They may regret it a couple of weeks from now, but citizens who vote the straight National League ticket are saying the playoff between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati is going to decide who's best in all baseball. Forget that American League East finish. Ignore Charlie Finley and his Oakland A's. Above all, disregard what Truman did to Dewey. The players who will be coming out on the field in Pittsburgh Saturday, say these party regulars, are just passing through town on their way to that little red building in Cooperstown.
To be sure, the same cities played for the pennant two years ago and the Reds won, but those Reds might have drawn a few don't-knows in the polls and those Pirates had yet to reveal their Maryland strategy in the 1971 World Series. Fact of the matter is, none of the previous six championship series had the quality this one promises. Consider how the Pirates and Reds warmed up last week. Roberto Clemente, he who walks on the Monongahela, slashed out the 3,000th hit of his career. Johnny Bench made it seven home runs in seven games. Steve Blass just missed becoming the first Pirate pitcher in a dozen years to win 20 games. Clay Carroll stalked out of the Cincinnati bullpen to set a major league record for saves: 36. The Reds' Pete Rose, he who slides on his tummy, was chasing after his sixth 200-hit season, and the Pirates' Al Oliver, supposedly third banana behind Clemente and Willie Stargell, was finishing out a campaign in which he will hit over .300, score nearly 90 runs and drive in another 90. Little Joe Morgan of Cincinnati was still scoring runs (121), stealing bases (56), drawing walks (112) and using that Little League glove of his to come close to the alltime record for fewest errors in a season by a second baseman (seven), held by Jackie Robinson.
All in all, the Pirates and Reds had dominated their league as no two National League teams since the start of divisional play. Everybody knows about the Pirates. They're the people with the bat rack that is constantly twitching and has to be chained down lest it become a UFO. At a time when the .275 hitter is supposedly a condemned species in the majors the Pirates have stockpiled 10 of them.
Stargell has had one of his biggest years, with a .294 batting average, 33 homers and 112 RBIs. "Willie is a better hitter with men on base than without," says Manager Bill Virdon. "When he is making contact, he is one of the best RBI men I have ever seen. He thrives when we have men in scoring position." But Willie hit his last homer on Sept. 4, and it might be a cause of concern for the Pirates that his batting average has dropped from .311 in the past few weeks.
For their part, the Reds did not get to the playoffs by sneaking past the gate guards. As the week ended they were only two victories short of Pittsburgh's total of 95—and, oh my, how they could carry on around those bases. The men at the top of the batting order, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Bobby Tolan, had scored 310 runs and stolen 107 bases. And the gag that goes, "Imagine how the Pirates and Reds would hit if they ever got a chance against their own pitching," is no longer valid. Pittsburgh had the second best pitching staff in the National League this season; Cincinnati's was third.
Still, it is conceivable that the Reds could come up a trifle short on the mound. Their top starter, Gary Nolan (14-5, 2.05 ERA), has recently had both an aching arm and a tooth that hurt so much it had to be pulled. But even if Nolan has not regained his form, Manager Sparky Anderson will not necessarily be morose. He can throw Lefthanders Don Gullett and Ross Grimsley at left-handed hitters like Stargell and Oliver and undoubtedly will get some starting mileage from Righthander Jack Billingham, too. Gullett, 21, recovered from hepatitis to have a rousing late season, topped by Sunday's one-hitter. Billingham, who was 4-9 at one point, won his 12th game last week.
Scouts will tell you that the two best arms in baseball may not be found on the mound, however, but in right field, where Clemente and Cesar Geronimo are employed. If it is true, as has often been suggested, that Roberto Clemente can throw a strawberry through a locomotive, then Geronimo can put one through the tender, the parlor car and two coaches.
Both Pittsburgh and Cincinnati have excellent bullpens. The Pirates' Dave Giusti has saved 22 games and Ramon Hernandez has an earned run average of 1.59. Besides Carroll, Cincinnati counts on Tom (The Blade) Hall, a lefthander small enough to ride at Latonia. His 10-1 divides out as the best pitching percentage in the land, and he has struck out 132 batters in 122 innings.
Neither team is timid about forcing the issue—going for the extra base, running to unsettle the defense, sliding hard to break up double plays. "The Reds," says Steve Blass, "know all about how well we hit and they are not intimidated. They beat us five of the last six times we played them—but then Clemente missed the five we lost. Clemente, in my opinion, is the most electrifying player in baseball. We are not the same team without him. He never seems to waste his hits; he makes them add up to something. But when we played the Reds—remember, we won only four of 12 on the season—we made mistakes we can't afford now. When you pitch against them you can't wait to get yourself into a groove. You have to be prepared physically and mentally to face those first three hitters."
In the Reds-Pirates playoff of 1970, Cincinnati swept Pittsburgh despite getting only nine runs and 22 hits in three games. Everyone had assumed it would be a hitter's playoff because the Reds had a team batting average of .2703, the Pirates .2700. Pittsburgh squandered opportunities by leaving 29 men on base against a Cincinnati pitching staff beset with physical problems. Says Anderson, "I think that we both played cautiously because it was the first time in a playoff for both of us. I don't anticipate that this time."