Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Best Postseason Win: Philadelphia Phillies

You likely already know that the Phillies did not win a World Series for a long time. By 1950, 13 of the 16 original franchises had won titles; the long-suffering Brooklyn Dodgers finally took their first in 1955, and the perennial sad sack St. Louis Browns moved to Baltimore that same year and won their first title a decade later in 1966, leaving the Phils alone with an empty trophy case.

It's not that the Phillies were never competitive. They were a decent team for much of the century's first decade (albeit generally well behind the dominant Giants, Cubs, and Pirates), and they rode Grover Cleveland Alexander's arm and Gavvy Gravath's bat into legitimate contention in the mid-teens, winning one pennant and coming in second three times. But the Babe Ruth Red Sox beat them in five games in the 1915 World Series, and when Alexander went to war, they sold him to the Cubs and promptly went down the tubes.

From 1918 to 1948, the Phillies had one winning record; they went 78-76 in 1932. Their fourth-place finish that year was also the only time they escaped the bottom half of the standings or finished within 20 games of first place in those three decades. 24 times in those 31 years, they finished in either seventh or eighth; in 14 seasons, they were at least 40 games back of first, including an astounding eight in a row from 1938-45.

Their fortunes took an upswing starting with a third-place finish in 1949, and in 1950, they won a stunning pennant. They were swept in the World Series by the Yankees, but given that the team was built around young players (Robin Roberts and Richie Ashburn most notable among them), they looked like a team that would contend for a while. Instead, they hung around in mediocrity for most of the decade, finishing between third and fifth every year from 1951-57, and then cratered again, coming in last in each of the last four years before the NL expanded.

Expansion seemed to help the Phillies out a bit. The Amazin' Mets certainly guaranteed that they wouldn't finish in last. More importantly, they brought in manager Gene Mauch, who started assembling a respectable team. Young outfielder Johnny Callison was a fine front-line player, but the two biggest parts of the team joined up in the offseason after a fourth-place finish in 1963: The Phillies traded for Tiger ace Jim Bunning, and installed the spectacular Dick Allen at third base. This is not the forum for a full exploration of Allen's career, but suffice it to say that whatever fielding difficulties and clubhouse issues came with him, the man was a once-a-generation hitter, and he helped carry the Phillies into contention in '64. They led the NL almost all year, only to see the lead disintegrate down the stretch as they lost 10 straight games. (The culprit was pitching depth; the team only had two reliable starters, Bunning and Chris Short, and Mauch compounded the problem by having those two make multiple starts on short rest down the stretch, which... did not work.)

Again, the team remained all right for a while, but by the time the league expanded again in 1969, they had returned to the cellar once more, finishing in fifth or sixth in the first five years of the newly-formed NL East. They bottomed out with 97 losses in 1972, a season that would have been much worse if not for the presence of the remarkable Steve Carlton, who won 27 games for a last-place squad.

Even in that terrible team, you could see the beginnings of the competitors they would eventually become. Along with Carlton, the '72 Phillies already had Larry Bowa at short and Greg Luzinski in left. In 1973, they installed the (soon-to-be) great Mike Schmidt at third, and Bob Boone took over behind the plate. Dick Ruthven also made his rotational debut that year, and became a regular starter in 1974. Garry Maddox was acquired to play center field during the 1975 season; the team finished in second that year, and then won 101 games and the NL East in 1976. They lost to the Reds in the NLCS, but this Phillies contender had much better stamina than its predecessors, winning division titles in '77 and '78 as well. Still, losses to the Dodgers in both of those NLCSs followed by a fourth-place finish in 1979 must have dampened hopes for the team just a bit, even though new addition Pete Rose had posted a spectacular year in '79.

But any fears of recession were put to bed in 1980. Schmidt and Carlton both had outstanding years (WAR rates the season as the second-best in each of their Hall of Fame careers). Schmidt won the first of his eventual three MVPs, Carlton snagged the third of his four Cy Youngs, and the two of them carries a patchwork cast of longtime Phillies, veteran imports, and youngsters to 91 wins and another division title. And this time, their opponents in the NLCS weren't the Big Red Machine, or the Garvey/Lopes/Russel/Cey Dodgers. (Really, it seems like that team should have a nickname; they're the longest-tenured infield in baseball history.) Instead, they would face the team that beat the Dodgers in a Game 163 to take the NL West title and seal their first postseason appearance: the Houston Astros.

The Astros are a story all their own, enough of one that I can't gloss over them entirely despite this post not being about them. In 1979, the Astros came in second in the NL West, finishing a game and a half back of the Reds. The biggest reason for their contention was ace JR Richard, who led the NL in ERA. Before the 1980 season, they brought in both Nolan Ryan and Joe Morgan, and seemed primed for a run at the division title - which they were in the process of making when Richard suffered a career-ending stroke in July. The Astros still went into LA holding a three-game lead with three games to play - but the Dodgers swept them, forcing a one-game playoff for the division title. However, the Astros scored seven early runs and Joe Niekro threw a complete-game six-hitter to send Houston to the playoffs.

The two teams would produce a series that was utterly bananas. The Phillies took the first game behind a Carlton gem and a sixth-inning Luzinski homer. The Astros replied with a win in Game 2, in which the Astros rallied to tie the game at 2 in the seventh and took a 3-2 lead in the eighth; the Phillies tied it in the eighth, then loaded the bases with one out in the ninth but didn't score. Houston scored four in the tenth to apparently break it open, but the Phils got one of the runs back and got Schmidt to the plate as the tying run before finally losing. Houston took Game 3 as well, as Niekro threw 10 shutout innings and left with a no-decision when the Astros waited until the bottom of the eleventh to score the game's only run.

Facing elimination in Game 4, the Phillies trailed 2-0 going into the top of the eighth, but tied the game on RBI singles from Rose and Schmidt, then took the lead on a sac fly double play, which is... unorthodox. Terry Puhl (who had an incredible series, going 10 for 19 overall) tied it with an RBI single in the ninth, but Luzinski and Manny Trillo hit RBI doubles in the tenth to seal the victory and force the playing of the Phillies' best postseason win.

1980 NLCS Game 5: Phillies 8, Astros 7 (10). The Phils started Marty Bystrom, who had pitched in all of six regular-season games at this point in his career; he had pitched well (5-0, 1.50), but still seems like an unusual choice in a winner-take-all game, especially when the opposing pitcher was Nolan Ryan.

Ryan worked a 1-2-3 first, and the Astros took the lead in the bottom of the inning when Terry Puhl singled, stole second, and scored on a double by Jose Cruz. The Phillies responded swiftly in the second; Manny Trillo singled and Garry Maddox walked with one out, and after a groundout moved the runners to second and third, Bob Boone singled them both home for a 2-1 lead.

Houston came close to tying the game in the bottom of the second, as Luis Pujols walked and Craig Reynolds doubled. But Pujols was thrown out trying to score on the double, and Ryan then grounded out to leave Reynolds in scoring position. In the third, Pete Rose singled and was caught stealing; Puhl led off with a single and Cruz walked with two outs, but a flyout left them both on. Both pitchers allowed singles in the fourth, but Trillo was erased when Maddox hit into a double play, and Art Howe's leadoff hit only led to Pujols being left on second at the end of the inning (courtesy of a force, a groundout, and a strikeout).

Ryan tossed a flawless fifth, and in the bottom of the inning, the Astros almost tied it again. Enos Cabell singled with one out and moved to second on a groundout. Cruz then grounded to second, where Trillo committed an error that allowed him to reach - but Cabell tried for home and Rose threw him out at the plate. After another perfect inning from Ryan, Houston tried again in the sixth when Walling reached second on a Greg Luzinski error. One out later, Alan Ashby singled Walling home to tie the game. Warren Brusstar was called in from the bullpen, replacing Bystrom, and retired the next two Astros to keep the tie in place.

Luzinski led off the top of the seventh with a single, but Maddox hit into a double play, erasing pinch runner Lonnie Smith. Larry Christenson took the mound in the bottom of the inning and allowed a leadoff hit to Puhl. A bunt moved Puhl to second, and Cruz drew a two-out walk to keep the inning going. Walling then singled, scoring Puhl with the go-ahead run and moving Cruz to third, and a wild pitch scored Cruz to make it a 4-2 game. Ron Reed relieved Christenson and promptly gave up an RBI triple to Howe, pushing Houston's lead to 5-2, before retiring Ashby to end the inning.

The Astros had a three-run lead with two innings to go and a Hall of Famer on the mound - so naturally, it all went wrong. Larry Bowa and Boone started the top of the eighth with singles, and Greg Gross reached on a bunt single to load the bases. Rose then walked to force in a run and chase Ryan from the mound. Joe Sambito induced a run-scoring force from Keith Moreland, and was then pulled for Ken Forsch, with Joe Morgan also being swapped out for Rafael Landestoy on defense. Schmidt struck out looking, but pinch hitter Del Unser singled Gross home to tie the game, and Trillo followed with a go-ahead two-run triple.

The Phillies, having granted themselves new life, put stud closer Tug McGraw on the mound for the bottom of the eighth. Reynolds led off the inning with a single, and one out later, Puhl singled him to third. With two outs, Landestoy singled Reynolds home, and Cruz followed with a single that scored Puhl and tied the game at 7.

Bowa led off the ninth with a single against Frank LaCorte, was bunted to second, and moved to third on a groundout. Rose was intentionally walked, and pinch hitter George Vukovich then struck out to end the inning. Dick Ruthven worked a 1-2-3 bottom of the ninth, sending the game to extras. In the top of the tenth, Unser doubled with one out, and Maddox's two-out double gave the Phillies the lead; Ruthven then set the Astros down in order again to end the game and seal the Phillies' first pennant in 30 years.

The Phils would go on to play an excellent World Series against the team that matched their always-a-bridesmaid role in the AL during the late '70s, the Royals. Thanks largely to a couple of blown leads by Dan Quisenberry (not to mention Mike Schmidt going off to the tune of .381/.462/.714 for the Series and Carlton pitching a pair of quality games), they would emerge victorious in six games, finally winning their first-ever World Series.

This game, meanwhile, grades out as the #18 postseason game of all time - and the best one of 10 innings or less. As a result, if you take the extra-innings air out of some of its competition, this game moves up to #9, It's not too hard to see why; the seventh and eighth innings, in which the teams started out tied, then each held multi-run leads, then came out on the other side tied again, are pretty much unique in postseason history, particularly for a winner-take-all game. And that's not accounting for the runners getting thrown out at home, or the historical stakes for both franchises.

Also, it was mentioned in a previous post that the 2003 ALDS between the Red Sox and A's was one of the top three best-of-five series ever played. The 1980 NLCS was another one, checking in at #2. As it happens, we've actually already discussed a game from the #1 best-of-five series as well, but we're coming back to that one later, so I'll keep its identity under wraps for now.

Unlike their former Philadelphia brethren, the Phillies have a wide selection of alternatives to this game. Some of them are from 1980 itself; Game 4 of the NLCS was discussed in the intro, and Game 5 of the World Series, in which the Phillies left the tying run in scoring position in the seventh and eighth, then came back to take the lead in the ninth, then left the bases full of Royals in the bottom of the inning, was also excellent. The Phillies of the late 2000's have also played some outstanding games; the 2009 NLDS had a pair of classics, with Game 3 (which had the score going from 1-0 to 3-1 to 4-3 to 4-4 to 5-4 to 5-5 to 6-5, then had the tying run left in scoring position in the ninth) grading out as the second-best 9-inning game in playoff history, and Game 4, in which the Rockies rallied from 2-1 down to take a 4-2 lead in the eighth, only to have the Phillies respond with three two-out runs in the ninth, was nearly as good.

And we're not even done yet. The recent Phillies also had a pair of excellent NLCS victories over the Dodgers. 2008 NLCS Game 4 had the Phils ahead 2-1 early, then in the middle innings swung from 2-1 to 3-2 to 3-3 to 5-3 Dodgers, then finally saw the Phillies take over with a pair of two-run homers in the eighth. A year later, 2009 NLCS Game 4 had a couple of early lead exchanges of its own, and one very late one, as Jimmy Rollins hit a come-from-behind walkoff two-run double in the bottom of the ninth.

But wait, there's more! The 1993 NLCS also featured a pair of top-drawer victories, which somehow managed to be bad omens at the same time. In Game 1, the Phils led 3-2 late behind eight excellent innings from Curt Schilling; Mitch Williams then blew the lead, forcing the team into extra innings, where they won the game. And in Game 4, the Phillies and Braves produced on what has to be one of the least-impressive pitching duels ever; the final score was 2-1, but the teams combined for 18 hits, 10 walks, and two errors, one of which led to both of the Phillies' runs. Fortunately for the pitchers, they also combined to go 2 for 26 with runners in scoring position. And naturally, Wild Thing was involved again, putting Braves on first and second with nobody out in the bottom of the ninth before escaping.

That's probably enough Phillies, right? We're still not done with Pennsylvania quite yet, though, as we'll be checking in with the Pirates next time.

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