SI Vault
William Leggett
September 24, 1973
In the National League's daffy East Division Pittsburgh lurched into first place, but close behind were the Expos, the Cardinals and the Mets
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September 24, 1973

Churned By The Gut-grinder

In the National League's daffy East Division Pittsburgh lurched into first place, but close behind were the Expos, the Cardinals and the Mets

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Last Friday in St. Louis, Virdon sat with Murtaugh behind a closed door and the two men talked. Afterward, because he had had no chance since his dismissal to talk to the Pirate players, Virdon addressed them. "I thanked them for the wonderful years they gave me," he reported. "I told them I hoped that they would win the division, the pennant and the World Series. I couldn't leave them without that. That clubhouse is filled with some mighty fine men." Of his firing, Virdon said, "It's just one of those things, like so many others, that you learn to live with." That night Virdon sat in a box next to the Pirates' dugout and watched the team beat St. Louis 3-1 in yet another game filled with arguments, rugged body contact and fearfully close plays.

So Murtaugh was back in charge—but of a team that had neither the overpowering hitting nor dependable pitching of his last Series club. The only Pirate belting the ball consistently was Willie Stargell, who has not gone hitless in more than two consecutive games all season, has a .301 average and has been batting .360 this month.

The case of Steve Blass suggested the level of the pitching problems. Blass won 19 games for the 1972 Pirates. When he was returned to the starting rotation by Murtaugh last week after an inexplicably disastrous 1973, he was 3-7 with an ERA over 10.00. "I had a good spring," said Blass, "and then everything went wrong. My body was all out of whack. There was no physical hurt. The last three months have been an emotional horror. But I had a feeling that when Danny came back he might take a shot with me." Murtaugh did and Blass pitched well, giving up only two runs in five innings, and if in the next two weeks he could....

And if he did, he would break every Gallic heart in Montreal, not to mention those of the Anglos. For up there in second place, up beyond the Cardinals, up there with their funny caps and all (no, they do not come with spinners) were the astonishing Expos. With autumn's icy breath whistling in, wags could assert that visiting teams would need goalies, not pitchers, if the Expos made it into the playoffs and Series, but for the moment at least a couple of Montreal pitchers were frostproof. Mike Marshall was a marvel of a reliever, and Steve Rogers, just 23, had started 13 games for the Expos and posted an earned run average of a nice round one. Kid pitchers do not do that in the major leagues, not even in John R. Tunis novels. "He's like Will Rogers," says Coach Dave Bristol. "He never saw a ground ball he didn't like." Rogers does not strike out many, but he does not grant many walks. He has given up only three homers in more than 100 innings. He throws the ball low and confusingly.

"My father used to catch me back home in Jefferson City, Mo.," he says. "The ball kept sinking. It would bounce in front of him. So he bought a pair of shin guards. It bounced a little higher, so he bought a chest protector. When it got to the point where he had to have a mask, he stopped catching me."

Overall, Rogers is 9-3, but against teams in the East he is 7-0. "Forget that he's a rookie," says Manager Mauch. "Just tell me who else of any age had an ERA of one in the National League after 13 starts?" And no need to tell the Mets about Ken Singleton, the strong young outfielder that New York traded north. He is batting over .300 and will finish the season with more than 100 runs both scored and batted in. He already has 105 walks.

Dizzying feats, these, but for a case of vertigo unmatched since Hitchcock put Jimmy Stewart out on a ledge one must look to St. Louis. Remember, the Cardinals are the folks who lost 20 of their first 25 games. And won 19 of their next 25. And have won exactly five games in September. And Bob Gibson is hurt. The Cardinals' loss to Pittsburgh Saturday was their seventh in a row. Their record against left-handed pitchers is 21-32, and Pirate rookie Dave Parker wore them out by hitting .571 against them. (On Saturday Parker doubled in the three-run Pirate first inning and hit a home run with two on in the seventh. Said Cardinal Manager Red Schoendienst: "The pitcher threw him a forkball that didn't fork." Parker ate it up.)

Yes, and Matty Alou took the full 72 hours allotted him before reporting after his purchase from the Yankees. He might have helped St. Louis in two close games in Chicago if he had arrived promptly. In a span of eight days the Cards went from three games on top to two behind. There were bright spots—Lou Brock had hit safely in 29 of his last 32 games and the club had gone over the 1.4-million attendance mark for the eighth time but the troubles accumulated; while losing their seven in a row the Cardinals scored only 14 runs, three times filling the bases with nobody out and failing to score. Yet after losing Friday and Saturday to Pittsburgh the Cards turned around and defeated the Pirates on Sunday, the go-ahead run a 440-foot pinch home run by ex-Astro Tommie Agee. In this strange and wonderful season only a fool would count the Cardinals out.

Or the Mets, those believers in—and needers of—miracles. The oracle of the East, sort of, is Manager Yogi Berra. In the spring Berra said 85 victories might be enough to win in the East. People laughed. In August, at a time when his crippled team was playing poorly, he predicted that the Mets would be in the pennant race. Folks guffawed. But last week everybody was paying strict and sober attention as Berra reached into his pitching bag and brought out victory after victory. Such was the performance of Tom Seaver, Jon Matlack, Jerry Koosman, Tug McGraw et al. that Met fans became incorrigible brooders over their team's inability to score runs, repeating at the drop of a bunt that, "You can't win when the other teams keep shutting you out."

It wasn't quite that bad. The Mets have been shut out 15 times this season, but the Pirates have gone scoreless 12. O.K., so they beat the Cubs by only 4-3 Sunday. So they had to do it with a bunt single. You're not a New Yorker if you don't gripe. And the fact is Reliever McGraw had saved another Met victory in the first game of Saturday's doubleheader—his sixth save in 11 days—and Rusty Staub, for whom the Mets had traded much precious cargo to Montreal, including Singleton, was hitting again after a bad slump.

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