After sweeping the Oakland A’s in the 1971 ALCS, the Baltimore Orioles were favorites in the World Series. The Birds were the defending champions. They had won 101 regular season games, losing only 57. In the past three seasons, they were winners of 318 regular season games. Since falling unexpectedly to the New York Mets in 1969, their post-season record was 10-1.
The Pittsburgh Pirates stood between the O’s and a second straight championship. The Bucs were worthy opponents — winners of 97 games (with 65 losses) and victors over San Francisco three games to one in the NLCS. They had outscored their regular season opponents by 189 runs. Baltimore had outscored theirs by 212.
On paper, then, the Orioles’ edge was only slight. But the O’s had nearly all of the post-season experience, the championship mystique, and a pitching rotation with four 20-game winners.
The season opened in Baltimore on October 9. Dave McNally, with a regular season record of 21-5 (87-31 from 1968-1971), was on the mound for the Orioles. Dock Ellis, 19-9, was the Pirates’ starter.
Ellis is one of the most memorable characters of 1970s baseball. He says he never pitched a big league game without the assistance of alcohol or drugs. That includes the 1971 all-star game in which he was shelled. For that one, Ellis claims, he was high on drugs. He also says he was coming down from an LSD trip, aided by taking speed, when he pitched a no-hitter against San Diego in 1970 (in which he walked eight batters and hit another).
I don’t know what substance[s], if any, Ellis was on for Game One of the 1971 World Series. However, he might have thought he was hallucinating in the top of the second inning when the Pirates scored three runs with only one hit against a Baltimore defense playing like imposters.
Bob Robertson led off by drawing a walk from McNally. Next, McNally, one of the premier control pitchers of the era, threw a wild pitch allowing Robertson to take second base.
Manny Sanguillen then hit a grounder to Mark Belanger, considered the best defensive shortstop of the era. Belanger tried to throw out Robertson at third, but his throw hit the big first baseman and caromed into the third-base dugout. Robertson scored and Sanguillen took second.
McNally retired Jose Pagan on a groundout, but Sanguillen advanced to third.
That brought weak-hitting Jackie Hernandez to the plate. With Ellis to follow, McNally’s chances of escaping with just the one run looked good.
Hoping to squeeze out a second run, Pittsburgh’s manager Danny Murtaugh had Hernandez lay down a bunt. The bunt brought Sanguillen home and Hernandez made it all the way to second base on a throwing error by catcher Elrod Hendricks. Dave Cash drove Hernandez home with a single, the only Pittsburgh hit of the three-run inning.
Baltimore answered immediately when Frank Robinson led off the bottom of the second with a home run. And in the bottom of the third, Ellis imploded.
Belanger led off with a single. McNally struck out, but Don Buford singled.
Up stepped Merv Rettenmund, an important but oft-forgotten member of Baltimore’s pennant winning teams (in 1971 he batted .318 with an OPS of .870). Rettenmund delivered a three-run homer to give the Orioles a 4-3 lead.
When Ellis walked the next batter, Boog Powell, Murtaugh brought in Bob Moose to face Frank Robinson. Moose fanned the great Oriole and escaped the inning with no further damage.
Pittsburgh’s deficit was only one run, but McNally pitched lights-out the rest of the way. There were no more Pirate baserunners until the top of the ninth, when Sanguillen reached on another error by Belanger.
By then, Baltimore led 5-3 thanks to a home run by Buford. McNally put an end to the Bucs’ hope of a late rally by retiring Pagan on a fly ball and striking out pinch-hitter Al Oliver.
The Orioles had won their fifth straight post-season game and their 11th in their last 12.
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After a rainout on October 10, the two teams met for Game Two on October 11. The pitching matchup — Jim Palmer vs. Bob Johnson — strongly favored the Birds. Palmer posted a 20-9 regular season mark, making him 56-23 over the past three seasons.
Johnson was 9-10 in 1971 and 17-23 in his career so far. He had, however, pitched very well in Game Three of the NLCS. In that outing, he allowed only one run (unearned) in eight innings, as the Pirates defeated the great Juan Marichal and the Giants 2-1.
Game Two of the World Series was a different story. The Orioles chased Johnson in the fourth inning, building a 4-0 lead. Johnson and reliever Bruce Kison, a 21 year-old rookie who would make his mark later in the Series, combined to walk three and hit a batter in that frame. The only hits in the three-run inning were singles by Frank Robinson and Dave Johnson.
The Orioles effectively ended the contest in the next inning with six more runs, five of them off of Bob Moose. This inning would mark the only World Series appearance by veteran Bob Veale. Unfortunately, the longtime Pirate standout walked two of the five batters he faced, gave up a hit, and was charged with a run.
The Orioles led 11-0 by the time the Pirates broke through against Palmer in the top of the eighth. A home run by Richie Hebner accounted for all three runs.
Palmer finished the game, coasting home to victory, 11-3.
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Baltimore was up two games to none. The good news was that the Series was moving to Pittsburgh. The bad news was that yet another Orioles ace, Mike Cuellar, awaited the Bucs in Game Three.