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Groundhog Day: For Varsho, defining moment 90 feet out of reach

Former Pirates outfielder looks back at end of dramatic 1991 NLCS Game 6

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- It is an unrelenting memory that is both warming and haunting to Gary Varsho whenever he thinks about it, which is often, still 24 years later. It could have been the defining moment of a 14-year career, and it died on third base.

Oct. 16, 1991. As foretold, the Pirates were in the National League Championship Series chokehold of the pitching that had lifted the Braves from the morass of an unbroken string of 90-loss seasons. The Bucs had scored a grand total of four runs in the last two games in Atlanta -- but they sufficed for two wins, and they have brought a 3-games-to-2 advantage back to Three Rivers Stadium, packed with 54,508 expecting to see them punch their World Series ticket.

A series that had already produced a pair of 1-0 games is at it again, scoreless through 50 outs. Then Greg Olson doubles with two outs in the top of the ninth off Doug Drabek and scores Ron Gant.

Varsho, a 30-year-old left-handed-hitting reserve outfielder, is told by Pittsburgh manager Jim Leyland to prepare to pinch-hit to lead off the bottom of the ninth if righty closer Alejandro Pena replaces left-hander Steve Avery.

"I went back in the tunnel to get myself loose," Varsho said. "I was nervous, extremely nervous. I came back out, went to the on-deck circle and heard my name get announced. When I stepped in the box, I lost all my nervousness. I didn't hear the crowd. I was seeing only Pena."

The count runs to 2-2, and Varsho rips a rope to left-center.

"As I'm running down to first base, I thought, 'I hit it!' And I also thought, 'I hit it good, and if it gets by him, it's a triple.'"

The ball hits "him," center fielder Gant, in the chest, bounces straight up in the air and settles safely back in his glove. Varsho takes root at first -- not for long.

"The crowd just erupted. I looked over at [third-base coach] Gene Lamont, and the crowd behind him is just rocking, shaking the stands. 'Oh my God, what did I just do? I'm the tying run, and we could be going to the World Series.' It was a cold night, 38 degrees, and I felt a trickle of sweat coming down my brow."

Orlando Merced pinch-hits. Merced is a 24-year-old switch-hitter with some power who in a 13-year career will have 4,532 plate appearances -- and three sacrifice bunts. Following orders, Merced sacrifices Varsho to second.

Would Leyland want to be able to take back that bunt sign?

"Did he get it down? Did the guy get in scoring position?" Leyland said. "Those two [we had coming up] were pretty good guys to knock him in. It just didn't happen."

Jay Bell flies to right field, where David Justice barely has to even move to make the catch. Varsho holds at second, where he figures he is as well off with two outs as he would be at third.

"I could've possibly advanced," Varsho said. "But taking a chance of getting thrown out at third without Andy Van Slyke even getting to the plate ... I didn't want to hang my hat on that one. Pena's out-pitch was the splitter, and if he bounces one, I could score from third -- but I wasn't gonna maybe take the bat out of Van Slyke's hands."

The 0-1 pitch to Van Slyke does bounce wild, but it gets Varsho only as far as third. Then Van Slyke looks at a game-ending called third strike.

Varsho: "I'm sure he's reflected on it. 'Why didn't I swing?' He's played hard for 162, he's exhausted, running on fumes ... there's nothing really to say. I'd love to have had a Craig Counsell moment, where I jump on home plate and into my teammates' arms. It was a long time ago, but I can still step into the box and feel that moment. It was tough to swallow. It took a lot out of us. But we had to move on, think about Game 7."

It's more of the same: John Smoltz spins a six-hitter and makes Brian Hunter's two-run shot in the first stand up for a 4-0 blanking, ending the Pirates' postseason in a 22-inning scoreless rut.

"Those were the two best games ever pitched against me, Avery and Smoltz," Leyland, who would manage 3,499 Major League games, said. "I sure wish the results were different. But I don't necessarily know if I'd do something different."

"If we only got a chance to do it over again ...." -- sports' most wistful refrain. And the Pirates' wish came true 12 months later. Same NLCS, same opponent ... same heartbreak. No. Bigger.

The Bucs take a 2-0 lead into the bottom of the ninth of Game 7 in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Their world spins off its axis, leading to Francisco Cabrera's two-out, two-run pinch-hit single and the 3-2 dagger.

"Lot of stuff happened that inning," Leyland said. "Jose Lind was the best second baseman defensively in the league and he kicked a ball [hit by Justice, who would score the tying run]. It happens. [Damon] Berryhill struck out on a pitch right down the middle and [Stan Belinda] didn't get the call [and walks, pushing two runners into scoring position]. And Cabrera got the base hit. Nothing we could do about it. Too bad. That's one I'd like to change, for sure."

So the Pirates did get their Groundhog Day moment -- but in the worst possible way. They were within one hit, one out of the World Series in 1991-92. They have not been as close since.

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. Follow him on Twitter @Tom_Singer.
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