 2.48 ERA. Blass led a solid starting core that included Dock Ellis, and his 15-7 record, Nellie Briles, 14-11-3.08 who lost a perfect game on August 22nd against the Giants when Ken Henderson got the only hit of the game for San Francisco in the seventh inning off Stargell’s glove, and Moose.
Ellis beat the Cubs on September 6th as the Bucs extended their lead in the East to 13 ½ games over Chicago, the largest margin they had in 70 years. One of the main reasons for the phenomenal season was the deep Pirate offense. Five players eclipsed the .300 plateau as Gene Clines, .334, Vic Davalillo, .318, Clemente, .312, Al Oliver, .312 and Richie Hebner,.300 all went over the magic mark. Stargell and Manny Sanguillen, .298 just missed. All in all, they became the first team in baseball history to have nine players get 100 hits. 11 Pirates were credited with game winning hits and an amazing 67% of the runners who were on third base with less than two out scored when they turned the trick 175 times out of the 261 opportunities they had. More impressively to show their clutch hitting, they scored 50 times when they had none on and two out and 231 of their 691 total runs came with two out in an inning, a staggering 33.4% of their total runs.
It was the depth that allowed Manager Bill Virdon, who took over for the retired Danny Murtaugh, to be able to use 120 different lineup combinations, that he was forced to do with the injuries and military commitments he was faced with, and still win 96 games.
As good as the team was, it by no means dominated opponents as they had to come from behind 42 times in 1972 to win games, including 22 on their last at bat. When people think of great comeback teams, the 1960 one is always the first to come to mind. In comparison though, that club came back 38 times including 18 in their final at bat.
All tolled, despite all the close games, they still ran away with the division by 11 games, clinching things on September 21st, when Blass and Company defeated the Mets 6-2 at Shea Stadium.
It was truly a dream season, one that came crashing down a short time later when Moose uncorked the wild pitch in the fifth and deciding game of the NLCS allowing George Foster to score the winning run, costing the Pirates their Dynasty. Of course the wild pitch would be nothing when compared to the tragic death of their leader in Clemente only 2 ½ months later.By Pirates Encyclopedia
- Al Oliver, Bill Mazeroski, Bill Virdon, Bob Johnson, Bob Miller, Bob Moose, Bob Robertson, Danny Murtaugh, Dave Giusti, Dock Ellis, Gene Clines, Manny Sanguillen, Nellie Briles, Ramon Hernandez, Rennie Stennett, Richie Hebner, Roberto Clemente, Steve Blass, Vic Davalillo, Willie Stargell