The city of Philadelphia was coming off an amazing sports year in 1980, one in which their teams reached the NBA Finals, Stanley Cup Finals and Super Bowl—and no team went higher than the beloved Phillies, who won the World Series. The 1981 Philadelphia Phillies came out swinging the bats well and returned to the postseason, but pitching problems and the chaos of a year broken up by a long players’ strike led to an early exit.
Philadelphia returned to its offense-heavy ways of the late 1970s, and went to extremes that even some of those division-winning teams never imagined. The Phils had the best offense in the National League, but the worst pitching.
Mike Schmidt won the MVP award and in a season were barely more than a hundred games were played, the third baseman hit 31 home runs and batted .316. Pete Rose was now 40-years-old, but the first baseman could still hit and he batted .325. Gary Matthews hit .301, while middle infielders Manny Trillo and Larry Bowa found ways to keep getting on base. Manager Dallas Green also worked young outfielder Lonnie Smith into the mix frequently, and Smith hit .324.
Steve Carlton, the great lefthanded pitcher and perhaps the best starting pitcher of his era, was still reliable at the top of the rotation, going 13-4 with a 2.42 ERA. Tug McGraw, the feisty lefthander in the bullpen was still good, with a 2.66 ERA and ten saves. It was the depth that killed Philadelphia’s pitching.
Dick Ruthven, the #2 starter, struggled to a 5.15 ERA and new starter Nino Espinosa was even worse, at 6.11. The bullpen had problems, and neither Dickie Noles, nor Sparky Lyle, a veteran retread from the New York Yankee championship teams of the late 1970s, could give any consistency.
Green found a little bit of stability with veteran Larry Christenson, who had 3.54 ERA, but only won four games. An experiment in giving Marty Bystrom nine starts worked reasonably well, while another experiment with Mark Davis was less effective.
The Phils still started the season well, and from April 24 to May 5, they went 9-2. From that point forward, they stayed within a game or two of first place in the old NL East, with the St. Louis Cardinals leading and the Montreal Expos not far behind.
On May 31, Philadelphia tied for first and then went 7-2 to start the month of June. This included a three-game home sweep of the Houston Astros, the first meeting between the two teams since their incredible 1980 NLCS battle. Normally, this would be just a nice June run into the division lead, and not anything major in the historical record. In the world of 1981 MLB, it was decisive.
The players went on strike on June 12, and when they returned in mid-August, MLB decided they would change the playoff format. At the time, each league was two divisions with the winners going directly to the LCS. 1981 would see a “split-season” be introduced.
MLB’s split-season format declared the teams leading at the strike to be champions. They would play whichever team won the “second half”, in which everyone would start from scratch and play out the balance of the schedule.
And what if the same team won both halves? Instead of allowing teams like the Phillies to play their way directly into the LCS by winning both halves, MLB ruled that the inaugural Division Series must go on. In that event, the runner-up from the second half would play the winner of the first half.
The only reward Philadelphia had to chase during the second half, was the prospect of one extra home game in the Division Series—instead of playing two on the road to open, they would only play one. That’s not a lot of incentive when other teams are fighting for their lives, and the Phils played like it. They lost 13 of 19 after the strike and finished the second-half 25-27.
Philadelphia met up with Montreal in the Division Series, the same team they had battled to the wire in 1980. The Phils lost the first two games in Montreal, before rallying to win the next two and setting up Carlton to pitch the decisive Game 5. But on a nice Sunday afternoon in Philly, the bid for a repeat title ended and Montreal advanced.
The good news for the city of Philadelphia is that they wouldn’t have to wait long for October baseball to come back. In 1983, they won the NL East and then beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLCS. The bad news is that would be 2008 before they won the whole thing again, losing to the Baltimore Orioles in the 1983 World Series and the Toronto Blue Jays in 1993.