At the conclusion of play on Aug. 1, 1973 the Pittsburgh Pirates, despite their 51-53 record, were in third place, six games behind the first place St. Louis Cardinals and two and one-half games behind the second place Chicago Cubs.
The loss of the great Clemente was inestimable, but the inexplicable collapse of Steve Blass hurt almost as much.
Right-handed hitting Richie Zisk who was in his first full season at the age of 24 and left-handed hitting Dave Parker, who at 22 years of age was in his first major league season, hit well, but no player or combination of players could replace Clemente.
Blass, who along with Clemente was instrumental in the 1971 World Championship and who blossomed into a 19-game winner in 1972, had as much difficulty finding home in 1973 as the kid who is away at college and discovers that his parents have moved without telling him.
The Pirates blanked the Cubs, 1-0 on Sept. 1. They were now one game above .500, tied for first place with the Cardinals. The teams were bunched so closely that the last place Philadelphia Phillies were a mere six games out of first.
The Pirates played the Mets five critical games starting on Sept. 17. The teams split the first two at Three Rivers Stadium, but the Pirates lost all three in New York.
They were now one game under .500, but what was worse, they trailed the first place Mets by one-half game.
The key game that probably cost the Pirates the division title was the middle game of the three at Shea Stadium.
Going into the game, the Pirates led the Mets by one and one-half games. They needed a win badly. When it was over, the Pirates lead was a slim one-half game.
The Pirates held the lead three times. Each time, the Mets tied them. Then came the play of the season, a play in which fate seemingly stepped in on the side of the Mets.
Richie Zisk, a slow runner, was on first with one out in the top of the 13th inning. Dave Augustine hit a deep drive to left field that appeared to be headed over the wall, but it landed on top of the wall and took a weird bounce right to Cleon Jones.
Zisk, who never stopped running, rounded third as Jones relayed into Wayne Garret, who fired to catcher Jerry Grote. Zisk was out at the plate. It's not fair to Zisk, but no one would have thrown out Clemente.
The starch was taken out of the Pirates, who sent the no longer effective Steve Blass to the mound against Tom Seaver the next day. It was no contest as the Mets pounded the Pirates, 10-2 to oust them from first. But it wasn't quite over.
On the morning of Oct. 1, the Pirates and Cardinals had each lost 81 games. The Mets had lost 80. The season was supposed to have ended the day before, but rain-outs had to be played.
The Pirates lost at home to the San Diego Padres while the Mets won the first of two games at Chicago. Now it was over.
The Mets won only 82 games but were division champions. The Pirates finished at 80-82, which was good enough for only third place behind the 81-81 Cardinals.
It was a season that demonstrated that mediocrity could excite.