Thursday, July 12, 2007


The scoreboard in the background says it all - Baseball Almanac

The Pirates entered the All-Star break in 1997 with a record of 43-43 and a one-game lead in the NL Central. They were fresh off two consecutive series sweeps and a seven-game win streak. The Bucs, who had a ridiculously low payroll of $9.1 million, were the feel-good story of the year in Major League Baseball. After taking three days off, they welcomed the Houston Astros to town for a big four-game set. However, they faltered in the first two games of the series, losing both by a combined score of 17-0 and falling one game out of first place. The Astros appeared to be showing their superiority. The third game of the series would be crucial.

Ten years ago today, the Pirates hosted the Houston Astros for a Saturday night game at Three Rivers Stadium. Francisco Cordova faced Chris Holt. With fireworks scheduled for the post-game and an overachieving team playing for first place, Three Rivers was sold out. The first seven innings are a blur. Neither team could do anything at the plate. The Pirates managed just three singles, one of which was delivered by Cordova. But the Astros had managed just two walks. The closest they had come to a hit was a slow roller down the third base line. But Cordova made an athletic play to get the out at first. The electricity in the crowd grew steadily.

Again, the Astros went down quietly in the eighth. Cordova was pitching brilliantly, including ten strikeouts. In the bottom of the inning, the Pirates showed signs of life. Jason Kendall led off with a single, but two consecutive force outs stalled the rally. Cordova added his second single of the game, and the Astros went to closer Billy Wagner. Wagner quickly struck out Tony Womack, and the game went to the ninth.

Cordova went back to work. Ricky Gutierrez grounded to third. Craig Biggio grounded to Cordova. Two outs, and Cordova was one batter away from history. But he hit Chuck Carr with a pitch, bringing the dangerous Jeff Bagwell to the plate. Despite the dominant performance by the Pirates' starting pitcher, Carr still represented the go-ahead run. With the stadium rocking with nervous excitement, Cordova went right at Bagwell. He jammed the slugger with a pitch on the inner half of the plate, and the ball was sent lazily to right. Jose Guillen camped under it, cautiously secured the ball with both hands, and Pirate fans everywhere rejoiced. Francisco Cordova had just thrown nine innings of no-hit ball. With the crowd cheering deliriously, Cordova walked calmly to the dugout. The game was not over, as the score remained 0-0.

Wagner came back out for the ninth and quickly brought the crowd back to earth. He overwhelmed the Pirate hitters with his velocity, easily striking out the side and sending the game into extra innings. When the Pirates took the field for the tenth, Cordova remained in the dugout. He had thrown 121 pitches, and his night was over. Ricardo Rincon came on in relief. Rincon kept the Astros quiet, walking one before retiring the side. The Pirates' offense still needed to find a way to win this game.

John Hudek came on to pitch the tenth for the Astros. He struck out Dale Sveum, the fifth consecutive Pirate to go down on strikes. Jason Kendall walked, Jose Guillen flied to center, and pinch-hitter Turner Ward followed with a walk. That brought pinch-hitter Mark Smith to the plate. Eight days earlier, Smith's tenth inning home run had helped the Pirates to an improbable victory over the Cardinals. Now he had another chance at a decisive blow, as the winning run anxiously waited at second base. When Hudek delivered his second pitch, something went terribly wrong. The pitch sailed right over the heart of the plate, and Smith was waiting on it. He launched the ball into the distance, and anyone watching instantly knew it was gone. In the first row of seats behind home plate, Kevin McClatchy was the first to leap to his feet, his hands stretched upward. Lanny Frattare spontaneously made the enthusiastic call that we would still hear many years later. "Home run! No-hitter! You've got it all!"

That home run was the highlight of an amazing year. Yes, the Pirates finished 79-83 and five games behind the Astros in the NL Central. Yes, it is sad that this season is the best the team has been able to produce since 1992. But it still was an amazing summer. Not only did the team compete with such a low payroll, they won game after game in dramatic fashion. There is no way I could possibly list all of the great games from that season, but I will make a brief effort. Off the top of my head, these are the games I remember:

  • The July 12 no-hitter - This one has already been discussed at length.
  • The 4th of July comeback in St. Louis - The highlight of this game was Tony Womack's fly ball to left in the ninth. It seemed to be the final out, and I believe it was Greg Brown that stated, "This should do it." However, the ball was misplayed and went for a game-tying double. Mark Smith's tenth inning home run would prove to be the difference.
  • The early season shootout with the Rockies - All I remember from this game was that both teams seemed to be scoring at will. The Pirates won when the offense completely exploded in the eighth, capped by an Al Martin grand slam. (A quick check at Retrosheet tells me that the Pirates scored nine runs in the eighth, and won 15-10.)
  • Joe Randa/Mark Smith walkoff - The Bucs were about to be swept in a doubleheader against the Dodgers, when Randa suddenly tied the second game with a two-run homer in the ninth. On the very next pitch, Mark Smith homered to left for the win. (Yes, that is three game-winning home runs for Smith)
  • Albert Belle K's four times - Belle came to town with a salary higher than the entire Pirates' payroll. But Jon Lieber was unfazed, striking him out four times as the Pirates won. I was at this game, and the four guys behind me continuously heckled Belle with a "Jo-ey" chant. It was probably the most fun I have had at a game, and I was seen on Sportscenter that night when they showed a clip of the hecklers behind me.
  • Shawon Dunston arrives - Dunston came in a trade in late August, and immediately made an impact. He homered twice in his first game with the club, helping to create an electric atmosphere at Three Rivers Stadium that night. The Pirates beat the visiting Indians.
  • Kevin Young backs up his mouth - The details are a bit hazy in my memory. But from what I remember, an injured Young chastised his teammates for poor play before this game. Then he pinch-hit and flicked a walkoff home run to right to beat the Expos. The Pirates made a terrible decision when they inked Young to a huge contract, and he is disliked by many because of his poor performance after signing it. But I am a huge fan of Kevin Young, for reasons such as what transpired in this game.

There were so many crazy wins that season that I forgot about a few of them. After reading the PG the other day, I was reminded of the game in which Kevin Polcovich hit a home run off Curt Schilling that proved to be the game-winner. Also, until I scanned the game logs, I forgot about the walkoff single by Mark Johnson. Johnson was expected to be a huge part of the Pirates' offense that year, but he slumped badly from the beginning. Eventually he lost his job at first base to Kevin Young. On June 6, with Johnson hitting .231/.363/.333, he pinch-hit in the tenth inning in a game against the Phillies. There was one out and the winning ran was at second. Johnson roped one down the right field line for the game-winning single. He was mobbed by the teammates, as his frustrations from the previous two months were put aside for a night. Johnson never panned out for the Pirates, but this was just another amazing moment during the 1997 season.

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