PITTSBURGH – Many of the best offensive performances in Pirates history belong to exactly the players you’d expect to dominate a game at the plate. Willie Stargell. Roberto Clemente. Ralph Kiner. Andrew McCutchen. Superstars are capable of greatness over an extended period of time, yes, and sometimes they just make it clear they are the best players on the field.
But the beauty of baseball is that any player can be a hero, and become a legend, on any given day. That’s been the case in Pittsburgh over the franchise’s long, storied history. Some of the Pirates' greatest single-game hitting performances were put together by star players at their professional peaks. Some were by role players who reached another level for nine innings. Others emerged from relative obscurity.
But they were all, at one point, the best player on the field. Let’s look at some of the top individual regular-season single-game offensive performances in Pirates history.
1. Rennie Stennett goes 7-for-7
Date: Sept. 16, 1975
Key stat: Seven hits in seven at-bats
This may not have been the most dominating or overpowering offensive performance in Pirates history. We’ll get to some of those in a bit. But Stennett accomplished something that has never been done in the modern era of Major League Baseball, so he’s an easy pick for the top spot here.
Stennett went 7-for-7 in the Pirates’ 22-0 rout of the Cubs, becoming the first and only modern-era big leaguer to record a hit in all seven of his at-bats in a nine-inning game. Pittsburgh's second baseman tripled once, doubled twice and drove in two runs at Wrigley Field. After his eighth-inning triple, he was removed for pinch-runner Willie Randolph. He scored five runs and drove in two as he racked up 11 total bases.
At that point, 43 players in modern baseball history had gone 6-for-6 -- a group that included Paul Waner and Ty Cobb, among others -- but nobody owned a 7-for-7 line. There have been other seven-hit games, like Brandon Crawford’s for the Giants in 2016, but none exactly like Stennett’s.
That was a historical day for the Pirates as a team, too. Their 22-run win over the Cubs remains tied for the largest margin of victory in a shutout in Major League history. Cleveland matched that mark on Aug. 31, 2004, beating the Yankees, 22-0, on a day that Omar Vizquel went 6-for-7.
2. Stargell stars with three home runs
Date: May 22, 1968
Key stat: Three homers, seven RBIs, 15 total bases
It should come as no surprise that Stargell’s name comes up a bunch no matter which criteria you use to determine offensive dominance.
Five-hit games? This was one of three “Pops” put together during his Hall of Fame career. Three-homer games? He had four of the 20 in franchise history. Most RBIs? He drove in six on four occasions and seven in this game. Extra-base hits? He had a franchise-best five (two homers, three doubles) against the Braves on Aug. 1, 1970, and he had three other games with four -- including this one, when he doubled once to go along with his trio of homers.
Two things separate this amazing game, a 13-6 win over the Cubs, from the rest for Stargell: He finished with 15 total bases, a single-game franchise record, and drove in a personal-best seven runs. There have only been 45 games in Major League history in which one hitter compiled at least 15 total bases, and Stargell is the only Pirate to ever do it.
3. Johnny Rizzo knocks in nine
Date: May 30, 1939
Key stat: Single-game franchise record nine RBIs
Stennett’s 7-for-7 game is well-known Major League history. Stargell is the greatest slugger in franchise history. And then there’s this game from Rizzo, an outfielder who played only 246 games for the Pirates from 1938-40 and was overshadowed by the Hall of Famers who hit in front of him on his day in the sun: Paul Waner and Arky Vaughan.
But Rizzo’s performance in the second half of the Pirates’ doubleheader against the Cardinals, a 14-8 win, was one of the most impressive showings the club has ever seen. He finished 5-for-6 with two homers, two doubles, four runs scored and a single-game team record nine RBIs.
Rizzo began the second game of that doubleheader at Sportsman’s Park batting just .239 with a .745 OPS. By the time it was over, he entered June with a .264 average and .837 OPS.
He didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. The right-handed-hitting left fielder enjoyed an outstanding debut season in 1938, slashing .301/.368/.514 with 23 homers and 111 RBIs as he finished sixth in the National League MVP voting. But he took a big step back in ’39, despite his outstanding performance on May 30, and hit just .261 in 94 games. He only played nine games for Pittsburgh in 1940 before he was traded to Cincinnati for Vince DiMaggio.
4. Kiner’s incredible cycle
Date: June 25, 1950
Key stat: Two homers, eight RBIs, 14 total bases
Hitting for the cycle is more of a novelty than it is a pure indication of offensive greatness. (You’d rather have a four-hit day with three homers than a cycle, right?) But not all cycles are like the one Kiner put together in this 16-11 win over the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The Pirates’ powerful slugger homered twice during his five-hit day, finishing the game with eight RBIs and 14 total bases. Only two other Pirates have matched or surpassed that output of 14 total bases: Stargell (three times) and Clemente (once). And only Rizzo has topped his eight-RBI showing, although three other Pirates hitters (McCutchen, Dave Robertson and Jason Bay twice) have tied it.
The Pirates have had 23 cycles since 1901. Vaughan, Fred Clarke and Wally Westlake each hit for two, and a handful of Hall of Famers can claim a cycle among their many accomplishments: Honus Wagner, Kiki Cuyler, Max Carey, Pie Traynor, Stargell and Kiner.
Kiner had plenty of other games that could have cracked this list, including his four three-homer games with the Pirates. But this one stands out even for the Hall of Fame power hitter.
5. Clemente carries the team
Date: May 15, 1967
Key stat: Three home runs, seven RBIs, 14 total bases
It would feel wrong to make a list like this without including Clemente. And it still feels a little unfair to put this particular game on here, even as unsurprisingly terrific as Clemente played. Why? Because the Pirates lost, 8-7, to the Reds. But it was no fault of Clemente.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Hall of Fame right fielder was the Pirates’ entire offense. Clemente drove in all of their runs, homered three times, doubled once and had half of Pittsburgh’s eight hits on the day. Despite that lack of offense otherwise, the Pirates were in position to win this game after Clemente homered to give them a 7-5 lead in the top of the ninth, but the Reds tied it in the ninth and won in the 10th.
This standout performance came during a 1967 campaign that may have been the best ever by one of the game’s all-time great players; Clemente finished that season with a .357/.400/.554 slash line, 23 homers, 110 RBIs and a Gold Glove Award.
Clemente's legendary career produced other candidates for this list, of course, even without considering his personal greatness in the 1971 World Series. He had eight five-hit games, another three-homer game and plenty of other brilliant individual performances. But this one was arguably his best, despite the outcome.
Here are some of the greatest individual single-game hitting accomplishments by players who weren’t listed among the top five above.
• Cuyler went 6-for-6 with three doubles and a triple in the Pirates’ 16-4 win over the Phillies on Aug. 9, 1924. Waner finished 6-for-6 with two doubles and a triple in a 15-7 victory over the Giants on Aug. 26, 1926. The Pirates’ other six-hit performances: Freddy Sanchez (May 25, 2009), Wally Backman (April 27, 1990), Dick Groat (May 13, 1960), Johnny Hopp (May 14, 1950), Lloyd Waner (June 15, 1929), Carey (July 7, 1922), Johnny Gooch (July 7, 1922) and Carson Bigbee (Aug. 22, 1917).
• Stargell has the only five-extra-base-hit game in franchise history on Aug. 1, 1970, and these players had at least five hits with four extra-base hits among them: Adam Frazier (July 1, 2019), Andy LaRoche (Sept. 28, 2009), Gus Bell (April 22, 1951), Jim Russell (Sept. 1, 1946), Stargell (No. 2 on this list), Rizzo (No. 3), Kiner (No. 4) and Cuyler (mentioned above).
• McCutchen had three three-homer games to consider, but one of his final games as a Pirate was perhaps his best overall: a 4-for-4, two-homer, eight-RBI, 11-total-bases performance in a 10-1 win over the Orioles on Sept. 26, 2017, at PNC Park. In that game, McCutchen hit his long-awaited first career grand slam.
• Among the other Pirates to homer three times in a game: Dick Stuart (June 30, 1960), Josh Bell (July 1, 2019), Darnell Coles (Sept. 30, 1987), Bill Robinson (June 5, 1976), Aramis Ramirez (April 8, 2001), Frank Thomas (Aug. 16, 1958) and Roman Mejias (May 4, 1958).
Adam Berry covers the Rays for MLB.com and covered the Pirates from 2015-21. Follow him on Twitter @adamdberry.