- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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The most frightful nightmares currently disturbing the National League must be those that arrive in the small hours to inflict themselves upon pitchers assigned to face the Pittsburgh Pirates. Sinewy, determined men wielding clubs stride endlessly to the plate—grinning hideously no doubt in anticipation of ridiculing the pitcher, deminking his wife and impoverishing his children. In recent weeks the defending world champions have been mistreating everyone in sight. From May 3 through last weekend they won 34 games and lost only 12 to achieve a percentage of .739, extraordinarily high for that length of time in a federation that always leans to fratricide.
At one time or another during this long hot streak the Pirates scored 13 runs against the Dodgers in a game televised nationally, scored 12 runs in two other games and 11 in yet another. The team batting average soared as high as .291 and even Outfielder Al Oliver, supposedly a slow-starting hitter, was among the league leaders in both batting average and runs batted in. Naturally, one of those whose average was higher was Catcher Manny Sanguillen and one of those usually leading him in RBIs was Willie Stargell, who plays the outfield and first base. The Pirates have had some delightful hitting stretches: Dave Cash has the longest (19 games) in the league for the year, Oliver the next longest at 18, Richie Hebner the third at 16 and Sanguillen last week was tied for the fourth longest with 15. All the while Roberto Clemente was slashing toward 3,000 hits, and in the process passed Pie Traynor's club record for RBIs.
Clemente was standing outside the batting cage at Chicago's Wrigley Field last Friday afternoon when he was approached by a member of the ground crew. The weather was harsh, the early arrivals were just starting to make noise and Clemente was rolling his head around and around in that familiar gesture that he contends removes stiffness from his neck. "How goes it, Roberto?" the groundskeeper asked.
Clemente's handsome face broke into a wide smile. "O.K.," he said, "O.K. Some days I hit, some days they fool me. You can't ask for more than that."
Clemente, his aches and his torrid bat are familiar Pittsburgh fare, but Al Oliver is something new. Or to put it differently, there is a new Oliver—maybe even an All-Star one. Oliver, 25, is a left-handed hitter who used to kick so many balls on defense that he was known as Pel�. No longer. He catches 'em and keeps 'em. And he has been producing more total bases than any other Pirate. Last year Oliver hit a respectable .282, but when you hit only .282 in Pittsburgh you are belittled by other players. "When this season is over," Oliver said Saturday after blasting a seventh-inning home run against the Cubs, "I think I will be a .300 hitter. If you don't hit .300 on the Pirates, you don't play."
"As a team," says Bob Miller, a pitcher who has played for five division or pennant winners, "the Pirates are deeper than the Pacific Ocean." Steve Blass (see cover), who is leading all National League pitchers with a record of 9-1, regards Pittsburgh's hitters as so awesome that "it frightens me to watch them take batting practice. You wonder what they might do to you if you were traded away. Just think. Clemente, Stargell, Sanguillen, Oliver. All coming up to hit against you, and knowing every pitch you throw."
This week the season moves into July, a vital month for the Pirates, for they face a host of hard-hitting teams: Chicago, Houston, Atlanta, Cincinnati and New York—a prolonged test of Pittsburgh's pitching. Last season the Pirates ripped through July and left the Cubs, Mets and Cardinals grasping at shadows. At present Pittsburgh seems to be on its way to at least another divisional championship, yet nobody refers to it as "the best damn team in baseball" or hints that a mini-dynasty might be abuilding at the confluence of the Allegheny and the Monongahela. "Pirate pitching," the worriers say, "is still suspect." In happy moments they phrase it: "With those hitters, your mother could pitch for the Pirates."
During Pittsburgh's surge attention centered, as usual, on the team's sluggers, who were amassing an average of five runs a game. Less visible was the fact that Pirate pitchers had given up only 2.8. At one stage they turned in four consecutive shutouts. Dock Ellis, Dave Giusti, Ramon Hernandez, Bob Miller and Bob Johnson all worked in one glorious 18-inning, 1-0 win over San Diego. During the 46-game drive, the pitchers gave up three runs or fewer 32 times, and your mother sure can't do that. What is more, at times the Pirates have used a seven-man starting rotation—a display of wealth that other teams must find depressing.
The Pirates have not produced a 20-game winner since Vernon Law in 1960, and they may not produce one this year, either. A deep staff means a pitcher has fewer chances to win his 20. "I believe that this pitching staff is the best we have had in the 19 years I have been with the club," says General Manager Joe Brown. "It has a depth and versatility not present in other years. Yes, we do have seven men who can start [ Blass, Ellis, Nelson Briles, Bob Moose, Luke Walker, Johnson and Bruce Kison] and some of them can also be used in relief. This gives Manager Bill Virdon even more maneuverability."
On Friday afternoon a packed Wrigley Field was given a painful demonstration of Pittsburgh's mound power. The Cubs had also been on a hot streak, having won 32 of their last 46 games. The pitching match-up was a delight: Ferguson Jenkins against Blass, pitching star of the 1971 World Series and the winner of seven consecutive games.