1970 was not a great year for baseball races. The Cincinnati Reds and the Baltimore Orioles were the two best teams that year and both locked up their races by late August.
In the AL West, the California Angels were still within striking distance of the first place Minnesota Twins. But the Twins were a much better team than the Angels (the Oakland As were better, too, but out of contention), and few doubted that the Twins would win their division.
Only the NL East was truly competitive. At the beginning of the season, four teams could reasonably think they might win the division — the New York Mets, the Chicago Cubs, the St. Louis Cardinals, and the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Cardinals gradually fell out of serious contention. Inexplicably, Steve Carlton had an off year, losing 19 games. Inexplicably, the Cards traded Ted Abernathy, their best relief pitcher, in July for next to nothing. St. Louis was already nine games back when, in mid-August, Dick (or Richie, as he was still known then) Allen, their best hitter, went down with an injury that effectively ended his season.
The Cubs were favored by many to win the division after their late season fade the year before. They played .500 ball through much of the summer, but finally inched into contention in late August. Heading into play on Sunday, August 30, they were tied for second place, only 2.5 games out of first. But their bullpen was a poor.
The Cubs were tied with the defending champion New York Mets. The Mets had entered August in first place, but played sub-.500 ball that month.
The Mets still had the best pitching staff in the NL, and Tom Seaver was still as good as any pitcher in the league. However, Jerry Koosman’s ERA was up by almost a run and he was missing starts due to injury. Bullpen mainstays Tug McGraw and Ron Taylor were also well off of their 1969 form.
The Pittsburgh Pirates led the NL East heading into play on August 30. After a slow start, they hit their stride in July and maintained it in during much of August. The Pirates featured a strong lineup — led by future Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell plus Manny Sanguillen, Bob Robertson, and Matty Alou — a solid, if unspectacular pitching rotation — Doc Ellis, Bob Veale, Luke Walker, Bob Moose, and Steve Blass — and a top reliever — Dave Giusti whom the Cardinals had traded away after the 1969 season.
However, the Pirates had lost four straight games when they took the field for a doubleheader against the San Francisco Giants on August 30. Luke Walker would try to end that streak in the first game. The nightcap was assigned to 22 year-old Fred Cambria, a rookie from Cambria Heights, Queens, New York. He would be making only his second big league start. In fact, Cambria had been in organized ball for little more than a year, having been signed out of St. Leo College the summer before.
The opener started well for the Pirates. They scored two runs in the top of the first off of Giants starter Frank Reberger. However, San Francisco rocked Walker for three runs in the bottom of the inning, and never looked back. The final score was 7-3, San Francisco.
Cambria pitched brilliantly for the Pirates in Game 2. However, Ron Bryant, also age 22, matched him almost pitch for pitch.
The Giants scored in the first on singles by Bobby Bonds and Ron Hunt (the first two batters Cambria faced) and an error by Gene Alley on a Willie McCovey grounder that might have been an inning ending double play.
The Pirates finally got that run back in the eighth inning, but lost Cambria for a pinch hitter, Al Oliver, in the process. Speedster Johnny Jeter drew a two out walk from Bryant, stole second, and scored on a Dave Cash single.
Cambria had worked seven full innings, allowing just the one run, along with six hits and two walks. He displayed considered poise, exemplified in his final inning of work. Bonds and Hunt again led off with hits, but Cambria retired Willie Mays, McCovey, and Ken Henderson in succession, to keep the game close.
Cambria made way for Giusti in the bottom of the eighth. Jim Ray Hart greeted him with a double. Tito Fuentes bunted Hart to third, and pinch hitter John Stephenson broke the tie with a sacrifice fly.
Bryant finished off the Pirates, and his masterpiece, by retiring the Bucs in the ninth. Robertson hit a one-out single, but Bryant set down Stargell and Jose Pagan. The Pirates losing streak reached six games.
In Houston, though, the Mets were unable to take advantage of the Pirates’ latest setbacks. The Astros pounded out seven runs in five innings off of Nolan Ryan en route to a 9-5 victory. Ryan’s record dropped to 6-10 despite a quite respectable 3.48 ERA. The late Jimmy Wynn went 4-4 with two home runs and five RBIs.
In San Diego, Chicago’s Bill Hands and the Padres’ Dave Roberts both took shutouts into the ninth inning. With one out in the top the ninth, Roberts walked Ron Santo and Jim Hickman. Joe Pepitone followed with a home run. Hands breezed through the bottom of the inning.
The Cubs thus made up ground on both of their rivals. They now trailed the Pirates by only one game. The Mets were another game back.
The stage was set for a thrilling three-way September pennant race, and the race would remain tight for most of that month.