Jim Leyland had Pittsburgh headed in the right direction. He inherited a team that lost 104 games in 1985 and made modest improvement in 1986. The rebuild took a bigger jump forward in 1987 with some key trades and a final record near .500. The 1988 Pittsburgh Pirates were Leyland’s breakthrough, posting a winning record that would have been good enough for the postseason under the more lenient standards of today.
The Pirate offense was built around three terrific players. Bobby Bonilla played third base and finished with a final stat line of .366 on-base percentage/.476 slugging percentage. Bonilla produced 24 home runs and 100 RBI. A rising star in left field named Barry Bonds had a stat line of .368/.491. Bonds also homered 24 times and he scored a lot of the runs Bonilla drove in—Barry crossed home plate 91 times for the season.
But for 1988, the best player of them all was Andy Van Slyke. The right fielder’s stat line was .345/.506. He hit 25 home runs and hit the 100 mark in both runs scored and RBI.
The supporting cast was led by catcher Mike LaValliere and his .353 OBP, but for the most part, the Pirate offense lacked depth. The Big Three of Van Slyke, Bonds and Bonilla were the reason Pittsburgh finished fourth in the National League in runs scored.
The pitching staff only finished 8th in a 12-team National League for staff ERA, but there were a number of consistent arms. Doug Drabek emerged as a reliable top of the rotation pitcher, making 32 starts, winning 15 games and posting a 3.08 ERA.
Bob Walk’s ERA was a solid 2.71 and he won twelve games in his own 32 trips to the mound. John Smiley, a talented 23-year-old lefty also made 32 starts, won 13 times and finished with an ERA of 3.25. Mike Dunne filled in the 4-spot in the rotation with a 3.92 ERA.
Depth was the problem. Leyland wasn’t able to find a reliable fifth starter. And the bullpen was lacking. Jim Gott was the closer and saved 34 games, but the 3.49 ERA was on the high side. Jeff Robinson was reliable, logging 124 innings and posting a 3.03 ERA. Bob Kipper and Barry Jones were respectable arms. But no one was a true go-to anchor, and with the rotation being more reliable than spectacular, that led to the comparatively mediocre staff ERA.
There were no problems to be found in the early going. Pittsburgh came barreling out of the gate with a 17-6 record in April. They won four of six games from defending division champ St. Louis and five of six from Chicago. In the divisional alignment that existed prior to 1994, the Pirates, Cardinals and Cubs were all in the NL East. They were joined by the Phillies, Mets and Montreal Expos (today’s Washington Nationals). There were no wild-cards and the winner went directly to the National League Championship Series.
The only problem with Pittsburgh’s terrific start was that the Mets nearly matched it. New York was 16-6 and the Mets had a pedigree. They had been a contender since 1984, won the World Series in 1986 and were widely regarded as the National League’s most talented team.
The Pirates were not seen as a viable challenger. And they started by May by validating the skepticism. Pittsburgh lost three straight in Los Angeles, to a Dodger team that was the best in the NL West. An up and down month had the Pirates 3 ½ back on Memorial Day with a record of 29-19.
June saw more up and down play. Pittsburgh went to old Shea Stadium to play New York and lost two of three, both losses by shutout. The Pirates fell 7 ½ games off the pace. But they went to Montreal where the Expos had a competent team and won four straight. The pitching staff held Montreal to eight runs over the four games.
Pittsburgh went on a nine-game West Coast trip to close the first half. After splitting the first six, they played a weekend series at Dodger Stadium. The Pirates won all three. The 7-2 win in the Sunday finale represented one of only two games all year that LA ace, and eventual Cy Young Award winner, Orel Hershiser failed to get past the sixth inning.
The strong close to the first half put Pittsburgh’s record at 49-37 and they were within 3 ½ games of the Mets. For the first time since 1983, pennant race excitement in the Steel City was legitimate.
The same West Coast teams Pittsburgh visited came to old Three Rivers Stadium to open the second half. The Pirates won six of the first seven. The Dodgers came in for a four-game weekend set starting on Thursday night. Drabek outdueled Hershiser in a 3-2 win and all was well in Pittsburgh.
Then things went south. Pirate bats fell silent against lesser Dodger arms and they only scored five runs the rest of the weekend, losing the remaining three games. Even so, Pittsburgh was within 2 ½ games of first place as the end of July approached. And there were two big battles with the Mets ahead. Each team would host a four-game weekend series with a Monday wraparound. Pittsburgh went to Shea to test their pennant race moxie.
Pirate pitching was up to the challenge. Facing an excellent offensive team that included the NL’s best overall offensive player in Darryl Strawberry, Pittsburgh allowed just six runs in the first three games.
But the Pirate bats were not up to the challenge. They scored but a single run those three games and lost them all. The Monday finale looked like it might be more of the same, with Drabek locked in a scoreless duel with Mets’ ace Dwight Gooden through five innings. But the Pittsburgh offense finally awoke and salvaged a 7-2 win.
New York made their return visit a week later. The Pirate bats were again quiet on Friday night, mustering only four hits in a 3-2 loss. They led 3-1 on Saturday night, thanks to a Bonds home run off Gooden. The lead was still 3-2 when Drabek handed the game over to Gott. The closer issued three walks and committed three balks in an inning that meets the dictionary definition of “train wreck.” Pittsburgh lost again, 5-3.
Sunday’s game was locked up 2-2 in the ninth. The bullpen again came on and had a collective meltdown, allowing four runs. For the second straight weekend, the Pirates were reduced to salvaging a single game on Monday. Although that took brilliance on the part of starter Rick Reed, who needed a three-hitter to eke out a 1-0 win.
The Mets were renowned for their great pitching, so as disappointing as the eight games were, the Pirates had no reason to be ashamed. And they didn’t throw in the towel. Trailing by six games after the head-to-head debacle, they nudged back within 3 ½ by the week of August 22.
There were still four games against New York in September and this was very much a race. But Pittsburgh wasn’t quite ready. They lost nine of twelve and by the time New York arrived in town on Labor Day, there was a nine-game gap in the NL East. They split the remaining head-to-head games and the Mets cruised home.
No matter. Pittsburgh still finished the season at 85-75, finished in second place and were fourth-best in the National League overall. And even though 1989 saw the team take a step back, they quickly regained momentum and in 1990 won the first of three straight NL East titles.