- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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With his wife recovering, Stargell is prepared for an all-out stretch drive against the powerful Phillies. "I'm not happy about the fact we're so far behind," he says. "Nobody likes to lose, but what do you do? Do you just tuck in your tail, or is it worthwhile to grind? I know it's worthwhile to grind. When you come up short it shouldn't be because you didn't give your best. It's like a guy trapped in a mine. When he finally sees that light, does he stop digging?"
Stargell is indisputably a digger, and so are most of his teammates, notably Frank Taveras, a shortstop who hit only .212 last year. He is over .250 now and is tied for the league lead in stolen bases with 37, an accomplishment so unexpected from a member of the largely immobile Pirates that he has been awarded the nickname Pittsburgh Stealer. Other outstanding Pirates are Al Oliver, who has been among the batting leaders all season; 33-year-old Bill Robinson, who has emerged with 18 homers and a batting average near .320 after eight years of mostly warming benches; and Jim Rooker, an outspoken pitcher.
But when a team seems to be fading from contention with each passing day, the digging becomes a bit more difficult for the less resourceful players. Those few who are content merely to go through the motions infuriate a competitor as fierce as Rooker. After winning his ninth game of the season, a tidy six-hit, 2-1 effort over St. Louis one night last week, Rooker unburdened himself of a few "honest opinions."
The Phillies, he said, "are not uncatchable. And yet I've heard other players around here saying, 'The season's over, let's play for ourselves.' That's selfish, and I don't believe it's fair. It's disappointing, discouraging and frustrating—yes, all of those things—to be on a team with so much talent and be so far out. I just don't believe the Phillies are 13 games better than we are. But they're playing fundamental baseball, and we haven't been. I'll be the first to admit our pitching is not as good as it should be, but our hitting has been worse. And our defense stinks. We've never been known for defense. We're an offensive club, and this year 'offensive' can be taken two ways.
"We're still playing the old Pirate brand of baseball—wait for the big inning—but the power hasn't been there. Taveras has helped because of his running, but he's the only one doing it. The trouble is, we have the same atmosphere around here, win or lose. You never see guys at each other's throats, no hot words or any of that. We all get along well, and I like that. There are no boys on this club, only men, but I think we need to be a little more emotional. We need somebody to psych us up. That's why I admire Pete Rose so much. He gets people fired up. We could use a firebrand like that. The Reds have great team enthusiasm. We just don't have it here. I'm not saying the team is down. But there are always individuals who get down, and that attitude can be contagious. We're not out of this race yet, but we've got to start putting out 110%."
The Pirates might be able to muscle back into the race by merely getting 100% normal performances during the last two months of the season from Richie Hebner, who is hitting only .226; Rennie Stennett, who has a .266 average; Manny Sanguillen, who has driven in just 26 runs; Dave Parker, who had 25 homers last year and has seven this season; and Reliever Dave Giusti, who is just rounding into shape after being out with an injury. The other second-place teams can all produce similar lists—Dave Lopes' injuries and .231 average for Los Angeles, Vida Blue's 9-10 record for Oakland and Mike Cuellar's 5.06 ERA for Baltimore are a few examples—and they constitute a major source for hope in such dreary situations. But hope will have to be converted in happenings in the very near future, or even hope will be gone.
It might be thought that players who are enduring individually subpar seasons while playing for teams far from the lead have already given up. Murtaugh rejects any such idea. His bulldog countenance folds into a scowl at the suggestion that a player may simply be putting in his time. "I have never seen a major league player give up. I've never seen a hitter who didn't try to get a hit. I've never seen an infielder who didn't try to catch the ball. I've never seen a pitcher who didn't try to get everybody out. No club in baseball gives up the chase until it is mathematically eliminated. In the past we've been the chasee, now we're the chaser. That's the difference." The rocking chair squeaked furiously.
When a team is the chaser and a trifle down on its luck ( Murtaugh also thinks luck is overemphasized), strange and unpleasant things frequently happen to it. In a recent game against Montreal, Stargell hit a ninth-inning line drive that seemed certain to bounce between the outfielders for a double. Instead, it hit Umpire Billy Williams and ricocheted into the glove of the second baseman, who threw Stargell out at first. The next batter got the hit that would have tied the game. The Pirates ended up losing 7-6.
The Dodgers were not without frustrations of their own last week. Trailing by nine, they met Cincinnati in a four-game series at Dodger Stadium. A Los Angeles sweep would have put the team within reach of the top. Instead, the Dodgers lost all four and found themselves looking up from a still deeper hole. Even Righthander Rick Rhoden, who was unbeaten after nine decisions, lost 7-4 to the Reds. "The minimum we wanted was three wins," said Lopes after the Reds had won the first two games. "You have to beat the team you're chasing. It's that simple."
"I hate to see the importance of these games magnified so early," said First Baseman Steve Garvey. "It's a little hard to start your finishing kick in August, but we have to put some pressure on the Reds. As professionals we can't allow ourselves to get too discouraged. We know exactly what we have to do and that we have to do it ourselves. We'll just have to make this thing as exciting as possible."