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A BIRDBATH FOR THE PIRATES
Ron Fimrite
October 18, 1971
The Bucs were keelhauled and hung out to dry as the Orioles, in their most relentless fashion, ran off to a two-game Series lead
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October 18, 1971

A Birdbath For The Pirates

The Bucs were keelhauled and hung out to dry as the Orioles, in their most relentless fashion, ran off to a two-game Series lead

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It is perhaps inevitable of Murtaugh's counterpart on the Orioles that he should worry, even in the beginning, as much about the Pirates' weaknesses as about their strength. Before the Series opened, Earl Weaver was pensive, his Mickey Rooney features stilled for once. He was trying hard to think of a way the Pirates could wrest the championship from his Orioles. It is always wise for a major league manager to have such unpleasant thoughts, for even the best of teams—Weaver's included—can be beaten in unsuspected ways. Remember what happened to the Orioles in 1969. Still, it seemed Weaver was stretching even his own formidable capacity for stone un-turning when he finally concluded, "They have great arms on that pitching staff. We will just have to hope their pitchers all have bad days."

Weaver may be the only man in his business who ever gave a thought to Pittsburgh pitching. It is Pittsburgh hitting that commands the respect of more ordinary thinkers. Clemente, Stargell, Sanguillen, Robertson—these were names to be reckoned with; Pittsburgh pitching was useful only for complying with the regulation that says both teams must have a turn at bat before an inning is completed. For the Pittsburgh team it is an obligation to be fulfilled between licks.

But then Weaver had to fret about something. Worrying is a tool of his calling. And when a baseball manager can turn loose three 20-game winning pitchers on his opponent and keep a fourth in reserve for unlikely emergencies, well how is he going to scare himself silly over the other guy's hitting? No, the only thing left to brood about as Weaver approached the Series was pitching, or whatever they call it in Pittsburgh.

Danny Murtaugh had many more legitimate concerns. Baltimore pitching was the best in baseball. The Baltimore defense was the best in baseball—so good that in the opener Weaver could bench Paul Blair, whom he considers to be the game's best outfielder, in favor of a bigger hitter, Merv Rettenmund. And Baltimore hitting would be the best in baseball if Pittsburgh's was not. But Murtaugh is, like Weaver, a baseball academic to whom the obvious is contemptible. Habitually, he scurries about the laboratory, experimenting with lefty-righty batting orders and suicide squeeze plays, content to let the monster with the bat in his hand lie dormant and shackled on the slab until needed—and then, sometimes it is too late.

Such curiosity is, under ordinary circumstances, admirable, but in the final analysis it is the players who must play the game. Even in the opening win by the Orioles it was obvious that managerial cerebration went for nothing. The players simply refused to perform as programmed.

Murtaugh, seeking an advantage over Weaver's left-handed pitcher, Dave McNally, benched two left-handed batters, Richie Hebner and Al Oliver, who between them hit 31 home runs and batted in 131 runs during the regular season, in favor of two right-handed batters, Jose Pagan and Gene Clines, who between them hit six home runs and batted in 39 runs. Righties Pagan and Clines went 0 for 8 against McNally. As for Murtaugh's suicide squeeze, it worked just fine—if only because the best defense in baseball went comically bad for one inning.

Most everyone conceded that even Pittsburgh's fierce batsmen would have trouble making fools out of Baltimore's consummate fielders. Then, in the second inning, this theory was also given the lie. With Bob Robertson on second base by means of a walk and a wild pitch, Manny Sanguillen hit a hard ground ball to the ordinarily impeccable Oriole shortstop, Mark Belanger. Robertson, ignorant apparently of Belanger's reputation for alertness, foolishly attempted to advance to third. Sure enough, Belanger threw to Brooks Robinson in ample time to catch the sliding Robertson. But the ball bounced off Robertson's batting helmet and he scored easily. Sanguillen, meanwhile, moved to second. He was on third moments later when McNally fielded Jack Hernandez' squeeze bunt. The pitcher then tossed quickly to Catcher Elrod Hendricks who, as he later explained, "Never saw the ball." It bounded past him for error No. 2. The Pirates scored their third run of the inning and last of the game when Dave Cash singled to center field, scoring Hernandez. It was an improbable Baltimore inning—two errors, three unearned runs.

But McNally mowed down the Pirates' right-wing platoon the remaining seven innings, retiring, in one stretch, 19 consecutive batters. He finished with a tidy three-hitter and nine strikeouts.

Weaver's concern over Pittsburgh pitching didn't trouble him for long. Frank Robinson homered for one run, Rettenmund homered for three more and Don Buford homered for yet another, and the game was won.

If Weaver ever feared Pirate pitching, his outfielders never saw reason to do so. They were surprised, they said after the first game, that Pittsburgh starter Dock Ellis was not faster. The always solicitous Rettenmund told reporters he knew from past experience that Ellis had a better fastball than he exhibited on Saturday. Ellis and Murtaugh agreed, although Ellis' explanation seemed flawed in logic.

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