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With exactly 20 games left in the season, like the hare who kept expecting to catch the tortoise around the next bend and never did, the Pittsburgh Pirates—the world champion Pittsburgh Pirates—realized they were losing a pennant race. Suddenly last Saturday there was Dave Parker exhorting his teammates by the batting cage, calling himself the baddest and the meanest and guaranteeing—guaranteeing—that the Pirates would beat the front-running Expos in the final two games of last weekend's three-game series. There was Omar Moreno, his left little finger horribly crooked and swollen, saying, "This game today, we must win it," with the slightly awed look of a man in grave danger. Even the unflappable Chuck Tanner reached into his bottomless bag of managerial clichés to allow that this was not just another game, that his men knew what they had to do and would do it. It was last October all over again, when, trailing the Baltimore Orioles three games to one, the Family pulled together to take three straight games and the World Series. Pressure? Bring it on. The Pirates thrive on it.
Three hours later the Pirates had moved back to within 3½ games of the Montreal Expos on the strength of Don Robinson's 4-0 win, his first complete-game shutout since May of 1978.
"This was our biggest game of the year," Robinson said afterward, "but tomorrow's game is even more important."
But if the Pirates—and Parker—thought they could shut their opponents on and off like tap water, they were being, well, harebrained. On Sunday the Expos' Bill Gullickson returned Robinson's favor by beating the Pirates 4-0 on three hits, pushing Pittsburgh five games behind in the loss column with 18 left to play. The Pirates, who allowed the first three Montreal batters to score, were never in the game. Worse, they fell 3½ behind the second-place Phillies, and finished the week with four losses in five games against the two teams they had to catch.
Clearly, this wasn't the same Pirate team that worked its magic in 1979—when the Bucs came from behind to win 41 games, 25 of them in their last at bat. The 39-year-old Willie Stargell, who last September hit eight home runs and had five game-winning RBIs, was watching from the sidelines. He has been there since mid-August, suffering from damaged cartilage in his left knee, and during that time Pittsburgh has fallen from first to third and won only eight of 26 games. Were there a quality tortoise in the race, it would already be too late for the Pirates, but during that same stretch neither the Phillies nor the Expos have been playing much better than .500 ball. However, the very earliest Stargell can hope to come back is Sept. 25, and by then it'll probably be all over for Pittsburgh. "I hate to sit and watch this time of year," Stargell says. "But I can't do anything for the next two weeks except ride a bicycle."
Irrational as it sounds, Pittsburgh is a better team with Stargell in the lineup, even if he goes 0 for 5. His presence carries with it more than a good bat; he is a 6'3", 225-pound good-luck charm. When he takes the field at first base, there is a sense of security among the Pirates that Willie is in his heaven and nothing can harm them. Conversely, opponents are uplifted by his absence. "Let's face it," one Expo said last weekend, "there's a big difference between seeing Stargell on first and John Milner."
Especially in September. During the '70s, the Pirates won 185 out of 299 games played in that telling month (.619), and they were six for six in holding on to first place. But this September they have lost eight of 13 (.385) and have fallen from first to third. And Stargell's injury isn't the only reason. The relief pitching, once Tanner's pride and joy, has recently shown a tendency to fray under stress, and injuries have so eroded the Bucs' once-vaunted bench strength that Executive Vice-President Harding Peterson was moved on Aug. 29 to sign the well-traveled Bernie Carbo, who was out of baseball and working in a hair-dressing salon near Detroit.
Still, the world champs have exhibited a certain pluck that leads Tanner to enthuse, "I'm prouder of this team than I was of last year's world championship club because of what it's had to overcome." Tanner is the sort of man for whom the sky turns bluer every day, so such a remark must be viewed with suspicion, but it's true that the Pirates have had at least their share of injuries. Stargell has played in just 67 games, and Bill Robinson, who has a severly bruised right heel, 88. Parker has missed 19 games with no fewer than eight different injuries, and for the last eight weeks has been hobbling in the outfield like a man with the gout. In the off-season he may undergo surgery similar to that which Stargell had four weeks ago, an arthroscopic procedure by which bits of cartilage are sucked from the knee through a straw-like instrument. "I can't steal bases; I can't turn singles into doubles; I can't turn doubles into triples," Parker says. "That's my game." His run production is also off significantly from a year ago, a consequence in no small measure of the absence of Stargell's bat behind him in the order. Moreno, in fact, is the only Pirate not to have missed a game, and he is playing with a dislocated finger that might have to be operated on this winter. The only way he can grip the bat with his left hand is to build up the handle with tape. "Sure, our record's not what it was last year," says Tanner, "but all you hope for at the start of any season is to be in position to win the thing in the last month. Well, we're there."
Maybe. In the week and a half ending last weekend, the Pirates have endured what could turn out to be the knockout blow to their season: 10 road games in 10 days in four cities, Atlanta, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Montreal. After dropping three straight to the Braves, they lost two more to the Phillies, 6-2 and then 5-4 in 14 innings. The first game was tied 2-2 after seven innings, Tanner went to his bullpen, and Enrique Romo was promptly nailed for three runs. The game ended with Phil Garner, the Bucs' pesky second baseman, taking called second and third strikes with the bases loaded. Strange doings.
The next loss was even stranger. First, Lee Lacy, the leftfielder, lost a line drive in the lights—a line drive? Aw, come on—after two were out in the second inning, allowing a run to score. Still, the Pirates led 4-2 in the eighth inning when Tanner again called on his bullpen, which not long ago was considered the most formidable in the game. Lefthander Grant Jackson allowed a double, and when Mike Schmidt and Greg Luzinski were scheduled up with two out, Tanner called on his ace, Kent Tekulve. Tekulve gave up a triple to Schmidt and a single to Luzinski. That tied it at 4-4. The Phillies won in the 14th on a squeeze.