The strike year of 1981 hadn’t gone well in Pittsburgh After a decade of contending teams, including a recent World Series title in 1979, the Pirates were looking to get back in the hunt. For the most part, they did. But an August fade set a tone that the 1980s would not be as positive for Steel City baseball as the 1970s had been.
The 1982 Pittsburgh Pirates were keyed by an offense that ranked second in the National League in runs scored, and that’s even with rightfielder Dave Parker continuing his Pittsburgh decline. Parker’s stat line was a .330 on-base percentage/.447 slugging percentage—certainly not bad, but a far cry from the MVP year he’d produced four years earlier. Fortunately for the Pirates, other players stepped up.
Bill Madlock was one of the most consistent contact hitters in baseball and the third baseman hit .319 in 1982, with a stat line of .368/.488. On the other side of the infield, Jason Thompson posted a .391/.511 line, with 31 home runs. Mike Easler’s stat line was similar to Parker’s–.337/.436, although in Easler’s case it wasn’t a letdown.
Pittsburgh turned to a rookie at second base and Johnny Ray hit .281, finishing a close second in the NL Rookie of the Year voting behind Steve Sax in Los Angeles. Tony Pena was a good young catcher. And centerfielder Omar Moreno didn’t get on base much, but when he did things happened—Moreno stole sixty bags in 1982. Lee Lacy provided veteran help off the bench, getting nearly 400 plate appearances and posting a .369 OBP.
Pitching was where the Pirates ran into problems. Of the top three starters, only John Candelaria had a good year, going 12-7 with 2.94 ERA. Rick Rhoden and Don Robinson were each good pitchers generally and each made 30-plus starts. But in 1982, they both had ERAs on the wrong side of 4. A pretty good bullpen, led by Kent Tekulve, Rod Scurry and Manny Sarmiento couldn’t cover for a rotation that was shaky four days out of five.
Pittsburgh opened the season in St. Louis with an 11-7 win. Ray had three hits, including a home run, to set the tone for his rookie year. The following day, the Pirates rallied from a 5-1 deficit in the eighth to take a 6-5 lead. Enrique Romo out of the bullpen and got the first two batters out. Then a walk, triple and single beat him 7-6.
That sudden turn of events was the trigger to a poor start. The Pirates lost seven of their first ten, including two more to the Cardinals a week and a half later. By Memorial Day, Pittsburgh was 18-26 and in last place. They were staring at 10-game deficit in the old NL East, a division that included the Cardinals and Cubs, along with current members in the Mets, Phillies and Montreal Expos (today’s Washington Nationals).
The month of June saw Pittsburgh slowly stabilize. On June 21, they were 28-33, in fifth place and now within 7 ½ games. But they were coming off losing three out of four to Philadelphia and there was no sign of a turnaround. But it was then that the Pirates got hot.
They won 16 of their last 23 games prior to the All-Star break. That included a 6-2 mark against defending NL East champ Montreal. And it got Pittsburgh back in the race. They were 44-40 at the break and just 2 ½ games back. The Cards and Phils were tied for first, with the Expos four games off the pace. It was a hot four-team race and the Pirates were squarely in the middle of it.
Three straight losses in Houston right out of the break cooled Pittsburgh down, but they were still in the hunt when they began the jam-packed week of August 9. The week began with a doubleheader in Philadelphia to kick off a four-game set. It would end on Sunday with a doubleheader at home against St. Louis, concluding a five-game series. Nine games against two key rivals. A pennant race moment had arrived in Pittsburgh.
The Pirates took a 3-2 lead into the ninth inning in the opener of Monday’s twilight doubleheader (where the first game began about 5 PM). Tekulve couldn’t hold the lead and lost 4-3. Easler bailed his team out in the nightcap, driving in four runs for a 9-6 win that salvaged a split.
Sarmiento got a start on Tuesday and was hit hard in a 9-5 loss. It was up to Rhoden in the finale. He pitched well, battling the Phils’ Dick Ruthven and a 1-1 tie was taken into the eighth. With one out and the bases loaded, Rhoden finally had to be removed. Tekulve couldn’t save him, giving up three runs in the 4-1 loss.
The week was off to a bad start, but it wasn’t even half over, as St. Louis came to old Three Rivers Stadium. The Pittsburgh bats fell silent in the opener, mustering only five hits off the Cards’ Joaquin Andujar in a 3-2 loss. Easler again stepped up, delivering three hits on Friday night and leading the way to a 7-4 win.
Pittsburgh was 2-4 on this key stretch as three games on Saturday and Sunday awaited. The week wasn’t going to be what they’d hoped, but just winning a couple games would at least buy them another chance later on. Instead, they wasted a good outing from Candelaria on Saturday and lost 4-1. And the pitching problems were on full display in the Sunday doubleheader, giving up a combined 17 runs in two more losses.
By the time the week was over, the Pirates’ were seven games off the pace and at 60-57 were barely over .500. But they didn’t throw in the towel. The latter half of August saw Pittsburgh push their record back to 72-64 and crawl within 4 ½ games of the lead. It was still a four-team race on Labor Day.
As the NFL season opened up under threat of a strike, the Pirates took two of three at home from the Phils and nudged to within 3 ½ games. Then Pittsburgh lost five of their next eight. This happened in conjunction with the Cardinals ripping off eight straight wins. The pennant race was all but over. To make matters worse for the good people of Pittsburgh, the NFL went out on strike and stayed there until mid-November. It was not a good September in 1982 at the confluence of the Three Rivers.
The Pirates finished the year 84-78, in fourth place. It was a winning year, it was better than the 1981 disaster and it provided some legitimate pennant race excitement. But it wasn’t what this franchise had gotten used to in the previous decade.