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Since George Brunet made his first appearance in professional baseball in 1953 his travelogue reads like a commercial for the nation's feeder airlines. As the sun sets slowly over lovely Shelby, N.C., we find Brunet wending his way to Alexandria, La., Seminole, Okla., Hot Springs, Ark., Crowley, La., etc. Eventually the sun was to set on George Brunet in 16 different minor league spas all the way to Vancouver and Hawaii, not to mention the seven major league franchises he visited—four of which either changed their names or left town. George Brunet has been around.
Yet last Saturday afternoon in Shea Stadium in New York, Brunet threw what may well prove to be the most important pitch of his nomadic career. The Pirates were leading the Mets 2-1 in the eighth inning of the second game of their critical weekend series when Manager Danny Murtaugh called Brunet in from the bullpen with a runner on second base and one out. As he stood on the mound talking to Brunet and Catcher Manny Sanguillen, Murtaugh somehow became a caricature, a synthesis of all three beleaguered managers in this tense, frustrating, often comical race for the championship of the National League's Eastern Division. A pack of chewing tobacco protruded slightly from the left rear pocket of Murtaugh's pants and he scratched the back of his neck as he probed at the ground with his spikes. He needed an out—now. So he explained carefully to Brunet how to get it, how to pitch to the Mets' Art Shamsky, who was hitting .306. Then he walked back to his dugout, arms dangling at his side, the normally smile-wrinkled Irish face now set hard in the bright September sunshine.
Brunet threw one pitch and Shamsky popped it up to the perfect spot, to Gene Alley at shortstop, where it would give the straining Pirates the least trouble. Murtaugh came up out of his dugout again, relieved Brunet and gave him a slap on the back. A few minutes later a double play ended the game with the score still 2-1. Only in a pennant race such as this one in 1970 could a 2-1 game involve seven different pitchers.
A year from now, 10 years from now, there will be those who remember this race—but how? "The pennant nobody wants," the news services are calling it, but that is what they seem to say every fall. "The year of the second guess" might be better, if not a great deal more original. With the Pirates, Cubs and Mets locked together like a troika since early July, second-guessing Managers Murtaugh, Leo Durocher and Gil Hodges (see cover) has become so contagious that the three are probably second-guessing themselves. They also are showing the pressure in other ways. Hodges, for example, has resumed smoking after a two-year layoff. Durocher occasionally abandons his ulcer-quieting milk for a good belt of the old snakebite remedy. The other evening in New York, as Murtaugh fought to get a piece of pizza pie into his mouth, his hands were trembling. And all three mumble to themselves. The sacred statistics of baseball actually indicate that none of the three teams can win. While the Pirates led the second-place Cubs by two games and third-place New York by 3½, their winning percentage was only .539, and no baseball team has ever won anything with a figure as low as that. The previous worst finishes were the accomplishments of the 1959 Los Angeles Dodgers, who won in the National League by playing .564 ball, and the Boston Red Sox, American League winners in 1967 with a .568 average. This season the longest winning streak put together by any of the three contenders since the All-Star break was five by the Pirates. The Cubs and Mets each won four in a row. Hooray.
The longest winning streak of the year in the Eastern Division of the National League, in fact, was compiled back in April. Then the Cubs won all their games during a 10-day home stand, added another victory in the first game on the road—and have since lost one game for each game they have won. The streak alone has kept Chicago in the race.
At times it seemed that no matter how poorly the Cubs or Pirates or Mets performed, they could not play themselves out of contention. Of course they could not play their way beyond contention, either. Over the past two weeks there were some eerie games. Pittsburgh won 5-4 in Chicago with two ninth-inning home runs and a botched bunt by the Cubs. The game the next day, the last meeting of the season between the two, should have been crucial. It was not. At the time Pittsburgh held a half-game lead over New York and was two games ahead of Chicago. A win probably would have sent the Cubs into hibernation for the winter. The Pirates took a 2-1 lead into the bottom of the ninth inning and had two outs with nobody on when Willie Smith hit a fly ball to center field. The ball game. But no. A strong wind pushed the ball back toward the infield, and Centerfielder Matty Alou, when he finally caught up to it, dropped it, thus bringing up the first three men in the Cub batting order. They hit consecutive singles to send the Pirates on to Philadelphia in shock. Surely they would not come out soon. They did, immediately. They won twice before reverting to their previous comatose state and losing the third game to a squeeze bunt. Their own tying run was thrown out at the plate in the ninth inning. Horrors—except at the same time the Cubs were losing two out of three to the Cards, the Mets two out of three to the Expos.
For all its ups and downs, there is a certain consistency to Pittsburgh's record. Since July 11 the Pirates have been out of first place for only two days and, according to Murtaugh, "The main reason we are in first place is Dave Giusti." Willie Stargell, who at one point in early May was hitting in the .100s and is now up around .270, agrees with Murtaugh and adds: "We had an awful lot of problems with our pitching during spring training. Three of our starters were hurt and I know that all the pitchers just got together and dedicated themselves to erasing their reputation as a bad staff. They took pride in their work and we pitch a lot better than some people are willing to give us credit for."
Giusti, with a master's degree in education from Syracuse University, admits, "I was awful during the exhibition games. I went to spring training hoping to be a starter but I couldn't get anybody out. I was so bad it was unbelievable. When the season started I was going to be the long relief man and try to work myself out of the bullpen."
Murtaugh takes no credit at all for Giusti's emergence as one of the season's top relief pitchers. "To tell the truth," he says, "what happened was a case of plain old luck. We got in a jam one night and I needed a short man and called Dave in from the bullpen to do a job. He did it and the following night he did it again."
Last weekend Giusti did the job three times against New York, saving the first two games and winning the fourth. He all but permanently throttled the Mets who, with nine games to go, were 3½ games behind Pittsburgh and 1½ games behind Chicago. New York's one last chance to save its world championship comes this weekend, when it meets the Pirates—and Giusti—again. The odds do not favor the Mets. Giusti has finished 46 of the first 152 games the Pirates have played. His won-lost record is 9-3 and he has saved 25 games. "The demanding aspect of the job," he says, "is self-confidence in your own ability. I didn't know if I was going to like it when I started relieving, but I gave it quite a bit of thought and realized that with a club like ours, which can score runs, the advantages were mine. I try to prepare myself by being aware of the situation at all times and concentrating on the hitters."