1991 Pittsburgh Pirates: Dominance & Disappointment

The Pirates were coming off a breakout year in 1990. The five-year rebuilding program under manager Jim Leyland bore fruit with an NL East title. The 1991 Pittsburgh Pirates showed it was no fluke, running away with the East and reaching the NLCS for the second time in what would be a three-year run.

A young Barry Bonds was the key to the National League’s best offense. Bonds posted a .410 OBP to lead the league and his 116 RBI was only one off the NL’s best. He also hit 25 home runs, stole 43 bases and scored 95 runs. The left fielder was the best young player in baseball.

Bobby Bonilla, on the other side of the outfield provided plenty of help. Bonilla finished with a stat line of .391 OBP/.492 slugging percentage, drove in 100 runs and scored 102 more. Andy Van Slyke rounded out a terrific outfield with a .355/.466 stat line.

Doug Drabek had won the Cy Young Award in 1990 and pitched well again in ‘91, with a 3.07 ERA, but his record fell off to 15-14. John Smiley picked up the slack. The lefty was one of four 20-game winners in MLB this year.

Zane Smith added 16 more wins, while Randy Tomlin and Bob Walk were each consistent starters at the bottom of the rotation. Bill Landrum and Stan Belinda shared closer duties in a bullpen that Leyland got the most out of. It was enough for the Pirates’ staff ERA to rank second in the National League.

Pittsburgh took control of the NL East (prior to 1994 both leagues were split into just an East and West with winners advancing directly to the LCS) from the outset. When they beat the New York Mets 10-1 on April 27, it gave the Pirates sole possession of first place. They never relinquished it.

By Memorial Day they were 26-15, with the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs joining the Mets in the rearview mirror. The Pirates continued to play well through the early summer and reached the All-Star break with a record of 48-31. The Cubs fell by the wayside quickly and the Cardinals slipped to five back. The Mets wouldn’t go quite as easily, with a hot streak just prior to the break keeping them within 2 ½ of the lead.

Pittsburgh went to Cincinnati to open the second half. The Reds were the defending World Series champions and had ousted the Pirates from the 1990 NLCS. This year wasn’t going as well for them and Pittsburgh ripped off a four-game sweep.

An early August road trip went poorly, with nine losses in eleven games, but the Mets went into a tailspin at the same time. New York stayed in a downward spiral and never recovered. Pittsburgh did, although they still had St. Louis lurking. The Pirates hosted the Cardinals for a key four-games series that started on August 9.

Smiley struggled in Friday night’s opener, losing 5-1 and Pittsburgh’s lead was down to four games. The Cardinals came out Saturday and immediately put up two runs in the first inning. This time the Pirates bounced back.

Van Slyke’s three-run blast in the second turned the momentum and Neal Heaton came out of the bullpen to deliver 4 1/3 innings of quality long relief. The result was an 11-5 win. It was more of the same on Sunday as Pittsburgh spotted the visitors a 3-zip lead in the fourth, then scored four times in the sixth. Bonds, light-hitting second baseman Jose Lind and first baseman Orlando Merced all had two hits in the 6-4 win.

The wraparound game on Monday was the knockout blow. Zane Smith and St. Louis’ Jose DeLeon locked up in a good game that went to extra innings tied 2-2. The Cards looked ready to salvage a split and keep the race interesting when they got an 11th-inning solo home run. Bonds did the one better—a two-run blast in the bottom of the inning for a 4-3 win that extended the division lead to seven games.

Pittsburgh coasted him from there. On a Sunday afternoon, with a full two weeks of the season still to go, the Pirates clinched. Drabek beat the lowly Philadelphia Phillies 2-1 with a complete game. Pittsburgh finished the regular season at 98-64, the best record in baseball. They were going back to October and unlike 1990, they weren’t just happy to be there.

But the disappointments of October not only continued, they started to escalate. Pittsburgh was a solid favorite in the NLCS over the Cinderella story that was the Atlanta Braves, who had gone worst-to-first in the West. Little did anyone know, Atlanta was starting a dynasty that would last to 2005. Even though the Pirates held a 3-2 series lead, they lost the final two at home. A year later, in an NLCS rematch, they had the lead on Atlanta in Game 7 before the Braves rallied and won.

The early 1990s Pittsburgh Pirates never did reach a World Series. The franchise still awaits its first trip to the Fall Classic since the championship season of 1979. But they were consistently the best in the NL East in this period and by a lot.