The Pittsburgh Pirates were a team with unfinished business, having reached the 1970 NLCS before being swept out of the then best-of-five round in three straight. The San Francisco Giants were making their first appearance in a League Championship Series round that was in just its third year of existence. When the Pirates and Giants met in the 1971 NLCS, Pittsburgh spotted San Francisco an early lead before taking over and capturing the pennant.
You can read more about the season-long journeys the Pirates and Giants took to their respective division titles, and about their key players, at the links below. This article will focus narrowly on the games of the 1971 NLCS.
Homefield advantage was determined on a rotation basis and was done with a 2-3 format. This series would open with two games out west, at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, and then finish at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh.
The Giants sent future Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry to the mound. The Pirate rotation was lined up with staff ace Steve Blass set to pitch Game 1. It was Pittsburgh who struck first. Shortstop Jackie Hernandez singled in the 8-spot of the batting order, enabling Blass to drop down a sac bunt. Dave Cash doubled to right to score the first run of the series. Richie Hebner then hit a ground ball at the great Willie McCovey. The Hall of Fame first baseman misplayed it and the Pirates enjoyed a 2-0 lead.
San Francisco responded immediately in the bottom of the third and in almost identical fashion. Chris Speier, the #8-hitting shortstop singled. Perry bunted him up. Ken Henderson doubled. It was 2-1.
In the bottom of the fifth, Speier again started a rally with a base hit. Perry again did his job with the sac bunt. A Henderson groundball moved Speier to third, but there were two outs. Blass was on the verge of escaping. Until Tito Fuentes homered. San Francisco was up 3-2. Then the great Willie Mays worked a walk. McCovey atoned for his defensive miscue with another home run. Blass was gone and the Giants were ahead 5-2.
Pittsburgh made a run at Perry in the top of the seventh. Gene Alley, batting in the pitcher’s spot, singled. Cash followed with another single. The heart of the order was coming up with the tying run at the plate. Roberto Clemente, another all-time great in a series filled with them, worked a one-out walk to load the bases. Perry got Willie Stargell to pop out. With the rally on the verge of flaming out, Al Oliver knocked a two-run single, cutting the lead to 5-4.
But Perry buckled down. He got out of that inning and allowed just one more single the rest of the way. Even though San Francisco missed a chance to add on in the bottom of the eighth when they wasted a first-and-second with no outs situation, the Giants still grabbed Game 1, 5-4.
Any loss in a series this short is a big one, but in 1971 this first game might have seemed even bigger. In 1969 and 1970, the LCS round in both leagues ended up in sweeps. Baltimore would deliver another sweep in the 1971 ALCS. So, we were still waiting for a series where the team that lost the first game could answer—even once.
Pittsburgh would turn to Dock Ellis for Sunday afternoon’s Game 2. San Francisco had to go to the final day of the season to clinch the NL West and this spot was where that showed up in the pitching rotation. Juan Marichal joined with Perry in giving the Giants a 1-2 punch of future Hall of Famers. But Marichal had to win the season finale and was thus unavailable until Game 3. John Cumberland was a pretty good swingman, going back and forth between the rotation and the pen. But he wasn’t Juan Marichal.
Cumberland worked around singles from Cash and Clemente in the first, thanks a strikeout/caught stealing double play that took Cash off the bases. And the Giants went to work right away on Ellis. Fuentes singled with one out and moved up on a passed ball. Mays ripped an RBI double for the game’s first run. After McCovey was intentionally walked, Dave Kingman singled. The bases were loaded, there was one out and San Francisco was poised to break this open early.
Instead, Ellis struck out Dick Dietz, a good-hitting catcher. Al Gallagher grounded out and the Pirates stayed within 1-0. They promptly tied it up in the top of the second with a double by Bob Robertson and an RBI single from Manny Sanguillen.
Speier was proving to be a problem for Pittsburgh pitching and the #8 hitter again got something going with a double to start the bottom of the second. He eventually scored on a single from Henderson. San Francisco took that 2-1 lead into the top of the fourth.
Robertson homered to tie the game. After a Sanguillen single, Cumberland was removed for Jim Barr. Sanguillen stole second and scored on a single from Hernandez. The Pirates were up 3-2 and that extended to 4-2 when Gene Alley homered in the fifth.
Ellis had settled down by the sixth inning, when San Francisco made their next move. Gallagher was hit by a pitch. Speier singled. With no one out and two aboard, Ellis was removed. Bob Miller came out of the Pittsburgh bullpen. A walk to Henderson was sandwiched between two strikeouts. With the bases loaded, Mays was at the plate.
In a moment of high drama, Miller got the out he could tell his grandchildren about, getting the great San Francisco outfielder to fly out to right. After all that, it was still 4-2 Pirates.
Pittsburgh then took out insurance—a lot of it—in the top of the seventh. Cash doubled. Oliver and Clemente singled. It was 5-2. Robertson blew it open with another home run, extending the lead to 8-2. For good measure, Robertson hit his third blast of the game in the ninth to make it 9-2. A two-run shot by Mays in the bottom of the ninth was too little, too late for San Francisco in a 9-4 loss. We finally had a League Championship Series that would not be a sweep.
Day baseball was still the order of the day for LCS play, so Tuesday’s game at Three Rivers was in the afternoon, even as the Baltimore-Oakland ALCS matchup was also during the day. Marichal was on the mound for San Francisco against Pittsburgh’s Bob Johnson. The Giants were still in good position, with the two aces, Marichal and Perry lined up for these next two games.
Enter Bob Robertson. The Pirate first baseman homered again for a 1-0 lead in the second. At which point, Marichal went into lockdown mode. But so did the more unheralded Johnson. It was still 1-zip when San Francisco batted in the top of the sixth.
Henderson singled. When the ensuing sac bunt attempt when to Hebner, the Pirate third baseman threw the ball away—so badly, that Henderson came all the way around with the tying run. The Giants eventually loaded the bases with two outs. Johnson got Gallagher to ground out and keep the score 1-1.
Hebner tried to atone for his mistake with a single to lead off the bottom of the sixth. An error put runners on first and second with one out. The heart of the order was at hand. Marichal struck out Stargell, got Oliver and kept the game tied.
The duel between Marichal and Johnson went into the bottom of the eighth. There were two outs and no one aboard. Hebner, at the heart of so much of the action all day long, was there again. He homered. Pittsburgh turned the game over to closer Dave Giusti, who set down the side in order in the ninth. The Pirates had both the game and the series, 2-1.
Game 4 provided a Perry-Blass pitching rematch. Their back to the wall, San Francisco came out on the attack. After a Cash error opened the game, Fuentes and McCovey each singled. A run was on the board and there were men on first and second.
Blass struck out Bobby Bonds, limiting the damage and keeping it a 1-0 game. Cash promptly redeemed himself with a single and then took third on a Hebner double. Clemente’s base hit scored both runs and Pittsburgh had the lead.
Speier’s big series continued with a home run in the top of second. With one out, Henderson and Fuente singled. With two outs, McCovey came to the plate. The big first baseman went deep. The Giants were up 5-2 and while it was very early, there was every reason to think Perry could now take them to a Game 5.
Instead, the lead didn’t even last the inning. Sanguillen led off the bottom of the second with a single. Bill Mazeroski, the veteran hero of the Pirates’ 1960 World Series champs, came off the bench to bat for Blass. Maz singled with one out. Hebner came to the plate with two outs. He ripped a three-run jack and we were tied 5-5.
Pittsburgh threatened again in the third and fourth, but Perry twice wiggled out of situations with two runners on. The 5-5 tie held to the bottom of the sixth.
Cash got something going with a one-out single, and then moved to second on a groundout from Hebner. The veteran Clemente stepped up and delivered the two-out RBI single that put Pittsburgh ahead 6-5. Perry was gone. San Francisco’s excellent reliever, Jerry Johnson was on to try and keep this a one-run game.
After an intentional walk to Stargell, Oliver came to the plate. Power had defined this game and Pittsburgh’s play in this NLCS generally. So perhaps it was fitting that a three-run jack from Oliver all but sealed the deal.
Bruce Kison had come in for Blass and the young Pirate pitcher was outstanding into the seventh. The tying run never came to the plate in what was now a 9-5 game. Giusti nailed down the final seven outs. When Bonds grounded out to third, the Pirates were going to the World Series.
For San Francisco, it would be a long time before they returned to the October stage. It was 1987 when the Giants returned to the NLCS. It took two more years, to 1989, before they won a pennant. And it was 2010 before San Francisco won a World Series.
As for Pittsburgh, a World Series championship was less than two weeks away. After spotting the Baltimore Orioles two games in the Fall Classic, the Pirates roared back to win a seven-game series. Pittsburgh would return to the NLCS in 1972, 1974, 1975 and 1979, winning a second championship in that ’79 postseason.