Barry Bonds won two NL MVP awards in three years while helping Pittsburgh win the NL East every year from 1990-92. (John Iacono/SI)
On Monday night, the Pirates clinched their first postseason berth since 1992. We've done a fair bit to look back on the Bucs' 20-year drought, which didn't include a single winning season, so now it's worth remembering the powerhouse Pittsburgh clubs that represented the franchise's most recent postseason entrants and won three straight NL East titles from 1990-1992.
Those Pirates emerged from a dark period to dominate the division but their decade-long drought leading up to that run of success was nowhere near as long or as loss-filled as their recent stretch of futility. After winning six division titles and two World Series in the 1970s, Pittsburgh had six losing seasons and no postseason trips in the 1980s. In 1986, Jim Leyland, the current Tigers manager, took the reins as skipper, inheriting a team that had lost 104 games -- only one Pirates team in the 20th century lost more -- from predecessor Chuck Tanner, who had helmed the 1979 World Series winners in the Steel City.
While the Bucs lost 98 games in his first season, they did feature a 21-year-old centerfielder who hit .223/.330/.416 as a rookie, a year after being chosen with the sixth pick of the amateur draft: Barry Bonds. By the middle of the season, following a trade with the White Sox, the lineup also included a 23-year-old outfielder/third baseman named Bobby Bonilla.
The Pirates finished above .500 only once in Leyland's first four years at the helm, but Bonds and Bonilla gradually developed into stars. The team jumped from 64-98 in 1986 to 80-82 in 1987 to 85-75 in 1988 — Bonilla's first year as an All-Star — before backsliding to 74-88 in '89. They jumped out to a 22-9 record to start the 1990 season, and thereafter were never more than one game from the NL East lead; they took first place for good on Sept. 4, passing the Mets and then sweeping a three-game series from them at Three Rivers Stadium. Pittsburgh wound up winning the division by four games, with a 95-87 record.
Bonds broke out for that 1990 team, hitting .301/.406/.565 with 33 homers (fourth in the league), 52 steals (third) and 9.7 WAR (first), earning All-Star, Gold Glove and NL MVP honors for the first time. He was nearly unanimous in the voting for the latter, with one stray first-place vote going to Bonilla, who himself hit .280/.322/.518 with 32 homers. By that point, the pair were the team's left- and rightfielders, flanking centerfielder Andy Van Slyke, who hit .284/.367/.465 with 17 homers and 14 steals. Van Slyke had been acquired from the Cardinals on April 1, 1987 in a deal that sent Tony Pena to St. Louis and also brought back Mike LaValierre, who spent six years (1987-1992) as the Bucs' starting catcher, posting a .367 on-base percentage over that span. Secondary contributors to the offense included first baseman Sid Bream (.270/.349/.455 with 15 homers), shortstop Jay Bell (.254/.329/.362) and backup catcher Don Slaught (.300/.375/.457).
The rotation was anchored by 27-year-old righty Doug Drabek, a former Yankees draft pick who went 22-6 with a 2.76 ERA en route to the NL Cy Young award. By the time the season ended, the unit was rounded out by John Smiley, Zane Smith (1.30 ERA in 10 starts after being acquired from the Expos), Randy Tomlin and Bob Walk. Leyland eschewed the growing popularity of the single closer in favor of a committee-based approach involving (but not restricted to) righties Stan Belinda and Ted Power and lefty Bob Patterson.
Ultimately, that 1990 team bowed to Lou Piniella's "Nasty Boys" Reds in a six-game NL Championship Series. Pittsburgh won the opener 4-3 despite falling behind 3-0 in the first inning, but then lost the next three games before staving off elimination with a 3-2 win in Game 5. The Pirates managed just one hit and one run in the Game 6 finale -- and hit only .194/.298/.312 for the series -- and had to watch as the Reds swept the A's in the World Series.
Aside from Bream departing for Atlanta via free agency and third baseman Jeff King missing most of the season due to a back injury, the 1991 lineup was otherwise unchanged from the year before. Bonds (.292/.410/.514 with 25 homers, 43 steals and 7.9 WAR), Bonilla (.302/.391/.492 with 18 homers), Van Slyke (.265/.355/.446 wiht 17 homers) and Bell (.270/.330/.428 with 16 homers) led the offense. Smiley (20-8, 3.08 ERA) was the pitching staff's big winner, with Drabek, Smith and Tomlin all finishing with ERAs of 3.20 or lower in 175 or more innings as well. Belinda (16 saves) and fellow righty Bill Landrum (17 saves) handled the bulk of the closing duty, though six pitchers on the team racked up at least three saves.
The Pirates took first place for good just 12 games into the 1991 season and wound up going 98-64, winning the division by 14 games. In the NLCS, they squared off against the Atlanta Braves, who had leapt from 65 wins to 94 thanks to the emergence of homegrown talents such as David Justice, Ron Gant, John Smoltz, Steve Avery and Cy Young winner Tom Glavine.
The tight series featured four one-run games, three of which ended with 1-0 scores. The Pirates were on the short end of two of those, in Games 2 and 6, and in fact, they didn't score over their final 22 innings. Leading 3-games-to-2, Pittsburgh needed just one win to wrap up its first pennant since 1979 when the series shifted back to Three Rivers Stadium, but instead the Bucs were blanked twice. Avery and Alejandro Pena combined on a Game 6 shutout for Atlanta and Smoltz went the distance with a six-hitter in Game 7. The Braves would go on to play a similarly thrilling seven-game World Series against the Twins, one that ended with them losing another 1-0 game courtesy of a 10-inning shutout by Jack Morris.
Following the 1991 season, Smiley was traded to Minnesota for two players, including pitching prospect Denny Neagle, while Bonilla left for the riches of the Mets as a free agent. A 35-year-old Kirk Gibson got first crack at filling the void left by Bonilla, but he played just 16 games before being released in early May. Bonds picked up the slack with his best season to date, hitting .311/.456/.624 with 34 homers, 39 steals, 127 walks (32 intentional) and 9.0 WAR en route to his second MVP award. Van Slyke came up with a career year himself: .324/.381/.505, NL highs of 199 hits and 45 doubles, plus 12 triples, 14 homers and 6.0 WAR. King was the only other Pirate to reach double digits in homers, but nonetheless the team led the league in scoring at 4.28 runs per game. In the rotation, Drabek and Tomlin were the only pitchers to make it through the season with more than 22 starts, but a 25-year-old rookie knuckleballer named Tim Wakefield went 8-1 with a 2.15 ERA from July 31 onward, and 1985 Royals star Danny Jackson arrived in a trade from the Cubs for an extra late-season push. Belinda, Patterson and righty Roger Mason, all of whom tallied at least eight saves, made up Leyland's closer committee.
Again, the Bucs bolted from the gate, going 15-5 in April, by which point they had already secured the NL East lead. They relinquished it briefly in late May, and were tied for a short time in late July, but wound up winning the division by nine games with a 96-66 record. Again the Pirates met the Braves (98-64) in the NLCS, and they lost three of the first four games, with starters Drabek (twice) and Jackson failing to even complete five innings. Walk's three-hit complete game staved off elimination in Game 5 as Pittsburgh knocked Avery out in a four-run first inning. The offense jumped on Atlanta again early in Game 6, scoring eight second-inning runs off Glavine and Charlie Liebrandt en route to a 13-4 win to force a Game 7.
Behind a redemptive start by Drabek, the Pirates led 2-0 going into the ninth inning when things unraveled. Leyland left his ace in long enough to load the bases with no outs via a double by Terry Pendleton, an error on a Justice groundball by second baseman Jose Lind and a walk to Bream. Belinda came on in relief and yielded a sacrifice fly to Ron Gant, re-loaded the bases via a walk to Damon Berryhill and retired pinch-hitter Brian Hunter via a popup. The only man standing between Pittsburgh and the pennant was Francisco Cabrera, who was making just his 13th plate appearance all season as he dug in against Belinda. With the count at 2-and-1, Cabrera singled sharply to left, scoring Justice and, just ahead of Bonds' throw in his last play as a Pirate, Bream. It was a thrilling play at the plate, and one that has haunted the franchise and its fans until Monday night, when another thrilling play at the plate ensured Pittsburgh of its first playoff game since that fateful night in Georgia.
That run scored by Bream did more than just send Atlanta back to the World Series. It sent Pittsburgh — minus free agents Drabek and Bonds, who departed that winter — into a darkness from which it has only now emerged. But emerge the Bucs have, after 20 seasons not just out of the playoffs but below .500. They still have a chance at overtaking the Cardinals for the NL Central crown, but even if they only get as far as the wild-card game, they've already done something just as impressive by writing a new chapter in their franchise's storied postseason history.