The 1971 Baltimore Orioles had four ace starting pitchers — Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar, and Pat Dobson, 20-game-winners all. The Pittsburgh Pirates had two — Dock Ellis and Steve Blass, and only one after Ellis’ bad elbow flared up in Game One of the World Series.
But in a winner-take-all game, one ace was usually all a team needed back when ace starters typically turned in at least seven innings and sometimes went the distance.
Fortunately for Pittsburgh manager Danny Murtaugh, his one ace was available and rested for Game Seven of the ’71 Series. Steve Blass had posted a regular season record of 15-8 with a 2.85 ERA and five shut-outs. And in Game Three of the Series, he had gone the distance, limiting the Orioles to one run on three hits and two walks.
In that contest, Blass bested Mike Cuellar, to whom Earl Weaver turned for Game Seven. Cuellar had been uncharacteristically ineffective in the 5-1 loss. However, the Cuban was 2-0 with a sub-2.00 ERA in World Series games prior to 1971. And in the 1971 ALCS, he allowed just one run in a complete game victory over Oakland.
Thus, Weaver and his team could have the same high level of confidence in Cuellar that Murtaugh and the Bucs had in Blass.
Game Seven was played in Baltimore. The home team had won all of the previous six games in this Series. In no World Series, though, had the home team won all seven contests. Twice in the 1950s (1955 and 1956) and once in the 1960s (1965) the home team won the first six only to lose the decider.
There were, then, omens and tea leaves pointing in both directions. They wouldn’t matter. Which pitcher was most in command would likely tell the tale.
Both were in command early, though Blass did walk the first batter he faced, Don Buford. (Orioles’ manager Earl Weaver tried, without success, to rattle the right-hander by claiming he wasn’t throwing off the pitching rubber as the rules required). Neither team scored in the first three innings. In fact, the only hit in this period was a lead-off single by Buford in the third inning. But Blass promptly picked him off.
The Orioles had threatened in the second, when Brooks Robinson walked with one out and Elrod Hendricks reached on an error by Bob Robertson. But Blass got out of that inning when Mark Belanger grounded into a double play.
For their part, the Pirates had gone nine-up, nine-down through three innings. Cuellar also retired the first two batters in the top of the fourth.
But then Roberto Clemente belted a home run. There went the no-hitter and the shut-out.
After that, both pitchers were dominant through the middle of the game and into the eighth inning. All the Orioles managed in those four frames was a one-out double by Hendricks in the fifth. He got no farther than second base.
The Pirates, meanwhile, got only a single by Manny Sanguillen in the fifth. He never made it past first base.
Pittsburgh came to life in the top of the eighth. Willie Stargell led off with a single. Jose Pagan, who platooned with Richie Hebner at third base, followed with a RBI double. It was Pagan’s eleventh hit in 34 World Series at-bats. The majority of both came in the 1962 when he was a starter for the San Francisco Giant.
Cuellar regained command and retired the next three Pirates. But now, the Orioles trailed 2-0, with only six more outs left to catch up.
The bottom of the eighth began well for the O’s. Hendricks and Belanger both singled, putting runners on first and second.
With Cuellar due up, Weaver turned to pinch-hitter Tom Shopay and asked him to bunt. Weaver was ahead of his time in his lack of regard for the sacrifice bunt. “Play for one run, lose by one run” was his general view.
But this creed applied mostly in the early and middle innings, before he had a good idea of how many runs his team would need in the end. Now, in the the eighth inning, Weaver was playing for two runs knowing that two would tie the game going into the ninth. Thus, his decision to sacrifice bunt was reasonable.
In the end, though, Weaver got one run and lost by one run.
Shopay advanced both runners with his sac bunt. Buford grounded out to the first baseman. Hendricks scored on the play. Blass retired Davey Johnson on another grounder to end the inning. The Orioles trailed 2-1.
In the top of the ninth, Weaver snubbed his bullpen (as he had in Game Six) and brought in Dobson rather than ace reliever Eddie Watt. Dobson retired two, including Clemente, but gave up hits to Robertson and Sanguillen. Weaver had to bring in McNally to put out the fire, which the lefty did by getting Willie Stargell on a ground ball.
The two 20-game-winners had done their job, though. Baltimore needed only a run to tie the game.
They had the right men coming up, too: Boog Powell, Frank Robinson, and Merv Rettenmund, with Brooks Robinson to follow if one or more of the first three reached.
None of them did. In fact, none hit the ball out of the infield.
Blass completed his masterpiece having allowed just four hits and two walks. For the Series, he allowed just two runs on seven hits and four walks in 18 innings.
Blass would be even better in 1972 than in 1971. But in 1973, he came down with the pitching equivalent of the “yips.” He simply couldn’t find the plate, walking nearly a batter per inning.
The yips persisted in 1974. He pitched in only one big-league game that year, walking seven in five innings. He couldn’t throw strikes in the minor leagues, either. The Pirates released him before the start of the 1975 season. His career was over at the age of 32.
But on this day in baseball history, he pitched the Pirates to the world championship, their first since 1960 and only their second since 1925.
As Earl Weaver said in defeat, “Clemente was great all right, but if it hadn’t been for Mr. Blass, we might be popping the corks right now.”