The 1974 Pittsburgh Pirates Prevail In The NL East

The Pirates had won three straight division titles in the old NL East from 1970 through 1972, with a World Series title in 1971 included. In 1973, Pittsburgh contended to the final day of the season, but that was a sub-.500 team kept in contention by an entire division that played mediocre baseball. The 1974 Pittsburgh Pirates were looking to bounce back and reassert control of their own backyard. It took a long time, and a lot of stops and starts, but they won a sizzling pennant race and returned to postseason play.

Willie Stargell was 34-years-old, but the leftfielder continued to put up good numbers. Stargell finished 1974 with a stat line of a .407 on-base percentage/.537 slugging percentage and drove in 96 runs. He was one part of a productive outfield. Al Oliver played center and his stat line was .358/.475. Richie Zisk drove in 100 runs with a .386/.476 stat line in rightfield.

The outfield trio got help from third baseman Richie Hebner and his 18 homer runs. Rennie Stennett played second base and batted .291. A platoon at first base got some power from Bob Robertson, who slugged .479, and some on-base consistency from Ed Kilpartrick, with his .367 OBP. Collectively, it all gave the Pirates the third-best offense in the National League.

Pitching was more problematic. Individually, it was hard to fault any one particular member of the staff. Jerry Reuss, Ken Brett, and Dock Ellis all had ERAs in the 3s. So did Bruce Kison, who did spot-starting and relief work. Dave Giusti worked over 100 innings out of the bullpen and posted a 3.32 ERA.

The staff ace was Jim Rooker, who finished with an ERA of 2.78 and won 15 games. That’s a nice year. Perhaps the problem lie with the fact that, in an era with a lot of good pitching staffs, it was a year that was the best on the Pittsburgh staff. With no one who stood out, the Pirate staff ERA ranked seventh in the 12-team National League. Although the flip side is that with no obvious weak points, they were well-built for a 162-game haul. And it would take all of those games for Pittsburgh to reclaim their place atop the NL East.

With the leagues split into just two divisions, the Pirates shared the East with that division’s current occupants, the New York Mets (the defending division champs), Montreal Expos (today’s Washington Nationals) and Philadelphia Phillies (a non-contender in recent years but poised to break out with a young third baseman named Mike Schmidt). Pittsburgh, along with the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals were also in the East. The Cincinnati Reds (along with the Atlanta Braves) went west.

Only the first-place teams went to the postseason prior to 1994, so there was usually no time to lose in getting rolling. But Pittsburgh spent the early part of the year in the funk that had marked their 1973 campaign.

The Pirates started 3-10, including losing five of six to St. Louis. Pittsburgh didn’t win a series until the end of April. In May, they lost five of six to Philadelphia. By Memorial Day, the Pirates were limping at 14-26, in last place, and staring at a nine-game deficit.

More losses came in early June. The Reds and the Los Angeles Dodgers were the National League’s two best teams this year, and Pittsburgh went on the road to both places and lost five of six. The first signs of a spark came at the end of that road trip, when they split six games in San Diego and San Francisco, and then came home to sweep the Dodgers in a return series.

A roller-coaster ensued. Six losses in eight games against the Cubs and Cardinals were followed by a nice 6-1 stretch against the Phillies and Expos. Then a 4-9 sequence that included getting swept four straight at home by the Reds. But the first half ended with a seven-game winning streak. Pittsburgh was 45-49 and in fourth place at the All-Star Break. It wasn’t inspiring, but this was again a year where no one really wanted to grab the NL East. Thus, that mediocre record, had them within 3 ½ games of the lead.

August 6 was when things started to change for the better. Sitting on a record of 52-57, the Pirates tore off 18 wins in 24 games. That included taking five of six from the Dodgers, winning a series with the Reds, and sweeping the Mets, who had lost their magic from 1973.

By the time that stretch was over it was Labor Day. And in spite of their many stops and starts, Pittsburgh was 70-63 and in first place. St. Louis was just a game and a half back, while Philadelphia was four games out. Everyone else had fallen by the wayside.

The Pirates delivered a death blow to the Phillies when they first swept a Labor Day doubleheader, then capped off a series sweep the next day, scoring 26 runs in the process. The bats then thumped Expo pitching for 24 runs in another sweep.

With their lead pushed out to a 2 ½ games, Pittsburgh stumbled. A disastrous 1-6 week against the Cubs, Expos, and—most importantly—the Cardinals, let St. Louis completely reverse the race. On September 15, the Pirates trailed the Cards by a game and a half. And the first of two remaining series against St. Louis was set to begin in old Three Rivers Stadium on September 17.

Oliver homered in the first inning of Tuesday night’s opener. Reuss was brilliant. But it wasn’t enough. The Pirates only mustered four hits the rest of the way and didn’t score again. Reuss pushed the game to extra innings—in fact he pitched all 13 frames—but the Cardinals got the last word in a 2-1 win.

The Pirates got more good pitching on Wednesday night, this time from Rooker. They got another big hit from Oliver, a two-run double. In this game, that was enough for a 4-1 win.

Both offenses, quiet for the first two nights, opened up in Thursday night’s rubber match. Pittsburgh trailed 4-3 in the bottom of the seventh. Stargell ripped a two-run double to get the lead. Hebner blasted a three-run homer to break it open. Pittsburgh won 8-6 and closed to within a half-game.  

A series loss to the Mets pushed the Pirates a game and a half back again when they made the return visit to St. Louis. There were just ten days left in the season.

Rooker took the ball on Monday night. He was brilliant and he needed to be. The game went to the 10th inning still scoreless. Finally, Hebner’s RBI single got Pittsburgh on the board. Giusti came out of the bullpen to close the 1-0 win.

The bats got rolling on Tuesday night. Stennett had three hits at the top of the order. Stargell drove in three runs in the middle. The young backup outfielder, Dave Parker, drove in two runs with a key pinch-hit single. Pittsburgh won 7-3 and moved into first place.

When the Pirates dropped five runs in the first inning on Wednesday night, thanks to a three-run blast from Manny Sanguillen, they were poised to sweep and get control of the race. The pitching collapsed so thoroughly that Pittsburgh was down 9-6 after five. Then they rallied and tied it. Another extra-inning game, the third in the last week between these two teams, went down. Giusti pitched three shutout innings and the game went to the 11th, still tied 9-9.

Pittsburgh scored three runs. That should have been enough. But with Giusti now out, St. Louis got off the mat. The Cardinals scored four times and had a stunning 13-12 win. The Pirates were back to trailing by a half-game.

What Pittsburgh had was control of that half-game, and by this point, that was no small thing. They went to Shea Stadium for a four-game weekend set, won three times and pulled even. For the final three days, the Pirates would be hosting the Cubs, while the Cardinals were in Montreal.

Kison came up with a clutch start on Monday night, winning a 2-1 pitcher’s duel. St. Louis answered, and the race was still tied.

The eighth inning of Tuesday’s games would be a critical moment in this NL East race. Pittsburgh was trailing 5-4. St. Louis was ahead 2-0. The Pirates got a two-run blast from Robertson and won 6-5. The Cardinals coughed up the lead and lost 3-2. Pittsburgh had control going into the final day.

There was rain in Montreal, so St. Louis would watch and wait. If the Pirates lost, the Cardinals and Expos would make up their game on Thursday, with the possibility of a potential tiebreaker game on Friday. When the Pirates trailed 4-2 in the ninth inning, it looked like some more baseball would still be necessary.

Pittsburgh scraped out a run. Robertson came to the plate with two outs and a man in scoring position. He struck out. But the ball got away from Cub catcher Steve Swisher. Robertson not only reached base, but the tying run scored.

Oliver tripled in the 10th inning, and the division-winning run was just 90 feet away. Sanguillen hit a ground ball on the infield. There was no play at the plate. The Pirates won the game 5-4 and had finally prevailed in an amazing NL East race.

Pittsburgh faced off with Los Angeles in the 1974 NLCS. The Pirate bats were quiet in the first two games, both close home losses. In a series that was then a best-of-five affair, they were virtually done. The offense exploded back in Dodger Stadium for a 7-0 win that extended the series. But that was the last hurrah. Pittsburgh was blown out in Game 4 and the season was over.

The season might have been over, and the return to the World Series might not have happened. But the Pirates had given their fans plenty of thrills and returned to the top of the NL East. In 1975, they did it again. And before the decade was out, in 1979, they won the Series again.