This Date in Pittsburgh Pirates History: April 6th, Bert Blyleven and the 1971 Season Opener

One game of note from a World Series winning season, plus three former Pittsburgh Pirates born on this date. We start with a Hall of Famer.

Bert Blyleven, pitcher for the 1978-80 Pirates. He was drafted out of Santiago HS in California in 1969 by the Minnesota Twins in the third round, and it took him exactly one year to make his big league debut. Blyleven was born in the Netherlands. He was the fifth player from that country to make the majors, but when he debuted with the Twins in 1970, he was the first player from the Netherlands to appear in the majors since 1914. He debuted in pro ball in the Gulf Coast League, where he went 2-2, 2.81 with 39 strikeouts in 32 innings. Blyleven moved up to the Class-A Florida State League to finish the year with Orlando. While there, he went 5-0, 1.46 in 37 innings, with 41 strikeouts. While that appears to be a lot of work for an 18-year-old on top of his high school season, he attended the Fall Instructional League and threw another 72 innings that fall, dominating an older group of hitters by going 7-0, 1.50 in 12 starts. Blyleven began the 1970 season with Evansville of the Triple-A American Association, where he went 4-2, 2.50 in 54 innings, with 63 strikeouts. His big league debut came on June 5, 1970, the one-year anniversary of the day he was drafted.

Blyleven began his Major League career in 1970 as a 19-year-old by going 10-9, 3.18, with 135 strikeouts in 164 innings, making 25 starts and two relief appearances. In his first full season in the majors in 1971, he won 16 games for the Twins and posted a 2.81 ERA. He threw 17 complete games and pitched a total of 278.1 innings. His 224 strikeouts that year ranked fourth in the American League. He went 17-17, 2.73 in 287.1 innings in 1972, and once again finished fourth in strikeouts (228). That pitching staff also included Hall of Famer Jim Kaat, as well as Jim Perry, who won 215 big league games, but the club finished with a 77-77 record. It was a strong season for Blyleven despite the record, but he had an incredible season the next year. He made 40 starts in 1973, finished 25 of them, and nine of those games were shutouts. He pitched a total of 325 innings, while winning 20 games (with 17 losses) for the only time in his career. His 258 strikeouts ranked second in the AL and it set a single-season high for his career that he wouldn’t top. He was an All-Star for the first time, finished seventh in the Cy Young voting and 26th in the MVP race. The Twins finished at .500 again (81-81), despite having five Hall of Famers for the second straight season (Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva and Rod Carew are the others). It was actually an improvement over 1971, when the same group went 74-86.

Blyleven had a 2.66 ERA in 281 innings in  1974 for a team that finished with an 82-80 record, but somehow he managed just a 17-17 record. His teammate Ray Corbin had a winning record while putting up a 5.29 ERA. Blyleven finished second in the league again with 249 strikeouts. He completed 19 of his 37 starts, three by shutouts. In 1975, he had his third straight second place finish in strikeouts (233), while going 15-10, 3.00 in 275.2 innings, with 35 starts, 20 complete games and three shutouts. In June of 1976, Blyleven was traded to the Texas Rangers, where he put up a 2.76 ERA in 202.1 innings to finish out the season. He combined that year to go 13-16, 2.87 in 297.2 innings, with 219 strikeouts. He completed exactly half of his 36 starts and he threw six shutouts. For the 1977 Rangers, Blyleven went 14-12, 2.72 in 234.2 innings, with 15 complete games and five shutouts. His streak of six straight 200+ strikeout seasons ended, as he finished that year with 182. On December 8, 1977 the Pirates acquired him in a four-team trade involving 11 players, including John Milner joining the Pirates from the New York Mets, while Al Oliver and Nelson Norman were sent to the Rangers.

Blyleven went 14-10, 3.03 in 34 starts (11 complete games and four shutouts) during his first season with the Pirates in 1978. He pitched 243.2 innings that year and struck out 182 batters for the second straight season. In 1979 he posted his highest ERA up to that point, but for once he didn’t have to be perfect to get wins. He had pitched for some poor teams during his career, resulting in many .500 W/L seasons, despite always posting strong stats. In 1979 the Pirates won the World Series, and Blyleven went 12-5, 3.60 in 237.1 innings during the season and 2-0, 1.50 in three playoff games. He actually made 37 starts total, failing to get a decision in 20 games. That was partially due to Chuck Tanner being quicker with a hook, as he completed just four games all year and failed to record a shutout. Blyleven had a rough 1980 season and he was unhappy in Pittsburgh. He went 8-13, 3.82 in 216.2 innings. The Pirates wanted to move on as well, and he was dealt to the Cleveland Indians, along with Manny Sanguillen, on December 9, 1980. It was a one-sided deal in which the Pirates received four players who were role players and they barely played for the Pirates. By the end of Spring Training in 1982, all four players were done with the Pirates. Blyleven went on to pitch another 11 seasons in the majors, though there was a rocky stretch where this trade didn’t look as bad as it does now.

Blyleven had a strong first year in Cleveland during the strike-shortened 1981 season, going 11-7, 2.88 in 159.1 innings. His 1982 was a lost one after needing elbow surgery early in the year. He made just four starts before the surgery, then he was limited to 24 starts in 1983, when he posted a 3.91 ERA and had multiple trips to the disabled list. After three seasons, he had a 20-19 record in Cleveland, and he was paid well at the time. It appeared that his career could be on the downside, but Blyleven bounced back in a big way in 1984 at 33 years old by going 19-7, 2.87 in 245 innings. He finished that year third in the Cy Young voting. Blyleven split the 1985 season between the Indians and Twins after a mid-season trade, going 17-16, 3.16 in 293.2 innings. He led the league in innings, starts (37), complete games (24) and shutouts (five), while also winning his lone strikeout title with 206 on the season. It was his seventh season with 200+ strikeouts, but he wasn’t done adding to that total. Once again he finished third in the Cy Young voting, and he made his second (and last) All-Star appearance. In 1986, Blyleven went 17-14, 4.01 in 271.2 innings, with 215 strikeouts. He once again led the league in innings pitched. He served up 50 homers that year, which stands as an all-time record for a single season. His 1987 season was extremely similar. He once again posted a 4.01 ERA, and he finished three games over .500 again (15-12), with 196 strikeouts in 267 innings. He gave up 46 homers, which is tied for the third most in a season.

Blyleven had a rough final season with the Twins in 1988, going 10-17, 5.43 in 207.1 innings. He led the league in losses, earned runs allowed and hit batters. He was traded to the California Angels in the off-season and had a second resurgence during the 1989 season. He went 17-5, 2.77 in 241 innings and led the league with five shutouts. He finished fourth in the Cy Young voting and 13th in the MVP voting. A shoulder injury limited his effectiveness over his final three years, including a lost 1991 season in which he didn’t pitch at all, and that ended up costing him a shot at 300 wins. He went 8-7, 5.24 in 134 innings over 23 starts. After coming back from the injury, he went 8-12, 4.74 in 133 innings in 1992. Blyleven signed with the Twins in 1993, but he retired after not making the team in Spring Training. He finished his 22-year career with a 287-250, 3.31 record in 4,970 innings, with 242 complete games, 60 shutouts and 3,701 strikeouts. With the Pirates, he went 34-28, 3.47 in 697.2 innings. He ranks fifth all-time in strikeouts, ninth all-time in shutouts, 11th in starts (685) and 14th in innings pitched. He led the entire AL in WAR during the 1973 season and he led all AL pitchers in WAR in 1981 when he failed to get a single Cy Young vote. He was voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2011 during his 14th year on the ballot. His real first name is Rik. The “Bert” name came from part of his middle name, Aalbert.

Sonny Senerchia, third baseman for the 1952 Pirates. The Pirates signed him as an amateur free agent right out of Montclair State University in 1952. He had previously played minor league ball in 1948 and 1949, debuting at age 17, prior to beginning his college career. He has no stats available for his time with Auburn of the Class-C Border League in 1948. He then played for Lima of the Class-D Ohio-Indiana League in 1949. That year he hit .255 in 73 games, with 43 runs, 27 extra-base hits and 56 RBIs, finishing with a .744 OPS. After signing with the Pirates, Senerchia played 62 games with Burlington-Graham in the Class-B Carolina League, where he hit .296 with 13 doubles and seven homers (available stats are limited). He joined the Pirates in late August, and played 29 games over the final six weeks of the season. He was called up the day after the Pirates traded infielder George Strickland and lost second baseman Jack Merson to a hand injury (hit-by-pitch) for the rest of the season. Senerchia pinch-hit in his first game on August 19th, then started 24 straight games at third base from August 20th to September 13th. Over the next 13 days, he played just two games off of the bench, then started at third base during the final two games of the season. He hit .220 with three homers and 11 RBIs for a team that finished with a 42-112 record.

Senerchia spent the entire 1953 season in the minors, playing for three different Pirates affiliates, spending a majority of his time with New Orleans of the Double-A Southern Association. He hit a combined .260, with 63 runs, 19 doubles, four triples, 16 homers, 79 RBIs and 46 walks in 127 games. Following the season, the Pirates lost him to the St Louis Cardinals in the December 1953 Rule 5 draft. He played five more seasons without making it back to the majors before he retired. His next to last hit in the majors was a home run off of Hall of Fame pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm at the Polo Grounds. He was a pitcher during his last four seasons in pro ball. Senerchia did well during his first season as a pitcher in 1955, putting up a 2.75 ERA in 131 innings for Allentown of the Class-A Eastern League. He moved on to Savannah of the Class-A South Atlantic League for most of 1956, while also seeing brief time with Nashville of the Southern Association. He had a 3.53 ERA in 120 innings with Savannah, but he gave up a total of 11 earned runs over three innings in three appearances with Nashville. He pitched briefly for Louisville of the American Association in 1957, then threw 186 innings during his final season of pro ball, spending the year with Souix City of the Class-A Western League, where he was 9-12, 5.13 with 154 strikeouts, while batting .290 with four homers in 93 at-bats. His first name was Emanuel, and he went by Manny in college, but the Sonny nickname was used often during his big league time.

Alex McRae, pitcher for the 2018-19 Pirates. He was a tenth round pick of the Pirates in 2014 out of Jacksonville University. McRae went right from college to a starting role with Jamestown of the short-season New York-Penn League after signing with the Pirates. In 15 starts, he went 3-6, 6.21 in 66.2 innings. That was after he already threw 87.2 innings during the college season. McRae went to Low-A West Virginia of the South Atlantic League in 2015, where he went 8-9, 4.98 in 137.1 innings over 27 starts and a relief appearance. He split the next season between High-A and Double-A, pitching strong in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League (High-A) with Bradenton by posting a 2.69 ERA in 67 innings over 12 starts. However, he cooled off a level higher with Altoona of the Eastern League, putting up a 4.79 ERA in 88.1 innings. He combined to go 11-10, 3.88 in 155.1 innings, with 102 strikeouts. After pitching in relief during the 2016 Arizona Fall League season, posting a 3.38 ERA in 16 innings, McRae began the 2017 season back in Altoona. He spent the entire year there, going 10-5, 3.61 in 149.2 innings. He started and ended the 2018 season in Triple-A Indianapolis (International League), going 3-10, 4.77 in 117 innings spread over 19 starts and seven relief appearances.

McRae made it to the majors in 2018 for two games in early August and he allowed four runs in 6.1 innings. He was designated for assignment after the season, but he remained with the club after clearing waivers. He made 11 appearances with the Pirates in 2019, including two starts, as they struggled to find healthy pitchers during the season. He posted an 8.78 ERA in 26.2 innings. He didn’t do much better back in Triple-A that year, posting a 5.20 ERA in 114.1 innings. He was designated for assignment for the second time after the season and opted for free agency. McRae signed a minor league deal with the Chicago White Sox over the 2019-20 off-season and pitched twice in relief in the majors during the shortened 2020 season, throwing a total of three shutout innings. He became a free agent after the season, then eventually re-signed with the White Sox in February of 2021. Most of the year was spent struggling with Triple-A Charlotte, where he went 2-9, 5.38 in 88.2 innings over 18 starts and eight relief outings. He pitched two games in relief with the White Sox again, this time allowing one run over two innings, appearing in games on May 4th and May 14th. He became a free agent after the season and he was still a free agent at the time of this writing. In his parts of four big league seasons, McRae has an 0-5, 7.34 record in 38 innings over two starts and 15 relief appearances.

The Game

On this date in 1971 the Pirates opened their regular season with a 4-2 win over the Philadelphia Phillies. Dock Ellis pitched a complete game, allowing eight hits, two walks, a hit batter and he struck out eight. He also drove in a run and dropped down three sacrifice bunts. Richie Hebner had two hits, a walk and an RBI. The lineup had three Hall of Famers for the Pirates. Bill Mazeroski went 1-for-3, with an RBI. Roberto Clemente had an 0-for-4 game. Willie Stargell was 1-for-4, with a run scored.

The lineup that day was as follows:

2B Mazeroski

3B Hebner

RF Clemente

C  Sanguillen

1B Robertson

LF Stargell

CF Oliver

SS Hernandez

P  Ellis

Here’s the boxscore courtesy of Baseball-Reference.