After climbing the hill in 1988, the Pirates slipped badly in 1989. The club fell below the .500 mark again and was never closer than 10 off the pace after the All-Star break. The Pirates re-tooled slightly heading into 1990. Bobby Bonilla was moved from third base into right field. Former first round pick Jeff King took over the hot corner. Ted Power was signed as a free agent to help out in the bullpen. The acquisition of Walt Terrell via free agency was supposed to shore up the starting rotation. Wally Backman was picked up as a free agent to provide some spark at the top of the lineup and to be a reliable utility guy. The key move was trading Jeff Robinson and Willie Smith to the Yankees for catcher Don Slaught. Mike LaValliere and Slaught would team up to become a formidable backstop presence in Pittsburgh.
Pirate starting pitching was problematic early on. Walt Terrell was dreadful. He was released in late July after posting an ERA near 6.00 in 16 starts. He left with a record of 2-7. John Smiley smashed his hand in a car door in mid-May. He would not return until late June. He finished the year with a 9-10 mark and an ERA over 4.50. Doug Drabek went 9-4 through the first half of the season. Neal Heaton was 10-4 at the break and was named to his first and only All-Star team. He would win just two times in the second half of the year.
Thankfully, the offense was busy setting the league on fire. Right around the time Smiley was crushing his hand, Barry Bonds was moved permanently out of the lead off spot. Bonds hit lead off on May 21st and then never again the rest of the year. The Bucco batters were second in the National League in runs scored and led the league in OPS. Bonds would be voted as the MVP following the season. He topped the league in OPS and hit 33 homers to go along with 52 steals. Bonilla finished second in runs, RBI, doubles and total bases while leading the league in extra base hits.
The bullpen was handled with a committee approach. Three righthanders (Stan Belinda, Bill Landrum and Power) along with three lefties (Bob Kipper, Bob Patterson and Scott Ruskin) all appeared in 40 or more games. Four different players earned at least five saves for the first and only time in team history.
By early August, it was a two team race. The Pirates were fighting with the Mets. About two weeks after Terrell was cut loose, GM Larry Doughty made a key pickup. He paid a steep price, but he got Zane Smith from the Montreal Expos in exchange for Willie Green and Moises Alou. Smith made 10 starts. He went 6-2 with a 1.30 ERA. He tossed three complete games, including two shutouts.
Doughty continued to add talent as the season wore along. Future manager Lloyd McClendon was acquired in early September from the Cubs for a career minor leaguer. The Pirates got Carmelo Martinez from the Phillies a few days before that in what turned out to be a gaffe by Doughty. Top prospect Wes Chamberlain was mistakenly put on irrevocable waivers and claimed by the Phillies. Doughty managed to arrange a trade that sent Chamberlain along with Julio Peguero and Tony Longmire to get Martinez.
The Pirates battled the Mets into September. Pittsburgh was in second place heading into Labor Day weekend. A six game winning streak that included a sweep of the Mets in Three Rivers put the Pirates in first place to stay. The final W in that streak was win #81. Randy Tomlin tossed a complete game three hitter and the Pirates scored five times in the first three innings off of Julio Valera to win 7-1. Two days later Drabek went 7-1/3 and gave up just one run to beat Montreal for the 82nd win. He was supported by long balls from Sid Bream and Any Van Slyke. Drabek picked up his 19th win on route to a total of 22. Rookie Howard Farmer made his third career start that game for Montreal.
But, the Mets were not done. In the middle of September the Mets swept three from Pittsburgh at Shea as the Pirates dropped six straight road games. That streak left Pittsburgh in first by only 1/2 game over the Mets. But the Pirates got hot at the right time. They won ten of next eleven to pull away from the New York menace. Drabek tossed the division clincher, a 2-0 shutout in St. Louis on September 30th. He would go on to win the Cy Young award, the first Pirate to do so since Vern Law in 1960.
The Pirates set a team attendance mark, cracking 2,000,000 fans. That number nearly tripled the number of attendees in 1985.
The 1990 NLCS would be the first of three straight disappointments for the Pirates. The Reds took four of six and went on to sweep the Oakland A’s in the series.
In what would be an on-going trend in the next couple of seasons, the Pirates had several key players who were free agents following the 1990 season. Pittsburgh re-inked Gary Redus, Don Slaught and Zane Smith, while Sid Bream (to Atlanta), Wally Backman (to Philly), Ted Power (to Cincy) and R.J. Reynolds (to Japan) departed.