The 1978 Philadelphia Phillies won the franchise’s third straight NL East title, but it didn’t come easy, as they held off a final push by the Pittsburgh Pirates before clinching and moving on to the National League Championship Series.
Philadelphia’s offense was down a little bit from its NL-leading form of 1977, a reason why the Phils slipped from 101 wins to a more pedestrian (at least by first-place standards in the days each league was two divisions apiece) 90. But they were still third in the league in runs scored, and the pitching was pretty good too, coming in fourth the NL in ERA.
Mike Schmidt had the best career of any player in the regular lineup and he had a good year, with 21 home runs and 78 RBIs. But the best hitter in 1978 was left fielder Greg Luzinski, with an on-base percentage of .388, 35 home runs and 101 RBIs.
The Phils got further contributions from Richie Hebner at first base (.369 OBP/.464 slugging percentage), and catcher Bob Boone (.347/.425). It was an off-year from rightfielder Bake McBride, a horrible year for second baseman Ted Sizemore that explained the dip in production.
One man who never needed too many runs to win games was Steve Carlton. The future Hall of Fame lefty won 16 and posted a 2.47 ERA to lead the staff. Larry Christenson and Randy Lerch were effective starters, the former with a 3.96 ERA the latter at 3.24.
The two aging veterans at the back end—Jim Kaat and Jim Lonborg struggled, but the Phils swung a deal in June to acquire Dick Ruthven, who made 20 starts in Philadelphia and went 13-5 with a 2.99 ERA. Ruthven came at a cost—a good reliever in Gene Garber—but the Phils had depth in the pen, with Ron Reed, Tug McGraw and Warren Brusstar all having good years.
Philadelphia started the season slowly, sitting on .500 at Memorial Day, but no one in the NL East could really got hot. The Chicago Cubs were in first place, but after the Cubs had sizzled and then faded in the summer of 1977, the Phils had to be confident only being 3 ½ games out.
June was an up-and-down month. There was an eight-game win streak at home, when the swept the best two teams in the NL West, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants. There was a tough return trip out west, where the Phillies lost six of seven. But the month ended with a four-game sweep of the Cubs at old Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. By the All-Star break, Philadelphia had moved past Chicago, enjoying a 4 ½ game lead, while the Pirates were seven games back.
By rights, Philadelphia should have put this race to bed in August. They beat Pittsburgh six times in seven games, but the inconsistency in other games allowed the Pirates that ground back and more. The Cubs were also still hanging around. On Labor Day, Philadelphia led by only two games over Pittsburgh and 3 ½ over Chicago.
The Cubs were up first, with two-game sets at each time’s park over a one-week span. The Phils took the first two games, one in which they trailed 2-0 in the seventh, but rallied to win 5-3. Ruthven also got a big win, and McBride made the biggest mark on an otherwise disappointing year when he hit a home run and had three RBIs in an 11-5 win. Chicago faded from the picture.
Philadelphia continued to go up and down, letting the lead over Pittsburgh get down to a single game at one point, the answering with a six-game win streak. As the Phils tested the stress levels of their fans, they entered the final weekend of the season with an 89-69 record. The Pirates were 85-72. The teams would play four games against each other in Pittsburgh, starting with a Friday doubleheader. The stakes were simple—Philly was in with a win. If they lost, the Pirates would be a ½ game ahead and have to play a Monday makeup game to try and clinch.
Friday’s doubleheader was tailor-made for a team that only needed to win once, but it ended with the markings of disaster written over it. With the first game tied 4-4 in the ninth, Pittsburgh catcher Ed Ott hit a triple and then kept coming all the way home, scoring on an error by Garry Maddox—only one of the best defensive centerfielders in the game.
Carlton was on the mound in the nightcap and pitched extremely well, but the bats went quiet and the score was 1-1 in the ninth. A double by Pittsburgh rightfielder Dave Parker was followed by two intentional walks. Brusstar, on to pitch, balked in the winning run.
Yes, the Phillies lost consecutive games on the catcher circling the bases and a bases loaded balk. Anyone in Philadelphia that could see the collapse coming, couldn’t be blamed. Especially when Pittsburgh opened up on Saturday by scoring four times in the first inning.
The Phils then showed their mettle. Lerch got settled down on the mound, and then he got things turned around with his bat. He homered twice, further adding to the weird quality of this whole series. Luzinski blasted a three-run shot. McBride and Maddox each had three-hit games. Philadelphia led 10-4 in the ninth.
It wouldn’t be the 1978 Philadelphia Phillies if they simply closed the door. Pittsburgh scored four more times and had two chances with the tying run at the plate. The last one was by Willie Stargell. One year later, “Pops” Stargell would be an October hero with a big home run in Game 7 of the World Series. But that would be next year. This time Reed struck him out and the Phils had another NL East title.
The results of the National League Championship Series were a little too familiar. For the second straight year, Philadelphia lost in four games (of what was still a best-of-five round through 1984) to the Los Angeles Dodgers. It marked three straight trips to October, but never a pennant. But at least the Phils kept getting there, and their final vindication—the 1980 World Series title—wasn’t far around the corner.