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BEGGING FOR A MIRACLE
Ron Fimrite
August 16, 1976
Like Pittsburgh's Frank Taveras, players on all four of baseball's second-place teams have been driven to their knees by lopsided division races. Will they be able to get back up? It's possible
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August 16, 1976

Begging For A Miracle

Like Pittsburgh's Frank Taveras, players on all four of baseball's second-place teams have been driven to their knees by lopsided division races. Will they be able to get back up? It's possible

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"You know why this series became so important?" said Pitcher Don Sutton. "Because we screwed up earlier. I really object to placing so much value on one four-game series. The games you win and lose in April are as important as those in September. But a lot of things can happen with 50 or so games to play. It's not time for us to pack up and plan our winter vacations yet. We're paid well to do a job. Where we are in the standings shouldn't make any difference in how we play. That doesn't change my job one bit. My sole purpose is to make it as tough as possible for the opposition to score. My self-interest and the team's interests are synonymous. That's true of any pitcher. I sometimes think it would be easier if none of us knew where we were in the standings. Maybe they could just tell us at the end of the year."

Though they insist they are not scoreboard-watchers, the Dodgers and the Pirates, the Orioles and the A's cannot help but lift their gaze to the increasingly confident fellows on the next rung up the ladder. The pressure is now on the second-place clubs to improve their station. Time is not an ally.

"If we can play .750 baseball and the Phillies play .500, we can catch them," says Giusti. That seems a fairly accurate calculation. The Miracle Braves won 34 of 44 games during one span in their climb from last to first. And it may not be necessary for any of this season's challengers to get quite that hot—at least not until some crucial games in September. It is a baseball axiom that, unless the team ahead of you collapses, the best you can do by improving your own play is gain one game in the standings per week. With eight weeks to go in the regular season, the four second-place clubs are all out of time according to that schedule—but not by much. And each of them has five or six games against its division leader next month. If the Pirates, Dodgers, A's and Orioles can chip away at the games-behind column in the four weeks ahead, then those September series will offer them an opportunity to win their divisions in head-to-head battles. Just that sort of thing has happened four times in the past 12 seasons. After all, it does not matter who is in first until the last day of the season. The fold-up Phillies of 1964 were in the lead for a total of 134 days; the pennant-winning Cardinals were there for six. The 1969 Cubs were first for 154 consecutive days, but they were not there at the finish.

What seems to be indicated for all the contenders are a few more games like the one the Pirates played against the Cardinals last week. Behind 1-0 with two outs in the ninth, Pittsburgh tied the game on Bob Robertson's broken-bat single that scored Robinson, who had led off the inning with a hit. Giusti, a loser the night before, snuffed out a Cardinal rally in the top of the 12th, then led off the bottom of the inning by drawing a walk from St. Louis Pitcher Mike Wallace. Stennett's attempted sacrifice forced Giusti, but he atoned for the gaffe by stealing second to keep the scoring possibility alive. He advanced to third as Tommy Helms rolled a single into short left. When Parker grounded sharply to Shortstop Don Kessinger, who was drawn in to cut off the run, Stennett broke for the plate. Kessinger's throw to Catcher Joe Ferguson was at eye level, and Stennett slid under the tag for the winning run.

The modest crowd of 8,426 cheered robustly. Their Pirates, their not-always-beloved Bucs, had gotten through another day without losing more ground to the Phillies. They had scored only six runs in their last five games, but they had won two of them. The once-feared Lumber Company seemed now to be in the business of manufacturing toothpicks.

Murtaugh rocked away in his office after the fine extra-inning effort. He was savoring it, possibly commending himself for his tactical genius in the face of increasing odds. But he still seemed troubled by the pregame suggestion that some of his players already might have set this season aside and begun playing for next year's salary increase. He rocked back and forth, the chair's squeaks the only sound in the room. "Now there," he finally said, "is precisely the kind of game I had in mind. You could see we haven't given up. That kind of game tells you everything." Indeed, reports of the Pirates' death had been exaggerated, at least for the moment.

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