Monday, September 1, 2014

Game 7: Exciting World Series Finales (1971)

October 17, 1971
Pittsburgh Pirates vs. Baltimore Orioles
Memorial Stadium, Baltimore

After winning the NL East over the Cardinals by seven games, the Pirates defeated the Giants in the NLCS by a 3-games-to-1 margin. In 1970, they had come up short in the playoffs against the Reds. Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente were the core of the Pittsburgh offense. Clemente hit .341 and Stargell led the NL with 48 homers. Manny Sanguillen enjoyed one of his finest offensive seasons, leading major league catchers with a .319 batting average.  Flamboyant right-hander Dock Ellis was the ace of the pitching staff, posting a 19-9 record.

The defending world champion Orioles relied heavily on pitching, carrying four twenty-game winners on their staff.  This was a rare accomplishment in the modern era. Dave McNally, Pat Dobson, Mike Cuellar and Jim Palmer made life easy for manager Earl Weaver, gathering 81 victories between them. The Oriole offense was propelled by sluggers Frank Robinson and Boog Powell. Brooks Robinson added 91 RBIs and won his twelfth consecutive Gold Glove Award at third base as the Orioles coasted to the pennant then swept the A's in the playoffs.

Entering the Series as underdogs, the Pirates dropped the first two games at Baltimore and appeared to be on the ropes after an 11-3 Oriole blowout in Game 2. Back at Three Rivers Stadium, the Bucs put the O's on the brink of elimination with three straight victories. Game 6 was a classic that lasted for 10 innings. The Pirates loaded the bases in the top of the tenth, but came up empty. In the bottom of the frame, the Orioles scored the deciding run on a sacrifice fly by Brooks Robinson. The ball was hit to shallow center field and Frank Robinson narrowly beat Vic Davalillo's strong throw to the plate.

Game 7 featured the second showdown between Mike Cuellar and Steve Blass. Cuellar had faltered in the O's Game 3 loss while Blass had pitched a 3-hit gem. In the encore match-up, Cuellar was in peak form. Through seven frames, the Bucs managed just one run on a solo homer by Clemente. In the top of the eighth, Cuellar gave up a leadoff single to Stargell and an RBI double to third baseman Jose Pagan before retiring the next three batters in order. Trailing 2-0 in the bottom of the eighth, the O's finally broke through as Ellie Hendricks and Mark Belanger strung together a pair of singles. Hendricks later scored on a grounder by Don Buford to cut the Pirate lead in half. In the ninth, the Orioles sent their most powerful hitters to the plate. The ball never left the infield as Blass worked a 1-2-3 inning, giving the Pirates their first world championship in over a decade. Having hit safely in all seven games, Clemente was named MVP. The decision prompted the following comment from Orioles skipper Earl Weaver: "Clemente was great all right, but if it hadn't been for Mr. Blass, we might be popping corks right now."

After his brilliant Series performance in '71, Blass came back strong with a 19-8 record and 2.49 ERA the following year. He finished second behind Steve Carlton in Cy Young voting. After that, he suffered one of the most puzzling downfalls in baseball history. In 1973, Blass inexplicably lost his ability to throw strikes, walking 84 batters in 89 innings. Demoted to the minors in '74, he never appeared in another major league game. There was no satisfactory explanation for the phenomenon as Blass had not suffered an injury and there was no precipitating event. His condition became unofficially labeled "Steve Blass Disease"--an affliction that appears to be caused by over-thinking the act of throwing. Several other players have suffered the same plight, most notably Yankee second baseman Chuck Knoblauch, who was moved to the outfield after becoming increasingly unable to make the toss to first base. Commenting on his rapid career decline, Blass remarked: "It was the worst experience of my baseball life...I don't think I'll ever forget it. I was embarrassed and disgusted. I was totally unnerved. You can't imagine the feeling that you suddenly have no idea what you're doing out there, performing that way as a major league pitcher."

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