The 1971 World Series, Game 5: “I don’t need signs to catch your junk.”
In his book STEVE BLASS: A Pirate for Life , the former Pirates’ pitcher writes: “The reality of a pitcher’s relationship with his catcher is that when he’s on a roll, he is almost his own decision maker. By throwing a pitch that the catcher calls for, you endorse their sign. But if you don’t like it, you can change it.” That is why game five of the 1971 World Series featuring the Pittsburgh Pirates and Baltimore Orioles was unique in that regard.
Before we explore the relationship between Nelson Briles and Emanuel Sanguillen, we must first be aware of the importance of the Pirates to win on October 14, 1971. Before that game, they had knotted up the series by taking two games at home and if they could win a third, it would save them the trouble of trying to win two in enemy territory. For the second game in a row, Danny Murtaugh bypassed Dock Ellis, arguably his team’s ace. Although Ellis finished 1971 with a record of 19-9, he is remembered mostly for giving up a Titanic homer to Reggie Jackson during the All Star game in Detroit.
As far as the post season, Dock pitched five innings against the Giant in the NLCS to win but lost the first game of the World Series. Ellis was nursing an arm ailment, so Murtaugh instead went with an unlikely choice. The surprised starter for Pirates’ final home game in the World Series was Nellie Briles. Nellie was 28 years old and had started only 14 games during the season. He missed his one potential play-off start because of a pulled leg muscle. What he did have on his resume was his previous World Series experience in St. Louis in 1967 & 68. Still, Danny asked him to pitch in the most important game of his career.
If Briles was nervous it was not noticeable. Nellie began splendidly during the first inning. Retiring Don Buford, Paul Blair and Boog Powell in order. He continued his magic by retiring Frank Robinson and Elrod Hendricks before Brooks Robinson lined a single to the outfield. Davey Johnson ended any threat by flying out to center field.
The Pirates on the other hand, took a liking to Dave McNally’s offerings. This was evident in the second when Bob Robertson launched his first pitch in the bottom of the second over the center field wall. Manny Sanguillen followed with a single and promptly stole second. McNally struck out both Jose Pagan and Jackie Hernandez before facing Briles. Nellie smacked a line drive into center field to bring Sangy home, making it 2-0 after two innings.
Nellie shut down the O’s again in the third. In the bottom of the inning the Pirates added to their lead. Gene Clines walked, then moved to second on a Clemente grounder. Willie Stargell flied out and then on a rare error by Brooks, Clines went to third. Facing Sanguillen, McNally threw a wild pitch allowing Clines to scamper home putting the Pirate up 3-0. The Pirates would score again in the fifth and extend their lead to 4-0 while also sending McNally to showers.
In the seventh inning, the pitcher and catcher had a communication breakdown. With a comfortable four run lead, Briles felt that he could afford to go right at the Oriole batters. Nellie had pitched a gem. He spotted his pitches and exhibited remarkable control. But it was the meeting between the pitcher and catcher that complicated their relationship that afternoon. Manny went out to the mound after Briles shook off his sign.
As Nellie explained: “We’re going into the seventh inning and we had been blending our pitches fairly well, you know spotting the fastball in and out. Then mixing our off-speed pitches, the slider, and the palm ball. I have a 4-0 lead and we need only nine outs. I now wanted to take the game to the opposition. I want to throw a lot of the strikes and go with a lot of hard stuff, get ahead in the count, take the game to them. Pitch good, high percentage baseball and close out the game.”
Manny Sanguillen had a different game plan in mind. Briles recounted how Manny came out to the mound at the start of the seventh. The following is how he remembered their conversation.
“Nellie, we going to throw the slide ball, we going to throw the palm ball, we going to get those guys out, okay?'”
Briles looked at his catcher and replied, “No.”
Sangy was stunned and said, “What do you mean no? I call the game for six innings, now you going to call the game? Are you nuts or something?”
Briles looked at him replying, “No, let’s take the game to them!”
Then Manny says, “You no like the way I call the game? I no call no pitch?” Manny returned behind the plate and would not put a signal down.
Sensing that his catcher was mad, Briles yelled out, “Manny come on, this the World Series!”
Manny walked back out and informed the pitcher, “You no like the way I call the game, and I no give you no sign. Besides, I no need no signs to catch your junk. Whatever you want to throw, you throw!”
So that is what Briles did for the remainder of the game. Nellie was aware how his catcher was special but he now had a front row seat to how special and athletic Sangy was. Briles threw whatever he wanted and Manny simply picked up the ball’s spin and reacted. Since Briles’ control was so great that day, Sanguillen knew the pitcher would be around the plate.
The following is how Nellie shut out the Orioles:
In the 7th, Paul Blair flew out, Boog Powell singled to right-center field, and Frank Robinson grounded into a 5-4-3 double play to end the inning.
In the top of the 8th, Elrod Hendricks grounded out to Robertson at first, then Brooks flew out deep to center field and Johnson popped out to short to end the inning.
In the last inning, Belanger grounded out third to first. Rettenmund did the same, Buford drew a walk and was erased by a ground out by Paul Blair.
The Pirates were going to Baltimore ahead 3 games to 2.
This game represented a 2-hit gem by Nelson Briles but showcased the athleticism of Manny Sanguillen.
One needs to ask, “What would Johnny Bench do?”