After an eight-year run of success that included a World Series title in 1980 and a National League pennant in 1983, the Phillies had slipped to .500 and then below over the last couple seasons. In 1986, the Phils started the season looking like the downward trend was going to continue. But they turned it around, played some nice baseball and even though a behemoth in their own division kept them from real contention, the 1986 Philadelphia Phillies ended up a winning team who would have made the playoffs by the more lenient standards of the modern era.
Mike Schmidt was the key to the lineup for the Phillies and the Hall of Fame third baseman won the last of his three MVP awards in 1986. Schmidt’s 37 home runs, 119 RBIs and .547 slugging percentage all led the National League. His on-base percentage was a sparkling .390. It was a magnificent performance by any standard, and even more so considering Schmidt was now 36-years-old.
On the other side of the infield was Von Hayes. The first baseman posted a stat line of .379 on-base percentage/.480 slugging percentage. He scored 107 runs and drove in 98 more. Gary Redus played left field and finished with a .343 OBP. The Phillie lineup was not deep—Juan Samuel was still coming into his own at second base. The same went for young center fielder Milt Thompson. But the combination of Schmidt and Hayes was enough for Philadelphia to finish second in the National League in runs scored.
The pitching staff underwent a makeover in the offseason. The Phils traded John Denny, who had won the Cy Young Award in 1983, but was on the downside of his career. It proved a good move. Denny continued his decline in Cincinnati. In return Philadelphia got both Redus, along with relief pitcher Tom Hume, and Hume finished with a 2.77 ERA in 1986.
But that deal paled in comparison to the theft the Philly front office pulled off against Atlanta. The Phils gave up two players, the best of whom was a respectable catcher in Ozzie Virgil. In return, they not only got Thompson back to play center, but added Steve Bedrosian for the bullpen. In 1986, Bedrosian saved 29 games with a 3.39 ERA. In 1987, he won the Cy Young Award. Yes, that deal worked out pretty well.
Bedrosian and Hume were part of a bullpen that included 39-year-old Kent Tekulve. Once the closer for a championship team in Pittsburgh, Tekulve was still effective in the setup role, working 110 innings with a 2.54 ERA. Don Carman was another valuable arm, going back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen and finishing with a 3.22 ERA.
It’s good the bullpen was deep and reliable, because the starting pitching was not. Kevin Gross was a workhorse at the top, making 36 starts and logging over 240 innings. But his 4.02 ERA was too high for a staff ace. No one else made more than thirty starts. Bruce Ruffin did good part-time work, going 9-4 with a 2.46 ERA in his twenty starts. Shane Rawley was respectable. But there was no depth or consistency.
Maybe the problems with the Phillies’ rotation can be underscored by this—the legendary Steve Carlton, a future Hall of Famer and ace of this franchise’s best teams in recent years, made 16 starts and ended with a 6.18 ERA. On June 24, the Phils had to part ways with the great lefthander. That departure was the most notable thing about the 1986 Phils’ starting rotation. The staff ERA ended up seventh in the 12-team National League.
The alignment of Major League Baseball prior to 1994 was that each league had just two divisions, an East and a West. Only the first-place team would advance to the postseason. If you were in a division that had a heavyweight you were out of luck. And in 1986, everyone in the NL East outside of Queens, New York was out of luck.
The Mets were a heavy favorite in the preseason and they validated that confidence. Philadelphia lost four of six to New York in the early going. Late in the spring, they were swept by Montreal and then went 2-7 on a West Coast road trip. By the time Memorial Day arrived, the Phillies were 15-24, in last place and 12 ½ games behind the Mets.
It was the early summer that things started to turn upward. When the same three West Coast teams—the Giants, Dodgers and Padres—made return trips East, the Phils got some payback. They went 8-1. Later in June, they went to St. Louis—who had won the NL East the year before—and took three straight. By the All-Star break, Philadelphia was 42-43. They were stuck 17 ½ games behind New York, but a winning season was now a possibility.
The Phils were slow out of the break and went 5-8 in a stretch of games against the Cardinals and Cubs. The mighty Mets came rolling into to the old Vet on August 11 for a three-game set. New York took the first game and then hit a leadoff home run off Gross to start the second game. But that proved to be another turning point.
Gross threw a complete-game, the bats got him three runs in the third and Philadelphia won 3-1. The following night, a two-run blast from Schmidt staked Ruffin to an early lead, the starter went eight strong innings and the Phils took the series with an 8-4 win. Then they ripped off 13 wins in their next 18 games.
On the final weekend of August, Philadelphia hosted San Francisco. The Giants had been out front in the NL West for a chunk of the summer, but were starting to fade. These were two teams going in the opposite direction and that’s what this series showed.
In Friday night’s opener, Hayes and catcher John Russell had three-hit nights to key a 6-4 win. Hayes, along with Schmidt, each homered on Saturday to lead the way to a 5-3 win. Schmidt homered one more time in the Sunday finale. Gross pitched six innings, left with a 4-3 lead and let Tekulve and Bedrosian tidy up the sweep.
The Phillies continued to play well in September. They won five of the six games against the Mets. And they gave the great Philadelphia fans some excitement in the final two games of the season. A Saturday night affair with the Expos went 14 innings. Three straight singles should have won it for the Phils, except that Schmidt was thrown out at the plate. No problem—Russell singled in the game-winner. Then Philadelphia won the finale 2-1 in extra innings, scoring the winning run on a passed ball.
It was a fitting and fun way to end the season. The Phillies finished 86-75. The fact the Mets won 108 kept that under the radar. But Schmidt’s individual season did not go unnoticed. And the Phils’ record was the third-best in the National League. By the standards of today, they would have been a hot team going into the playoffs as a wild-card. By the standards of 1986, they were simply a good baseball team that deserves recognition.