"We can't come from behind anymore," says one team official. Tekulve's failure to get a save in the second Philadelphia defeat was the most recent in a series of five abysmal performances by him since Aug. 26. In that time he has had an ERA of 5.65 and has lost four games in nine outings—three at the hands of Atlanta, a team that has beaten Pittsburgh 11 of 12 times this season.
Earlier this season, Tekulve watched fellow submariner Dan Quisenberry of Kansas City on television and noticed something he was doing wrong. Tekulve called Quisenberry that night and tipped him off. Since then Quisenberry has been superb—he has a chance to set the major league record for the highest combined total of wins and saves in a year—and he has been most appreciative of Tekulve's help. He sent his tutor a card on Father's Day, thanking him for, as it were, fathering his pitch. Now the quip in Pittsburgh is that Tekulve is hoping Quisenberry will get a glimpse of him on television so that Quisenberry can correct his delivery. In the meantime, Tekulve is making do with what's available to him. The other night in St. Louis an idea came to him in the middle of the night, and he hopped out of bed in his underwear to practice throwing in front of the motel mirror. "I think I've corrected it now," he says. "The ball just wasn't moving the way I wanted it to."
But he wasn't able to test it out in a game right away because Pittsburgh's starting pitching has been superb of late, the one bright spot down the stretch. Wednesday the Pirates ended a five-game losing streak by beating the Cardinals 7-6, and the next night Bert Blyleven, who has been critical of Tanner's early hook all year, pitched a complete 2-1 game. It was before that game that the Pirates got the word that Stargell's knee was healing more slowly than had been hoped and that he would be out for two more weeks. The players called a team meeting to discuss the prospect of life without Pops. "If 25 grown men have to depend on one man to play well," said Tekulve, "it's a bad situation."
For Stargell, who has two years left on his contract, the injury could mean the end of his brilliant career after 19 seasons. The knee went on Aug. 17 as he turned away from an inside 3-1 pitch from Gullickson. "Mother nature said that's as far as you can go," he says. "The doctor said he didn't see how I could still stand. He said it looked like white-and-red cotton candy in there."
Stargell had been told he'd be able to play in three weeks, in time for last weekend's crucial series with the Expos. But 39-year-old legs don't recover so quickly. When the doctor examined Stargell last Thursday, he told him the knee would need more rest. "I thought for sure he was going to say I could go," Willie says. "But it's like biting the inside of your mouth. It just takes time to heal." Asked if he feared the knee might never heal enough for him to play again, Stargell said, "I do one thing at a time. Right now I'll just ride that bicycle and hope the knee comes along."
The rest of the Pirates, arriving in Montreal after Blyleven's win over St. Louis, would have gladly gone for bicycles over the two buses that were chartered to meet them at the airport. For half an hour, no buses showed. There were no taxis, no cars, no nothing. Finally, one bus came—the other had broken down—and half the players climbed in, thinking they were the lucky ones. That bus got lost. The second bus arrived in another half hour, and the two arrived at the hotel minutes apart—at around 5:20 a.m. A thing like that would never have happened if Pops had been around. That night, in a marvelously played game, Pittsburgh lost to Montreal 1-0 and fell 4½ games back. It was then the Pirates decided they were in a pennant race, and Parker, acknowledging that they played best under pressure, ordered up a sweep of the rest of the series.
Whether, like the proverbial hare, they have waited too long to bear down remains to be seen. They will certainly be in good company if they fall short, because right now it appears that for the second year in a row the four divisional champions will all be unseated. What is most remarkable is that the Pirates are in contention at all, given the middling performances of most of the players. They're not having bad years, just average ones. "What makes it tough to repeat is you have to be a little bit lucky two years running," says Tekulve, whose ERA is still a respectable 3.15 despite his recent failures. "And you have to have a few players who have career bests."
Lacy and Mike Easier, who share left-field, are having great years, and starter Jim Bibby is 16-5, but the rest of the team has idled along unspectacularly. Yet the fact remains that in pressure games the Pirates are a very tough team to beat. On the year they have won 10 of 16 games from Philadelphia and 11 of 15 from Montreal. Both teams must play twice more in Three Rivers Stadium, so the schedule—if not the standings—favors the Pirates, whose last eight games are against the struggling Mets and the hapless Cubs. Neither the Expos nor the Phillies have much of a reputation for winning in the clutch, and the loosey-goosey, We-Are-Family spirit of the Pirates is still apparent in the clubhouse, although sometimes it seems strained. "When I retire, it will be because of long road trips and loud music," one of the Family confesses.
During an eight-game losing streak last month, the players started taking away the stars that Stargell so lavishly hands out for good performance, and during Parker's tirade before Saturday's 4-0 win over Montreal, he could be heard profaning the old man, Stargell, who was up in the NBC booth instead of playing in pain. "I'm serious." Parker screamed, Ali-style. "I may not be walking when I'm 56, but I'm going to play!" He gingerly pointed to his knee. "I want you guys to play like I'm playing!"
Moreno took him at his word. Before the game, he was saying how he couldn't steal bases with his finger as it was, because it prevented him from executing the head-first slide. The first chance he got, he stole anyway. Milner knocked in two runs with two singles.