Chuck Tanner’s reliance on relievers Goose Gossage and Kent Tekulve during 1977 pointed to the spotty work of Pirate starters other than John Candelaria and Jim Rooker. After the Pirates had not anteed up enough money during the early stages of the season to sign Gossage, the ace made it clear he would try free agency and when he and fellow bullpen artist Terry Forster left the Pirates following the season for big contracts from the Yankees and Dodgers, there were definite holes in the pitching staff. Pete Peterson attempted to fill in the foundation by acquiring one of baseball’s best and most durable pitchers, curveballer Bert Blyleven from the Texas Rangers in a huge four-team trade. The cost of Blyleven was pricey to say the least. Peterson had to give up Al Oliver, a consistent .300 hitter with line drive power and a young shortstop prospect, Nelson Norman. In order for the deal to go through, Peterson required the services of first baseman-outfielder John Milner be included in the deal as well. M ilner, a lefthanded batter with power came over to Texas from the Mets. He had shown flashes of being a strong major league hitter, but his career had been inconsistent due to injuries.
Despite his success as a Pirate, the trade did not surprise Oliver. He noted that if he had remained a Pirate for all of 1978, he would have become a “10/5 man,” a player with ten years in the league with the last being with the same team. This would have given him the power to veto trades. Oliver’s move to the Rangers opened the door for Bill Robinson to play regularly in leftfield.
To add to the depth of the staff, the Pirates claimed reliever Elias Sosa off waivers from the Dodgers and after a contract snafu by the Indians, the Bucs were able to sign Jim Bibby as a free agent, outbidding, among others, the Baltimore Orioles, who had expressed a strong interest in the 6’4,” 240 lb righthander. Bibby was 34 years old, but some, including Orioles coach Frank Robinson, who had managed Bibby while he was the top man in Cleveland, recognized him as a late bloomer. Another pitcher forced his way on to the roster with an excellent spring. Don Robinson had only one game of AAA experience under his belt, but pitched so well in camp it was impossible for Tanner to cut him. Robinson’s emergence and the moves to bring in Blyleven and Bibby made Sosa expendable and near the end of spring training, Peterson added a familiar face to bolster the Pirates bench, sending the reliever along with two rookies with excellent speed, outfielder Miguel Dilone and secondbaseman Mike Edwards to Oakland for Ma nny Sanguillen. With Bibby and Robinson initially tagged to pitch out of the bullpen and to help with spot starts, Kent Tekulve inherited Gossage’s role as closer.
Tanner hoped the Pirates could avoid their traditional sluggish start, but even with Candelaria pitching a 1-0 shutout on opening day, the team played only .500 ball in April and struggled along at a 12-16 pace in May. Robinson moved into the starting rotation in late April, beating the Mets, 2-1, for in a complete game for his first major league win. His contribution helped keep the starting staff together as Bruce Kison was plagued by blister problems and Jerry Reuss ineffective.
The offense, too, got off slowly. Willie Stargell, recovered from the pinched nerve he suffered the year before still wasn’t hitting. When Tanner made the comment that Stargell would come around as he had maintained his fantastic bat speed and that he preferred having Stargell on the team as opposed to the National League’s other long time slugger named Willie---McCovey---who was off to a much better start after winning the league’s Comeback of the Year Award in ’77, the manager was ridiculed in the papers. Phil Garner got off to his usual slow start as well, but he had plenty of company as just about every player was performing below his 1977 standard. Rennie Stennett’s bat was not his only problem. The leg he had broken so severely the previous August had so restricted his mobility that Tanner had him and Garner exchange positions briefly and very unsuccessfully in early June.
The Pirates did show some improvement during the third month of the season. Candelaria won five strait decisions between May 21 and June 20 to lead the way, but the Bucs dropped four out of five to end the month 35-38, seven games out and in fourth place. In June’s final game, defending batting champ Dave Parker suffered a fractured cheekbone crashing into Mets’ catcher John Stearns on a play at the plate. He was lost to the team for 15 days. When he returned, much earlier than originally expected, Parker donned a special batting helmet, equipped with a football style facemask to protect his still healing cheek. He was permitted to wear the gear while on the bases as well, much to the dislike of opposing managers such as the Dodgers’ Tommy Lasorda, who worried the facemask might severely injure someone, given the force Parker provided when he would attempt to run over a backstop or base defender.
Stargell, meanwhile had regained his hitting ability and when Parker, who was chosen by the fans to play in the All-Star game, was not ready to play, Stargell appeared in the Mid-Summer Classic for a final time. The teams’ record, though, through the first half of the season remained under .500 at 40-41 dropping another ½ game out of first. Statistics told the story behind the Bucs’ mediocre play. Bill Robinson had hit only four homeruns and batted .238. Garner was at .246 with just two homers. Moreno hit .224 and catcher Ed Ott, who was having trouble with his throwing as well, .249. Starters Blyleven (9-5), Candelaria (8-8, 2.93 ERA) and Robinson (5-3) and relievers Tekulve, Grant Jackson and rookie Eddie Whitson were pitching well, but the inconsistent offense and a poor infield defense was killing the team’s playoff hopes.
Immediately after the break, the team won seven of ten, but then hit a horrid stretch, going 4-17, including losing five of six to the firstplace Phillies. On August 12, the Pirates had fallen to ten games under .500, (51-61). They were still in fourth place, but now had the seemingly impossible task of trying to make up 11 ½ games.
Tanner the optimist, seeking to motivate the team told his players, “This may not be the end. It may be only the beginning.” The next day, Robinson won a 7-3 decision over the Phils, then took two out of three at Three Rivers Stadium over the ever-dangerous Reds, but little attention was paid at the time. However, these games would turn out to be the start of an excellent stretch of Buccaneer baseball as the team won nine more in a row. The Pirates swept five from the Astros, including two doubleheaders during this span. Bibby homered to spark the win in one of the Houston encounters and in another game, Dale Berra hit his first major league homerun. Blyleven capped the streak with a 5-1 over Phil Niekro and the Braves. The pitcher drove in three runs in the game and climbed over .500 for the first time in a month, and more importantly, moved into second place, only 3 ½ games out as Philadelphia was experiencing a January cold spell in August.
The next day, Niekro’s brother Joe beat Rooker 7-5 and when J.R. Richard bested Kison 7-2, the Pirates fell back to under .500 and into third.
Stargell homered and knocked in three the next day to help the Pirates get back to winning. Candelaria, pitching less due to a tender left arm and chronic back problems, and Whitson combined on a two-hitter the next day in Cincinnati and Blyleven fanned eight Reds in winning on August 29. Reliever Tekulve had played a major role in the Pirates’ August surge by allowing only one run in 24 innings. His 15 appearances gathered him nine saves and the National League’s Pitcher of the Month Award. After two off days, the Pirates moved to Atlanta and swept a double header behind strong starting pitching from Don Robinson and Kison and homeruns from Stargell and Berra. Tanner put the rookie into the lineup more and more as he moved Garner to second and benched Stennett. The Bucs took two more from the Braves with Berra hitting a ninth inning three run homer in the finale to move the Bucs to just 2 ½ out. Stargell collected his 2000th hit the same day.
September 4 saw the Bucs playing another double header, this time against the cellar dwelling Mets. Robinson and Ott hit two run homers in the first game and Bibby tossed a three hitter in the nightcap to complete the Pirate sweep. Reuss, back in the rotation after spending most of the year pitching long relief threw a four hit shutout to win 8-0, placing the Bucs only one game out. The Pirates won their 11th strait the next night, getting a 4-1 victory from Robinson, who saw his personal shutout innings streak reach 26 before allowing the Mets to score.
Next up were the Cardinals. The Bucs dropped a tough one in extra innings, 5-4 to open the series and the victory pendulum swung against Pittsburgh as the Pirates lost another to the Cards before losing three strait to the Mets at Shea Stadium. After Steve Carlton and his teammates routed Robinson 10-3 in the first of two games in Philadelphia, the Phillie fans began to breath again as the team they loved to boo had increased its lead from one to five games in a matter of six days.
Candelaria salvaged the last game of the series, 5-1, and Rooker and Kison were supported in their wins against the Cardinals and Expos on September 14 and 15 by grandslams by Garner. Scrap Iron was the first National Leaguer to hit grand slams in back to back games since Jimmy Sheckard had in 1901. The Pirates bombed 20 game winner Ross Grimsley the following night and Blyleven won his 14th game of the year on September 17. After an off day, Parker, the hottest hitter in baseball over the last six weeks and Bill Robinson homered as the Pirates held off a late run by the Cubs, 12-11. The victory was the teams seventh in a row, another impressive streak for a team, which refused to give up. Just as quickly as the Pirates had lost ground the week before, they had made it up. With a chance to take some pressure off themselves before facing the Phillies the last weekend of the year, the Bucs dropped three of their next four to the Cubs and Expos.
Now needing to win as they returned home against Chicago, the Pirates swept the Cubs three strait behind Candelaria, Robinson and Reuss. Reuss’s victory came at the expense of Ray Burris, a pitcher he had almost been traded for.
The Phillies came in to Pittsburgh to play the final weekend with the Pirates needing to sweep the four games to win the Eastern Division. Over 45,000 fans attended the September 29 twi-night doubleheader. The Phils and Pirates battled through 8 ½ innings with the score tied at four going into the bottom of the ninth. Ott hit a flyball to right center where Gary Maddox, the top defensive outfielder in the league and speedy rightfielder Bake McBride could not decide who should make the play. The ball fell in between them and kept rolling. Ott kept running and scored the winning run.
The Pirates had to face all-time great Carlton in the second game, but Kison and Tekulve were up to the task and this game, too, was tied as the clubs had exchanged solo runs as the contest entered the bottom of the ninth. Parker tripled to open the frame and the Phillies chose to walk Bill Robinson and Stargell to load the bases rather than face two of the team’s hotter hitters. Reliever Warren Brusstar, however, committed a balk to surrender the game.
Unfortunately, miracles do not always happen and teams who have beaten great odds do not always win. Stargell hit a grandslam in the first inning on September 30, but Don Robinson was hit hard. Phillies starting pitcher Randy Learch hit two homeruns and the Phillies carried a 10-4 lead into the ninth. Refusing to quit for one last time, the Pirates scored four times before late season pickup Cito Gaston grounded out to Larry Bowa to finish the pennant race.
The Pirates amazing late season take-off had been fueled by Parker, the National League’s Player of the Month in both August and September when he hit .381 and .415. Parker’s onslaught won him his second consecutive batting title at .334 and his overall play the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award. Stargell’s stats at the end of the year vindicated Tanner’s faith and he displaced McCovey as the NL’s Comeback Player of the Year. Stargell’s 1978 totals of 28 homeruns and 97 RBI’s were his highest marks in five seasons. Garner (eight homeruns, .279), Bill Robinson (10 homeruns, .254) and Ott (.291) all hit much better during the second half and Moreno led the league with 77 stolen bases eclipsing Taveras’s record which the shortstop had set the previous year. Although his year old record had been broken, Taveras had his best overall offensive season, hitting .278 with 31 doubles and trailed only Moreno with 46 steals.
Don Robinson was The Sporting News’ Rookie Pitcher of the Year and tied Blyleven with a team high 14 wins. Tekulve proved his sidearm delivery could be effective enough against lefthanded hitters to break Dave Giusti’s team record for saves with 31 and pitched in a team record and league high 91 games. Time had run out on the Bucs in 1978, but in 1979 the team would create memories which time could never erase.By Pirates Encyclopedia
- Bert Blyleven, Bill Robinson, Bruce Kison, Chuck Tanner, Cito Gaston, Dale Berra, Dave Giusti, Dave Parker, Don Robinson, Ed Ott, Ed Whitson, Elias Sosa, Grant Jackson, Jerry Reuss, Jim Bibby, Jim Rooker, John Candelaria, John Milner, Julio Moreno, Kent Tekulve, Manny Sanguillen, Miguel Dilone, Mike Edwards, Nelson Norman, Omar Moreno, Phil Garner, Rennie Stennett, Terry Forster, Three Rivers Stadium, Willie Stargell