The Pirates used to be spooked by the Mets. But whatever hold New York had over Pittsburgh was broken last week when the Bucs swept a three-game series from the Mets at Three Rivers Stadium to take a 3�-game lead in the National League East. "We've developed a sixth sense on this club," says Pittsburgh center-fielder Andy Van Slyke. "It's not made of fear or intimidation, as it was a couple of years ago."
Pirate manager Jim Leyland has a more down-to-earth explanation for his team's atrocious, 36-72 record against the Mets from 1984 through '89. "They were just a lot better than us," says Leyland. "If we played our best game, and they played theirs, they'd win. If we won, it would be a freak thing."
Now Pittsburgh is clearly the better team. Which Mets could start every day for the Pirates? You would have to find spots for outfielder Darryl Strawberry and infielder Howard Johnson. But first baseman Dave Magadan would probably play against righthanders. Infielder Gregg Jefferies would be only a part-timer, because he is inferior defensively to second baseman Jose Lind and third baseman Jeff King. King has established himself as a key part of the Pirate attack, hitting .251 with 13 homers and 51 RBIs through Sunday. "If he keeps playing like this," says Van Slyke, "they'll carve his face on [ Pittsburgh's] Mount Washington."
Managerial savvy? Leyland, now in his fifth year, will probably win the National League's Manager of the Year award. His counterpart on the Mets, Bud Harrelson, is a rookie and sometimes shows it. Bench strength? " Pittsburgh has really improved [in that area]," says New York pitcher Ron Darling, pointing to veterans like Wally Back-man, Gary Redus, Sid Bream and Carmelo Martinez.
The Mets' starting rotation is obviously superior to Pittsburgh's, which is why New York cannot be discounted down the stretch. The Mets also have a better bullpen, led by closer John Franco. Nonetheless, it was the Pirates' pitching—mostly lefthanded—that did in New York last week. Southpaw Zane Smith's one-hit, 1-0 masterpiece in the Sept. 5 series opener was one of the best-pitched games in the big leagues this season. Smith has a 49-66 career record, but he has a 2.34 ERA versus the Mets and is 3-0 against them this year. And he's not the only lefty who has New York's number. At week's end, the Mets were only 22-27 against lefthanders.
On Sept. 5 southpaw Neal Heaton—with relief help from another lefty, Bob Kipper, and righthander Ted Power—won the second part of the double-header 3-1. That win improved Pittsburgh's record in twin bills this year to 10-0. The next night, another lefthander, Randy Tomlin, up from Double A, stopped New York on three hits in a 7-1 win.
Joe McIlvaine, the Mets' vice-president of baseball operations, seemed unshaken by his team's poor showing. "We play 162 games—these were three bad ones," he said. "We'll bounce back."
They probably will. If they [do, the division race may still be undecided when the Mets return to Pittsburgh in the final week of the season. The Pirates won't be intimidated. "We've had the Mets shoved down our throats all year," says pitching coach Ray Miller. "We're tired of hearing Mets, Mets, Mets. Not enough people notice what we do."
Now they do.