Saturday, September 3, 2016

Game of the Day (9/3/91)

Pirates 5, Giants 3 (10). Pittsburgh's Bob Walk was a veteran nearing the end of a fairly long, fairly respectable career. San Fran's Trevor Wilson was nearly a decade younger, generally not as good, and on his way to a shorter career.

Gary Redus led off the game with a single, but Wilson induced a double play from Jay Bell to erase him. Darren Lewis also singled to begin his half of the first, and Walk tried to remove him from the bases before even completing the next at bat, but his pickoff throw went wild, allowing Lewis to reach third. One out later, Will Clark's single brought the runner home to open the scoring.

Steve Buechele's walk in the top of the second made him the only man to reach for either team in the inning. The Pirates then tied the game in the third, starting when Jose Lind reached on a Matt Williams error. Redus's one-out single and Bell's walk loaded the bases, and Andy Van Slyke brought Lind home with a sacrifice fly. Wilson led off the home third with a double, but advanced only one more base by the end of the inning. Buechele walked again in the fourth, and was once more the only player to reach base in the frame; the same was true of Jay Bell, who drew a base on balls in the fifth.

Wilson worked a 1-2-3 sixth inning; Walk allowed a single to Lewis and walked Clark, but left both men on. Don Slaught led off the seventh with a single, and pinch runner Scott Bullett was bunted to second before Wilson stranded him. Roger Mason relieved in the bottom of the seventh and set the Giants down in order.

The long-lived tie finally died in the top of the eighth. Bobby Bonilla singled with two outs, and Barry Bonds then flied to right, where Willie McGee committed a run-scoring error. (I realize that with two outs, Bonilla was running on contact, and that if an error was assessed, the play likely looked routine, so the hitter may not have sprinted out of the box - but I'm still straining to explain why Bonds, who stole over 500 bases in his career, only reached first on this play, while Bonilla, who stole less than 50, scored from first.)

San Francisco responded immediately in the home eighth. Lewis singled with one out, and Mason was pulled for Rosario Rodriguez. A wild pitch promptly moved Lewis to second, and after McGee struck out, walks to Clark and Kevin Mitchell loaded the bases. Bill Landrum relieved Rodriguez and fared little better, walking Williams to force in the tying run, then allowing a go-ahead RBI single to Robby Thompson. The Pirates were bailed out when Mitchell tried for home and was thrown out, ending the inning, but they still went into the ninth trailing.

Dave Righetti notched a quick first out in the ninth. Up next was third catcher Tom Prince, who in parts of four MLB seasons to date had less than 200 career plate appearances, and whose only extended pre-September stint in the majors in '91 came when Slaught spent most of a month on the disabled list. But with the rosters having expanded for the season's final month, Prince made his presence felt here, tying the game with a solo homer.

Righetti retired the next two hitters to end the top of the ninth; the Pirates allowed a pair of hits in the bottom of the ninth, but Jose Uribe was caught stealing before Tom Herr's single, allowing Landrum to combine with Bob Patterson on sending the game into extras.

Francisco Oliveras took the mound in the top of the tenth and was greeted by a pinch single from Orlando Merced. Bell bunted the runner to second, and Van Slyke's single moved him to third. Bonilla struck out, Bonds was intentionally walked to load the bases, and Buechele then singled, bringing home both Merced and Van Slyke and putting the Pirates in front 5-3. Patterson retired the Giants in order to end the game.

The Pirates had a rather strange batting order in 1991. Their typical lineup had Andy Van Slyke in third (128 starts), Bobby Bonilla cleaning up (155 starts), and reigning NL MVP and arguably baseball's best player Barry Bonds in fifth (143 starts).

And then in the sixth spot (the "protection" for the team's best player), there was... a mess. Eight different players started at least nine games in the six hole, with none of them exceeding 30. The team's most frequent #6 hitter was Steve Buechele, who wasn't even a Pirate until August 31. Before that date, the most frequent occupants of that spot were Gary Varsho (27 starts, .695 OPS), Jeff King (27, .586), Mike LaValliere (17, .644), Mitch Webster (17, .617), and Don Slaught (11, .539). Overall, the sixth spot in the Pittsburgh order hit .241/.308/.371, which is... not very good.

This isn't a severe indictment of the sixth hitters themselves; they were only slightly worse than the NL average for that spot in the order. The question is why, given the dropoff in production at that spot, the Pirates chose to hit their best player directly in front of it. Bonds was intentionally walked about twice as many times in 1991 as he had been in 1990, and the quality of the hitters behind him undoubtedly had something to do with that. (That's bypassing the obvious point that a team with Barry Bonds on it will generally benefit from having him hit as often as possible, and the fifth slot in the order is not exactly an ideal choice for that purpose, either.)

On September 3, at least, the sixth hitter came through; Buechele drew a pair of walks during regulation, and then, after Bonds was intentionally walked in extras, Buechele punished the Giants with a game-winning two-run single. And that, combined with an unlikely homer from Tom Prince, proved enough to tile this one in Pittsburgh's favor. Given that they went on to win not only this game but the NL East this year, quibbling over lineup arrangement is probably not a major concern.

But that doesn't make it any less weird.

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