The Philadelphia Phillies were a young and talented team that had arrived in 1976, when they won 101 games and the NL East. The Phils were swept out of the NLCS by Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine, but the future was bright in Philly. The optimism was validated by the 1977 Philadelphia Phillies when they again won 101 games and made it back to the National League Championship Series.
The power tandem of third baseman Mike Schmidt and leftfielder Greg Luzinski anchored the best offense in the National League. They combined for 77 home runs and 231 RBIs. Each had an on-base percentage over .390 and a slugging percentage over .570. Though Schmidt would have a much better career, it was “The Bull”, as Luzinski was nicknamed, that was actually a little bit better with the bat.
Two key personnel additions further strengthened the lineup. Philly signed first baseman Richie Hebner away from the Pittsburgh Pirates in the offseason, and Hebner had a .381 OBP/.484 slugging. And in June, a trade with the St. Louis Cardinals brought rightfielder Bake McBride to Philly. McBride’s numbers were .392/.564 after the trade.
Further contributions came from outfielder Jay Johnstone, second baseman Ted Sizemore and catcher Bob Boone. Defensively, the Phils were strong up the middle with Larry Bowa at short and rangy Gary Maddox in center.
Pitching was more of a question mark. The staff ERA was fourth in the National League, but there was a lot of uncertainty in the rotation. Four of the five starters finished with ERAs over 4 and two were over 5. Jim Kaat and Jim Lonborg were each into their late thirties and in obvious decline.
It put a lot of pressure on the Phillie bullpen, and four key relievers helped pick up the slack. Gene Garber and Ron Reed combined for the saves. Tug McGraw and Warren Brusstar all helped carry the load. All four pitchers had ERAs at 2.75 or lower.
The work of the pen, along with the offense helped cover for the four weak spots in the rotation. And the one strong spot, at the top of the rotation cured even more ills. Steve Carlton, 32-years-old, with a nasty slider, went 23-10 with a 2.64 ERA in 283 innings of work. Carlton was a runaway Cy Young Award winner.
It was anything but an easy ride for manager Danny Ozark though. Four straight losses started the season and the Phils were seven games back on May 12. They didn’t get over .500 for good until May 21. The Pirates were off to a hot start, but Philadelphia was able to take a series from their rivals, part of an 8-3 stretch that moved the Phils past Pittsburgh…only now the Chicago Cubs were catching fire.
From June 17 to July 7, Philadelphia played excellent baseball, going 15-4 and cutting the Cubbie lead to three games. The Phils were in second place and had the Pirates in the rearview mirror, with a 5 ½ game lead on the rival who had dominated the NL East prior to Philadelphia’s run of 1976.
In early July, a weekend visit to Pittsburgh was a disaster. The Phils led the opener 7-3 in the eighth inning, but McGraw, Garber and Brusstar all combined to cough it up in an 8-7 loss. On Saturday, Philadelphia lost 9-8 in 12 innings—the winning hit coming with two outs off the bat of Mario Mendoza, the same player whose hitting ineptitude remains legendary today with use of “the Mendoza line” to mark the line a hitter dare not sink below.
Sunday’s doubleheader went even worse. Pittsburgh rolled to a 5-1 victory in the opener. Then the Phillie pitching problems cost them in the nightcap. They led a slugfest 10-7 after seven innings, but Reed melted down and the Pirates completed a sweep with a 12-10 win.
Philadelphia was still a manageable five games back of Chicago when the wipeout ended, but now Pittsburgh was right back in it, and hungry to show that 1976 was just an aberration.
Things started to turn for the better in mid-July, as the Cubs came to Philadelphia for another four-game weekend set, including a Saturday doubleheader. The Phils trailed the opener 2-0 in the sixth when Luzinski hit a two-out, two-run blast to left and Philadelphia went on to win 4-2. Then they took the opener of the doubleheader 9-2, with six players getting multiple hits.
Chicago grabbed the second game of the twinbill, but Carlton was lying in wait for Sunday. The lefthander gave eight strong innings, Johnstone homered twice and the 4-2 win moved the Phillies to within 2 ½ games of the lead for the All-Star break.
August was when Philadelphia finally got firm control over both the Cubs and Pirates. The Phils won 19 of 20, and that included a devastating four-game sweep of the Cubs in Wrigley. Philadelphia unloaded for ten runs in each of the first three games, hitting a combined 11 home runs in the process. Then they won a 4-2 game behind Lonborg to finish the sweep that broke the backs of Chicago. By the time the 19-1 streak was over, the Phillies had a 7 ½ game lead.
Pittsburgh didn’t go as quietly, and they chipped the lead down to 3 ½ games by the end of August. Fans could look ahead to a three-game set between the two teams starting on Labor Day in Pittsburgh, and then a return trip to Philadelphia the following week. But sometimes in baseball, what happens before and after the hyped showdowns is what proves decisive.
The Phils won five straight leading into Labor Day and the Pirates weren’t able to answer, pushing the lead out to seven games. Even though Pittsburgh won two of three head-to-head, the Phils came right back with six straight wins. Their lead was at nine games and the NL East race was all but over.
It’s fitting that this offensive-minded team clinched in a wild slugfest. It came on the Tuesday of the season’s final week, on an afternoon in Wrigley Field. The Phils broke open a 4-2 game with seven runs in the seventh inning, a grand slam by starting pitcher Larry Christenson being the big blow. McGraw didn’t make his life easy—he gave five runs back in the bottom of the eighth, but when “the Tugger” got Dave Rosello to tap back into a 1-6-3 double play in the ninth, the 15-9 win—and the NL East race—were in the books.
Philadelphia went into the 1977 NLCS with more expectations this time around. They were no longer novices to October, and the Big Red Machine no longer loomed over the sport. The Phils met up with the Los Angeles Dodgers and when Philly took the opening game on the road, good things seemed ahead. But that proved to be the last win of the year, as Philadelphia lost a crushing Game 3 at home and were closed out in the fourth game of what was then a best-of-five LCS round.
There’s no sugar-coating how tough that NLCS loss was—not so much the defeat itself, but the heartbreaking game that swung the series and then losing Game 4 with Carlton on the mound at home. But the 1977 Philadelphia Phillies had clearly shown that their takeover of the NL East the previous year was no one-time affair and they were going to be around for a while.