The Pirates came into 1983 just four years removed from a memorable World Series championship run. In two of the previous three years they had been in first place as late as September before coming up short. The 1983 Pittsburgh Pirates continued that pattern. They were competitive and they gave fans hope, but they came up a little short in the end.
Pitching had been the Pirate undoing in 1982, but the staff rebounded with a strong showing in ’83. Rick Rhoden, John Candelaria and Larry McWilliams all went to the post at least thirty times and they all had ERAs in the low 3s.
Lee Tunnell was a reliable fourth starter. And 22-year-old Jose DeLeon made 15 starts in his rookie year and posted a 2.83 ERA. Kent Tekulve was lights-out in the bullpen, with his submarine-delivery producing a 1.64 ERA and 18 saves. Cecilio Guante and Manny Sarmiento were effective relievers in a pen that had depth.
The one disappointment on the staff was the fate of veteran Jim Bibby. A big part of the 1979 title, Bibby finished third in the Cy Young voting in 1980. He had another good year in 1981. But Bibby missed all of 1982 with an injury and at 38-years-old, he wasn’t going to make it back. He struggled to a 6.69 ERA in a mix of starting and relief.
It was an unfortunate sign that his career was over (Bibby made perfunctory attempt at a comeback in Texas in 1984 to no avail), but it didn’t prevent the Pirate staff from finishing fourth in the National League in ERA in 1983.
The gains the pitching staff made this season were offset by a decline from the offense, which went from good to mediocre. It wasn’t that they couldn’t hit—the Pirates finished third in the league in batting average and fifth in doubles. But they were a Moneyball aficionado’s nightmare, not taking enough walks to keep the bases filled with runners.
For example, catcher Tony Pena hit a solid .301, but his on-base percentage was only .338. Johnny Ray batted .283, but the OBP was only fifty points higher at .323. Bill Madlock’s batting average was a stellar .323. His .386 OBP was good, but not as great as you might expect given how many hits “Mad Dog” produced. Mike Easler hit .307, but the OBP was only .349.
These on-base percentages aren’t bad, but they do explain why Pittsburgh finished seventh in a 12-team National League in runs scored, in spite of their ability to put the ball in play effectively. The fact Dave Parker’s fall from grace in Pittsburgh continued with a bad year certainly didn’t help. And even though first baseman Jason Thompson was an exception to the general team rule of impatience at the plate, he also suffered a significant power shortage, slugging just .406.
Pittsburgh opened the season on fire, winning five straight, including a four-game sweep in Houston. But they didn’t win consecutive games again until the middle of May. June 19 was the bottoming-out point. That Sunday afternoon’s 14-2 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies saw McWilliams get hit hard and concluded a 5-8 stretch against the Phils and another contender, the Montreal Expos.
The Pirates were 23-36, 8 ½ games out and in fifth place. Prior to 1994, Pittsburgh shared the NL East with current members in the New York Mets, the Phils and the Montreal Expos (today’s Washington Nationals). The Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals were also in the NL East. The Cards were the defending World Series champs, the Phils a perennial power for the past decade and the Expos a regular contender. And there was no wild-card fallback—the first-place team went directly to the National League Championship Series.
Which is the long way of saying the Pirates had to get their collective posterior in gear. And they did just that, winning eleven times in a 17-game stretch against the Cards and Cubbies that took them into the All-Star break. Pittsburgh was still in fifth place, but they were within 6 ½ games. The NL East was a five-team race, with only the Mets out of it.
The Pirates came out of the break and kept rolling against teams from the NL West. They went 12-2. On July 21, barely a month after their season hit its low point, they were improbably in first place. Although the Buccos’ 46-44 record underscored the difficult time everyone in the NL East was having at finding traction.
Pittsburgh still narrowly led the race in early August. They lost three straight at home to Montreal, ushering in an up and down month where they ranged from 2 ½ games ahead to 2 ½ games behind. But at the end of the month, a stretch of games against NL West teams again went well. The Pirates won six of ten and when Labor Day arrived they were back on top of the standings.
The Phillies were a game back, the Expos a game and a half and the Cards two and half off the pace. The Cubs had fallen by the wayside, but just like 1982, it was a four-team logjam as September beckoned. Just like 1982, Pittsburgh had the lead with a month to go.
And just like 1982, September was not a kind month. On Labor Day in St. Louis, the Pirates and Cards played a doubleheader. The first game was tied 4-4 in the eighth. The second game saw Pittsburgh lead 6-5 in the ninth. They lost both times. The Pirates closed the week by dropping two of three to the Phils and slipping two games back.
The race slipping away, Pittsburgh planted their feet and got things turned around. They swept two-game series from the Mets and Cubs. The Pirates hosted the Expos for the weekend and won on Friday night. Saturday’s game went to 13 innings. Pittsburgh’s light-hitting shortstop Dale Berra won it with a two-out RBI double. Even though the winning streak ended on Sunday, the Pirates had some momentum and were within a game with two weeks to play.
Another sequence of games against the Mets, Cubs and Expos was on deck the next week. The Pirates played well enough, winning four of seven. But the similarities to 1982 continued. The previous September had seen St. Louis get red-hot and pull away. In 1983 it was Philadelphia who ripped off seven straight wins. The Pirates were four games back.
They were hanging by a thread, but there was one ray of hope—the race was down to the Pirates and Phils and they would play a three-game set in Philly on the final weekend. But Pittsburgh lost to the lowly Mets on Tuesday and Wednesday, the Phillies wrapped it up and that last weekend at the Vet was meaningless.
Given the similarities to how 1982 unfolded, it’s appropriate the 1983 Pirates finished with the same 84-78 record. They continued a stretch of winning baseball that now stretched back to 1968, with the only exception being the weird strike year of ’81. But the good times were coming to an end. Parker left via free agency and rejuvenated his career in Cincinnati. Pittsburgh slipped under .500 in 1984 and collapsed in 1985. The 1983 team marked the end of an era.