Setting The Stage: The Near-Miss Of The 1978 Pittsburgh Pirates

The city of Pittsburgh owned the National League East in the early 1970s. They won five division titles between 1970-75, including a 1971 World Series title. But in the latter part of the decade, things changed. The Pirates continued to play good baseball, winning 90-plus games, even as they changed managers from Danny Murtaugh to Chuck Tanner. But division ownership shifted eastward in the Keystone State, as the Phillies emerged. The 1978 Pittsburgh Pirates closed the gap on Philadelphia and set the stage for an even bigger comeback one  year later.


Book about the 1978 baseball season

Pittsburgh made its first effort to shake things up with a big trade in the offseason. The Bucs were part of a four-team deal involving ten players. They parted ways with Al Oliver, a good lefthanded hitter with power. But they got back 27-year-old Bert Blyleven, a workhorse pitcher with a Hall of Fame career ahead of him. And they mitigated the damage caused by Oliver’s loss by adding a nice lefthanded bat in John Milner.

The Pirates further strengthened their depth when they signed Jim Bibby in March, who would be one of several pitchers whose versatility between spot-starting and relief work made him valuable. And they added 34-year-old Manny Sanguillen in early April.

Pittsburgh made their offense go by running. Their National League rankings in most statistical categories were decent, but nothing special—fifth in batting average, seventh in doubles, seventh in home runs. They weren’t very good at taking walks, where they ranked ninth. But they lead the 12-team NL in stolen bases and that keyed an offense that was fourth-best in the league at scoring runs.

Omar Moreno was the chief base thief, swiping 71 bags. Shortstop Frank Taveras stole 46 and third baseman Phil Garner added 27. The heart and soul of the team, first baseman Willie Stargell, didn’t run, but he hit 28 home runs, drove in 97 and had an on-base percentage of .382.

But none of that would have made a real difference if not for the work of one man in rightfield. Dave Parker was nicknamed “The Cobra” for his ability to uncoil and strike. He was big, strong and fast and in the late 1970s that was an unusual package in any one player. He had a terrific arm defensively. He hit 30 home runs, stole 20 bags, drove in 117 runs and scored 102 more. He won the batting championship at .334. And he was a deserved winner of a landslide National League MVP vote.

The starting rotation was steady. Blyleven made 34 starts, won 14 games and had a 3.03 ERA. John Candelaria added 12 wins with 3.24 ERA. Don Robinson, age 21, went to the post 32 times and won 14 more games with 3.47 ERA. Robinson finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting, trailing only Atlanta’s Bob Horner—one of the game’s signature sluggers through the early 1980s—and San Diego’s Ozzie Smith, one of the greatest defensive shortstops to ever play the game.

Kent Tekulve was an excellent closer with 31 saves and a 2.33 ERA, and his submarine-style delivery secured the end of games for Pittsburgh. But what really made the difference was depth. Bibby and Bruce Kison shuttled between the rotation and the pen and each had ERAs in the 3s. Grant Jackson and Ed Whitson provided solid relief work. The end result was a staff ERA that ranked fifth in the National League.

The Pirates had a tumultuous start to the season. They won the first two games over the Cubs. The first was a brilliant 1-0 shutout win from Candelaria and the second was 4-3 in extra innings. But Pittsburgh promptly lost seven of the next eight. Then they won six in a row. After the crazy first ten games, the team basically stabilized around the .500 mark for a long stretch. They reached the All-Star break with a record of 40-41. It was good for third place in a soft NL East, but still seven games behind the Phils and the Cubs were nestled in between (prior to the realignment of 1994, there was only an East & West division in each league and the Cubs and Cardinals joined the Pirates as current NL Central teams that resided in the East).

Pittsburgh gained steam in the late summer and by Labor Day the gap on Philly had closed to 2 ½ games, with Chicago close behind in third. With the NFL’s Steelers starting what would be a Super Bowl-winning campaign, the Pirates had at least given the local fans a reason to keep checking on baseball.

The roller-coaster of the early season returned in early September. Pittsburgh slashed the lead to a half-game when they hosted the Mets and swept a three-game series that included a Labor Day doubleheader. The pitching was brilliant, with shutouts from Bibby and young lefty Jerry Reuss. But the ensuing weekend’s rematch in Shea Stadium had the opposite result—Pirate pitching gave up 20 runs in three games, lost all three and slipped four games out.

A two-game series with the Phillies could have been the death knell, but the Pirates stopped the bleeding enough to get a split and stay alive. Then they ripped off five straight wins. The margin was back to two games. But then a stumble at mediocre Montreal knocked Pittsburgh back into a four-game hole as the final week began.

Things looked bleak, but there was one significant hole card left to play—the Phils were coming to town for a four-game set on the final weekend. The question was if it would matter.

The Pirates did their part by sweeping the Cubs, who had collapsed at the outset of September. Philadelphia didn’t give much, but they did split a doubleheader with Montreal and that narrowed the margin to 3 ½ games. It was all-or-nothing. Pittsburgh had to sweep the final series in Three Rivers Stadium.

It started with a Friday night doubleheader. In a sign of how much quicker games finished in those days, the opener didn’t begin until 6 PM. It went to the ninth inning tied 4-4. Catcher Ed Ott led off the bottom of the ninth and crushed a pitch to dead center. On its own, it was good for a triple, but a mishandle sent Ott all the way home. Pittsburgh was alive.

The nightcap, starting just before 9 PM, was no less dramatic. Against the great Philadelphia lefty Steve Carlton, the game was tied 1-1 into the ninth and Carlton was finally out. Parker led off the ninth with a double. He would ultimately score on a balk.

Sweeping a doubleheader on an inside-the-park home run from your catcher, plus a balk, had to give Pittsburgh a feeling of destiny. But when Robinson took the mound Saturday, he didn’t have it. The rookie gave up two home runs to opposing pitcher Randy Lerch. The Pirates trailed 10-4 in the bottom of the ninth and it was all but over.

Or was it. Five singles off Philly closer Tug McGraw, with an error mixed in and suddenly it was a 10-8 game, the tying run was on first and only one man was out. Strolling to the plate was Stargell.

If this were one year later, Pops probably comes through. But 1978 wasn’t quite the Pirates team. He struck out, Garner grounded to short and the pennant bid was over.

It was still a season of growth for the 1978 Pittsburgh Pirates. Even though the final 88-73 record represented a step back from the previous two years, the gap with the Phillies had been significantly cut. One year later the Pirates would be back atop the NL East—and then author one of the most memorable postseason comebacks with their ultimate World Series victory.