The most frightful nightmares currently disturbing the National League must be those that arrive in the small hours to inflict themselves upon pitchers assigned to face the Pittsburgh Pirates. Sinewy, determined men wielding clubs stride endlessly to the plate—grinning hideously no doubt in anticipation of ridiculing the pitcher, deminking his wife and impoverishing his children. In recent weeks the defending world champions have been mistreating everyone in sight. From May 3 through last weekend they won 34 games and lost only 12 to achieve a percentage of .739, extraordinarily high for that length of time in a federation that always leans to fratricide.
At one time or another during this long hot streak the Pirates scored 13 runs against the Dodgers in a game televised nationally, scored 12 runs in two other games and 11 in yet another. The team batting average soared as high as .291 and even Outfielder Al Oliver, supposedly a slow-starting hitter, was among the league leaders in both batting average and runs batted in. Naturally, one of those whose average was higher was Catcher Manny Sanguillen and one of those usually leading him in RBIs was Willie Stargell, who plays the outfield and first base. The Pirates have had some delightful hitting stretches: Dave Cash has the longest (19 games) in the league for the year, Oliver the next longest at 18, Richie Hebner the third at 16 and Sanguillen last week was tied for the fourth longest with 15. All the while Roberto Clemente was slashing toward 3,000 hits, and in the process passed Pie Traynor's club record for RBIs.
Clemente was standing outside the batting cage at Chicago's Wrigley Field last Friday afternoon when he was approached by a member of the ground crew. The weather was harsh, the early arrivals were just starting to make noise and Clemente was rolling his head around and around in that familiar gesture that he contends removes stiffness from his neck. "How goes it, Roberto?" the groundskeeper asked.
Clemente's handsome face broke into a wide smile. "O.K.," he said, "O.K. Some days I hit, some days they fool me. You can't ask for more than that."
Clemente, his aches and his torrid bat are familiar Pittsburgh fare, but Al Oliver is something new. Or to put it differently, there is a new Oliver—maybe even an All-Star one. Oliver, 25, is a left-handed hitter who used to kick so many balls on defense that he was known as Pelé. No longer. He catches 'em and keeps 'em. And he has been producing more total bases than any other Pirate. Last year Oliver hit a respectable .282, but when you hit only .282 in Pittsburgh you are belittled by other players. "When this season is over," Oliver said Saturday after blasting a seventh-inning home run against the Cubs, "I think I will be a .300 hitter. If you don't hit .300 on the Pirates, you don't play."
"As a team," says Bob Miller, a pitcher who has played for five division or pennant winners, "the Pirates are deeper than the Pacific Ocean." Steve Blass (see cover), who is leading all National League pitchers with a record of 9-1, regards Pittsburgh's hitters as so awesome that "it frightens me to watch them take batting practice. You wonder what they might do to you if you were traded away. Just think. Clemente, Stargell, Sanguillen, Oliver. All coming up to hit against you, and knowing every pitch you throw."
This week the season moves into July, a vital month for the Pirates, for they face a host of hard-hitting teams: Chicago, Houston, Atlanta, Cincinnati and New York—a prolonged test of Pittsburgh's pitching. Last season the Pirates ripped through July and left the Cubs, Mets and Cardinals grasping at shadows. At present Pittsburgh seems to be on its way to at least another divisional championship, yet nobody refers to it as "the best damn team in baseball" or hints that a mini-dynasty might be abuilding at the confluence of the Allegheny and the Monongahela. "Pirate pitching," the worriers say, "is still suspect." In happy moments they phrase it: "With those hitters, your mother could pitch for the Pirates."
During Pittsburgh's surge attention centered, as usual, on the team's sluggers, who were amassing an average of five runs a game. Less visible was the fact that Pirate pitchers had given up only 2.8. At one stage they turned in four consecutive shutouts. Dock Ellis, Dave Giusti, Ramon Hernandez, Bob Miller and Bob Johnson all worked in one glorious 18-inning, 1-0 win over San Diego. During the 46-game drive, the pitchers gave up three runs or fewer 32 times, and your mother sure can't do that. What is more, at times the Pirates have used a seven-man starting rotation—a display of wealth that other teams must find depressing.
The Pirates have not produced a 20-game winner since Vernon Law in 1960, and they may not produce one this year, either. A deep staff means a pitcher has fewer chances to win his 20. "I believe that this pitching staff is the best we have had in the 19 years I have been with the club," says General Manager Joe Brown. "It has a depth and versatility not present in other years. Yes, we do have seven men who can start [Blass, Ellis, Nelson Briles, Bob Moose, Luke Walker, Johnson and Bruce Kison] and some of them can also be used in relief. This gives Manager Bill Virdon even more maneuverability."
On Friday afternoon a packed Wrigley Field was given a painful demonstration of Pittsburgh's mound power. The Cubs had also been on a hot streak, having won 32 of their last 46 games. The pitching match-up was a delight: Ferguson Jenkins against Blass, pitching star of the 1971 World Series and the winner of seven consecutive games.
It was cold and windy when Blass got to the ball park and as he looked out at the flags on the centerfield scoreboard he saw them fluttering toward home plate. "When the wind blows in," he said, "the pitcher has more of a chance. I've pitched here when the wind was blowing out. I didn't pitch very long here when the wind was blowing out."
Blass relies on a slider, a fastball and a change-curve, and his fastball can be thrown so that it either rides or sinks. "I can get away with my rider when the wind is coming in because the ball won't carry out for homers," he said. "But you still like to throw the sinking fastball for double plays."
Blass found himself in trouble in the first, second, sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth innings but worked his way out with three double plays, a called third strike and a fine catch in foul ground by Vic Davalillo. In the ninth Blass walked Rick Monday with one out and Virdon called in reliever extraordinary Dave Giusti, who threw one pitch to Ron Santo and got a double play.
"Giusti is my roommate," Blass said gratefully after the game. "I order him room service, and I go out and get him a beer whenever he wants one.
"During the Series I called us the no-name pitching staff. In no way was that meant to tear down our pitchers. I had just heard so much about Baltimore's four 20-game winners that I got a little tired of it. I still believe you have to have a 20-game winner on your staff or no one pays any attention to it. You aren't going to change anyone's mind with guys who win nine games."
But finding Blass or any other Pittsburgh pitcher at the top of the rankings is not unheard of. About this time last season Dock Ellis was ahead in victories and in percentage. Ellis, whose fame as a fancier of the mod life now precedes him—last week he had a giant water bed at his disposal in Chicago's Executive House—arrived at the All-Star break in 1971 with a record of 14-3. Ellis speculated naively that he would not get a chance to open the game against Vida Blue "because they wouldn't start two soul brothers against one another." Ellis started, lost and finished the season with 19 wins and nine losses. Elbow problems slowed him drastically the last 2½ months. He threw only five innings in the playoffs and two in the Series. Now Ellis has a record of 7-3 and an earned run average of 2.40—though only one complete game in 11 starts.
Ah, well, complete games, to use a Supreme Court word, are an anomaly anyway. Through last week the Pirates had a team total of only 10, which tied them with the New York Mets and put them slightly ahead of Cincinnati, but left them far behind both the Cubs (26) in the National League and Baltimore (25) in the American. Blass had four, plus one shutout of the Pirates' six. Only the shutout by Blass and another by Bob Moose were complete games. The other four were achieved in combination form, as if Virdon were ordering in a Chinese restaurant. One was Blass-Miller-Hernandez, one Ellis-Kison, another Walker-Miller-Hernandez, and another the 18-inning Ellis-Giusti-Hernandez-Miller-Johnson job.
Pittsburgh stood fifth in the league in pitching in 1971 and third in 1970 when the team won the East Division but lost to Cincinnati in the playoffs. This season the Pirates are third again, so those who disparage the team's pitching must have been mesmerized by the batting statistics. Giusti, left off the All-Star team for two straight seasons despite brilliant work, has already finished 19 games and saved 10. Hernandez, a 31-year-old lefthander, has finished 10 games, saved four, won three and has an earned run average of 0.64.
A check of low-run games worked by National League pitching staffs during 1970 and 1971 is revealing. The Mets had 126 games in which their pitchers gave up two runs or less, Cincinnati had 118, Chicago 114 and Los Angeles 113. Pity the poor Pirates. All they had was the most: 127.
"If you look at our staff," says Blass, "you will find that a pitcher seldom gets more than 33 starts. At least five times he is going to work to no decision. That makes winning 20 games difficult."
In 1971 Blass started 33 times, had 10 no-decision games and a record of 15-8. "In their heyday," says Brown, "the Yankees seldom had a 20-game winner. But they had quite a few pitchers who were seven or eight games over .500, and that's one of the main reasons they were so great."
If the figure 20 seems keenly on Blass' mind, he can be forgiven, for he tasted last October the pleasures of fame, and knows that being a 20-game winner will keep him in the public eye. "Only in recent months," says Blass, "has it begun to dawn on me what happened in the World Series. Just the idea of getting into two games was something special. To be lucky enough to win two games is unimaginable to me even now.
"This year I have given up a lot of home runs, 11. But you tend to forget that when the team is winning. Every pitcher keeps a mental list. The hitters who hurt you, you don't forget. Billy Williams and Willie McCovey have hurt me bad at times. I'm not an overpowering pitcher. I have to help myself in every way I can. It is nice to know this team will get you runs."
"One of the things that we are proudest of," says Brown, "is that the nucleus of our team came through our own organization." Expansion baseball plus the fact that some general managers seem to trade to keep the kettle boiling have made the Pirate system unusual in this regard. On days when Bob Robertson, the only Pirate in a slump this spring, is at first base, Pittsburgh's starting lineup shows Sanguillen catching, Dave Cash at second, Gene Alley at short, Richie Hebner at third, Stargell in left, Oliver in center and Clemente in right. Of that group only Clemente was not developed from within, and Roberto has been in Pittsburgh for 18 seasons after being drafted away from the Dodgers for a mere $4,000.
Finally, the most disheartening thing to Pirate opponents may well be the hitting of some of the players who do not get to work regularly. Rennie Stennett is at .345, Gene Clines is at .344, Jose Pagan at .306 and Bill Mazeroski at .286.
"And," says Steve Blass, with what might be construed as a hideous grin, "Manny Sanguillen bats sixth. Sixth!"
From which position Sunday that blithe spirit belted the first grand-slam home run of his career to win yet another for the Pirates. It's nightmare time for pitchers. And sweet dreams, Pittsburgh fans.
.305 47 RBI
.321 47 RBI
.332 34 RBI
.316 33 RBI