Friday, March 28, 2008

the title that got away

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"One and two. The wind and the pitch to Bench. Change—hit in the air to deep right field! Back goes Clemente! At the fence—she's gone! Johnny Bench, who hits almost every home run to left field, hits one to right! The game is tied!"

“The stretch and the one-two pitch to McRae. In the dirt—it's a wild pitch! Here comes Foster! The Reds win the pennant!"

Al Michaels' calls from the fifth game of the 1972 NLCS.

Dropping the 1972 National League Championship Series to the Reds was not the most pleasant way for Bill Virdon to finish his first season as manager of the Pirates.

"I thought we were the best club in baseball that year," he said. "We had good left-handed hitters in Stargell, Oliver, and Hebner, and from the right side we had Clemente. Our pitching was deep, and maybe we lacked some speed, but we really didn't need it."

To prove his point, even with Clemente out for over 50 games, the Bucs won 96 games and took the NL East by 11 games. Many people thought that this team was the best Pirate squad of the 70s. Then it was off to face the Big Red Machine and heartbreak.

Pittsburgh only needed three outs to win the NLCS and get to the World Series. They would never get them.

Pirate's closer Dave Giusti gave up the game-tying homer to Johnny Bench on a hanging change-up to open the ninth. Tony PĂ©rez singled and was replaced by pinch-runner George Foster. Denis Menke singled, and the Pirates yanked Giusti for Bob Moose.

A right-hander who had pitched 226 innings with 30 starts in 1972, Moose was called to the mound while Reds' manager Sparky Anderson sent George Foster in to run for Perez at second base with the potential winning run.

Moose got the next batter, Cesar Geronimo, on a fly to Clemente in deep right field. Foster tagged and went to third on the play. Chaney then popped up to Gene Alley at short for the second out. Hal McRae pinch-it for Cincinnati reliever Clay Carroll.

With a one-ball, two-strike count on McRae, Moose threw a slider. It bounced away from catcher Manny Sanguillen who tried to backhand the ball instead of blocking it. Foster scored from third base, sparking a wild Cincy celebration and giving the Reds a 4-3 victory and the National League pennant.

When Moose's pitch skipped away from Sanguillen and Foster headed for the plate, Sparky Anderson almost collapsed in the Reds' dugout. He had to be helped to the team's dressing room. Anderson said "I was just excited."

After the game, Moose said, "I was trying to waste the pitch by throwing a slider outside. When I let it go, I knew it was outside where I wanted it. I didn't think that low, but when it started going down, I figured it would bounce up and hit Manny in the stomach. But it took a crazy hop over his head. How many times have you seen a bounce that high?"

"It looked like it hit something," said Sanguillen. "I jumped for the ball and it came up, but it hit me on the hand. It never touched my glove."

Charlie Feeney, a baseball writer for the Post-Gazette covered the final playoff game and stayed for the World Series. "I met so many scouts there," he said, "and they all asked me the same thing: 'What the hell was the matter with Sanguillen backhanding that ball? How could he do that?'"

"I was in the dugout when Moose threw the wild pitch," said Giusti, "I saw the whole thing. It was not a good time for me."

"After the game, Roberto was one of the first to come over and pat me on the back. He said, 'It's just one game. You've got a long career ahead of you. If you and your family are doing well, that's the most important thing in life.'"

"Strange, I still dream about that game once in a while. And I think about Moose. He did a helluva job for us that season except for that one pitch."

Moose was vilified for that pitch, but defeat had many fathers in this case. Guisti got wracked in that fateful ninth inning, Sangy couldn't block the pitch, and Pops had his worst playoff series ever, going 1-16.

Alley outdid him, going 0-16, and the silent Buc bats left the onus on the pitching staff. And the home run and wild pitch both came on 1-2 pitches. One wasn't wasted enough; the other too much.

The Reds to a man had nothing but good things to say about the Bucs afterwards, saying the two best teams in baseball had just played in the NLCS. But they couldn't back up the talk and lost in 7 games to Oakland in the World Series.

It was a crushing defeat in more ways than one. The pall in the Pirates' clubhouse after the game was an omen for the upcoming season. Clemente died weeks later in a plane crash while trying to deliver humanitarian supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.
Then Steve Blass lost his control, leaving a gaping hole in Pittsburgh's rotation and eventually ending his career. The Pirates would stumble to a third-place finish and sub .500 record in 1973. It may have been a more bitter loss than the Atlanta defeat two decades later, though thankfully not as long lasting.

(Taken in large part from "Heartbreakers: Baseball's Most Agonizing Defeats" by John Kuenster.)

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