Better put the Philadelphia Phillies on the critical list, Doc. High blood pressure, labored breathing, irregular heartbeat. Patient fading fast. As with the town's other mystery malady, Legionnaires disease, everyone recognized the symptoms but nobody knew the cause. Why were the Phillies losing? Too much pennant fever? How do you explain anemic hitting, sluggish defense, irrational behavior on the base paths and those hot and cold pitching spells? Whatever the reason, the Phils, the National League's Eastern Division leaders for most of the season, are in the throes of a serious, possibly fatal collapse.
On Aug. 26, after defeating Cincinnati for its eighth victory in 10 games, Philadelphia led second-place Pittsburgh by 15 games and was sizing up the Reds for the playoffs. Last week, after the Phillies had lost 13 of 15 while the Pirates were winning 13 of 15, the margin had shrunk to four.
The Phillie Phlop is not unknown to baseball, of course. The last epidemic was reported in 1964, when the team lost 10 straight games and a 6½-game lead in the last two weeks of the season. But this Philadelphia club, entrenched in first place since May 9 and without a losing streak longer than four games, seemed immune to that sort of disaster. Bobby Wine, a Phillie shortstop 12 years ago and now the first-base coach, has an understandable feeling of déj√† vu, "It doesn't make sense," he says. "This team has better pitching, better hitting and more depth. You could see a couple of guys going bad, but not the entire club."
Whether Philadelphia is choking or merely pressing is a matter for conjecture. But the consequence is obvious, especially at the plate. Batting .278 before Aug. 27, the Phillies averaged only .206 through the slump, with sluggers Mike Schmidt, Greg Luzinski and Dick Allen knocking in only seven runs. Philadelphia has hit just four home runs in that period, two of them by Pitcher Larry Christenson, who needed both in a 3-1 win over New York. In fact, the team scored only 33 runs in the 15 games. "We're not getting that key hit, the double with men on first and second," says Schmidt. "A lot of guys, including myself, are going for that whole ball of wax to break us out of it, but we're only becoming easy outs."
The aggravation and futility were obvious in games against the Pirates and Cubs last week. Concluding a miserable 16-game, five-city road trip in Pittsburgh, the Phillies lost 6-2, 5-1 and 6-1. Arousing reception at one a.m. on their arrival back in Philadelphia plus a one-minute standing ovation by the fans at the first home game lifted the players' spirits but not their batting averages. The Phillies won the Chicago opener 4-2 (despite only six hits) but dropped the next two—3-2 and then 4-1 in 12 innings. Only on Sunday did the Phillies finally show signs of recovery, banging out 13 hits in an 8-0 win. "We've lost the killer instinct," Manager Danny Ozark had said earlier. "I don't think we relaxed on purpose with that big lead, but maybe we let up subconsciously. Gosh dang, it's a shock."
Through it all Ozark and his players have been calm, probably too calm. The manager stuck with the same lineup, asking, "What kind of changes do you make? These guys have done it for me in the past and they know what they have to do now." Most of the players appear unconcerned. "It's better to go through this now when we have a chance to recover, than in the last two weeks," says Second Baseman Dave Cash.
But a few recognize that even now could be too late. "Most of the guys on this team are casual and cool by nature," says Reliever Tug McGraw. "But sometimes if you don't show a little emotion you don't realize what's wrong. Maybe somebody should get mad." General Manager Paul Owens has gone so far as to suggest that maybe somebody should punch somebody in the nose. Just to shake things up, of course.
A handful of players are seething. Before the Chicago series, Shortstop Larry Bowa said, "I know you're supposed to turn the page after a loss, but we've turned too many pages lately. And I know it's not the end of the world, that baseball is just a game and there are kids starving in every country, but I can't relate that way. I'm in a pennant race."
That may be the real problem, of course. Bowa and most of his teammates are in a pennant race for the first time. "The guys who survive something like this are the ones who become veterans," says Catcher Bob Boone. Cub Reliever Darold Knowles, who was in three pennant races with Oakland, stood in front of the Philadelphia locker room last week and watched as one long-faced player after another filed out. "Just look at them," he said, shaking his head. "They should win this thing but they are worrying themselves sick. You've got to put each loss behind you and not let it affect you the next day."
Everybody wants to help; everybody has advice. Psychologists call Veterans Stadium, offering professional counseling. A man from the Four-Leaf Clover Tavern brought by a box of four-leaf-clover key chains. Oakland Manager Chuck Tanner called Pitcher Jim Kaat, his friend and business partner—they are co-owners of a race horse named Pork Filet—and returned the encouragement Kaat had given him a few weeks before. A friend of Bowa's took a Star of David medal from around his own neck and tossed it down to the shortstop before Thursday's game. Trying to light a fire under his teammates, Pitcher Ron Schueler set off a firecracker in the clubhouse.
None of this has had very much effect, however, especially on realists like Schmidt, who says, "To talk about psychology and how we feel and how we act is just a bunch of——. What we really need is just one good game."
There was every indication that game would arrive on Thursday against the Cubs. First came the standing ovation. In response, the Phils scored four runs in the second inning on three hits, a sacrifice bunt and some aggressive base running. A very big inning by recent standards and good enough for a win. Afterward, Ozark, a master malaprop, said the crowd's reception had given everyone "a little twinkle down their spine."
As it turned out, even the fans' support was not to last. The next night, when Bowa popped up to end the fifth inning with two men on base and the Phillies trailing 2-1, there were impatient boos. Bowa was only a minor villain, though. Atrocious base running was the major cause of the 3-2 defeat. Schmidt was caught in a rundown between second and third in the first inning, Garry Maddox in another between third and home in the second. Cash tagged up too late on a long drive to center in the eighth, stumbled as he left the bag and was an easy out when he reached third.
In the ninth inning, Rick Bosetti made his second major league appearance, as a pinch runner for Luzinski, who had led off with a single. Although Ozark considers Bosetti his "best base runner," the rookie foolishly took too big a lead and was easy pickings for Cub Pitcher Rick Reuschel. One observer called it a case of using "a 10¢ player in a million-dollar situation."
Kaat, who has gotten little support and four losses during the slump, says the pennant race now resembles a horse race, with his team in serious danger of losing. "I always feel better with a horse making a strong run down the stretch rather than one that's fading," he says. "If you took me out of my Philadelphia uniform I'd feel the same way about this pennant race."
Fast-closing Pittsburgh plays Philadelphia twice this week and the Pirates, says Pitcher Jerry Reuss, are "daring to think we have a chance. Winning is like a domino effect. Once it starts it's really hard to stop."
The Phillies might say the same about losing.