Though there were excellent signs of improvement in 2011, the Pittsburgh Pirates are not close to contention. Next year, though, we might reasonably expect them to return to mediocrity. That’s right: I’m expecting 82 wins next year.
The Pirates inability to even achieve mediocrity has been well documented. The current streak of futility is record setting. But diving back another decade or so isn’t pleasant either. So, I thought I’d go back to the end of the last World Series title winner to recap the 82nd win in each of the handful of seasons in which the Pirates have reached .500. Let’s start the recent history of the 82nd win with 1980.
The Pirates came into the final week of August 1980 with a two game lead over Montreal and a 3.5 game lead over Philadelphia. Pittsburgh started a ten game home stand on August 25th and dropped the first eight games to fall into second place. After that dreadful 2-8 effort at Three Rivers, the Pirates dropped the first five games of the following road trip. They faded badly, finishing eight games out in third place.
The offense continued at a somewhat normal pace in September (the team averaged 4.1 runs per game on the year and 3.9 runs per game in September) in spite of leadoff hitter Omar Moreno and second place hitter Tim Foli struggling badly. Moreno hit .198 with a .267 OBP over the final 31 games of the year. Foli posted an anemic .202/.227/.214 line.
The big problem was with the relief corps. The bullpen was stellar through August. The highest monthly ERA was a palatable 3.15 back in April. But the bullpen would implode in September. The ERA swelled to 4.78. The relievers would post an 0-8 mark. The chief culprit was Kent Tekulve. In 15 appearances down the stretch Teke would go 0-5 with a 6.50 ERA.
At one point Teke was scored on in four straight appearances. The last of those came on September 9th and resulted in a blown save for Tekulve and a 14 inning loss for the Buccos in Philadelphia. That loss put them 3.5 games out of the lead. They would get no closer.
Sitting in third place on Friday October 3rd, Chuck Tanner tapped Jesse Jefferson to start against the Cubs in the opener of the season’s final series at Three Rivers. Earlier that week Jim Bibby broke the club’s six game losing streak by combining with Enrique Romo for win #81 on Wednesday at Shea. The game was notable because Romo hit a grand slam in the eighth inning for his lone career dinger. It was Bibby’s 19th win on the season.
Jefferson, who recently passed away after battling prostate cancer, had been picked up off waivers from the Blue Jays on September 11. His addition was supposed to help bolster what was a faltering team of relievers. For reasons I’m unaware of, Jefferson never appeared in relief and this Friday night start would be his only appearance in a Pirates uniform. He would sign with California as a free agent in the off season. Once a prospect in the Orioles system, Jefferson’s lack of control hampered him in the Majors. For his career he walked 520 and whiffed 522 in just shy of 1,090 career innings. Jefferson was traded by the O’s to the ChiSox for good glove/no hit first baseman Tony Muser. He was plucked from the White Sox by Toronto in the expansion draft and started the fourth game in Blue Jays franchise history. By August of 1980 he was struggling mightily. He had a stretch during that month in which he got the loss in seven straight appearances.
Jefferson was very solid on that Friday in October. He carried a perfect game into the sixth inning. Pittsburgh had posted two runs in the fourth against their future ace, Rick Reuschel, as Mike Easler and Dale Berra each knocked in a run. The perfecto and the no-no were ruined by a leadoff single from Mike O’Berry in the sixth. Jefferson induced a double play ground ball off the bat of future Pirate coach Mick Kelleher and entered the seventh inning having faced the minimum.
Way off topic, but Kelleher would finish the 1980 season with more GIDP than RBI putting him into a somewhat select group of players who have done that in a season which they got at least 100 plate appearances. That list is primarily populated by a bunch of pitchers and defensive specialists. Also making the list are plenty of players with ties to the Buccos, including Andy LaRoche, Mike Benjamin, Rafael Belliard, Felix Fermin and Sammy Khalifa.
The wheels fell off in the seventh. Ivan DeJesus led off with a single. But Jefferson picked him off. Scot Thompson walked. Bill Buckner singled. A wild pitch moved both runners up. But future Pirate manager Jim Tracy whiffed. Jefferson walked Carlos Lezcano, brother of Sixto Lezcano from the legendary 1985 Pirates, and was pulled from the game in favor of Tekulve. Pinch hitter Larry Biitner singled in Thompson. The bases remained loaded as Tekulve was yanked after having faced just one batter. Chuck Tanner summoned John Candelaria out of the bullpen. Candy was a starter (this would be his sixth career relief appearance) and in 1985 when Tanner made him the full time closer (with few save opportunities), the Candyman was unhappy and was eventually dealt to the Angels. But on this evening, Candelaria got the job done. He whiffed Mike Vail to end the inning.
Pittsburgh tacked on a run in the bottom seventh as rookie Tony Pena tripled and scored on a sac fly from Omar Moreno, making it 3-1. Candy worked a 1-2-3 eighth. He yielded a leadoff single to Thompson in the ninth. But he got Buckner, pinch hitter Jerry Martin and Lezcano to end the game.
Jefferson picked up the win. Candy earned his third career save. Pena scored the first run in his long and outstanding career. The Pirates would split the final two games of the year and finish 83-79.