The Most Disappointing Season for … the Philadelphia Phillies
The 1979 Philadelphia Phillies
Record: 84-78 (4th NL East, 6th out of 12 in NL)
Pythagorean Record: 77-85
Runs Scored: 683 (7th in the NL)
Runs Allowed: 718 (10th in the NL)
Prior Season Record: 90-72
Manager: Danny Ozark (65-67), Dallas Green (19-11)
Hype: Back-to-back-to-back (Also known as the Emanski) NL East champs add key pieces via trade and free agency, including the blockbuster signing of Pete Rose, and aim to get to the World Series.
The Gory Details: There was a lot to like about the 1979 Phillies. They added Manny Trillo from the Cubs for rocks and garbage, grabbed young pitcher Nino Espinosa from the Mets and grabbed THE free agent – Pete Rose. This was a team that was gunning for no less than the World Series, especially after they slipped from 100 wins to 90 in 1978. World Series or bust.
Rose replaced Richie Hebner, who had a nice 1978 but was no PETE ROSE. Trillo replaced vet Ted Sizemore, who was on his last legs. Other than that the same cast of Mike Schmidt, Greg Luzinski, Gary Maddox, Bake McBride, and defensive stalwarts Bob Boone and Larry Bowa were on hand.
The pitching was in great hands. Steve Carlton, Larry Christenson, Randy Lerch and Dick Ruthven made a great rotation along with Espinosa. Ron Reed, Tug McGraw and Warren Brusstar made up a solid, if not spectacular, bullpen.
It couldn’t have started out any better. The Phils blazed out to 14-5 start in April, tied with Montreal but five games ahead of the team that was probably their biggest competition, the Pirates.
By the time they rolled into Chicago for a three game series on May 15th, they were 22-9 and up two games. Their offense was cooking, the pitching was nice. It was all going to plan. The only negative was that Trillo was out for what turned out to be about six weeks, but it hadn’t hurt them yet.
Espinosa got rocked in the first game, but Carlton shut the Cubs out the next game. The offense creamed Rick Reuschel and company, scoring 13 runs. The only regular slumping was McBride. Rose was hitting .340, Schmidt was punishing the ball, all was well.
The series finale featured Randy Lerch starting for the Phillies. The wind was blowing out, but Carlton’s shutout and Christenson’s long relief on the Tuesday game meant the bullpen was fresh.
The Phils immediately got rolling against Dennis Lamp. With one out Schmidt plastered one into the bleachers. Three batters later Boone also clobbered one. Lamp out, Donnie Moore in, and Lerch put the icing on the cake with a home run of his own. (Lerch had three home runs in 1978, so that wasn’t out of the question).
However, Lerch had the same luck Lamp did. Single, single, single, Dave Kingman and it was 7-4. After an out ex-Phil Jerry Martin doubled, and Danny Ozark pulled Lerch. Cue Jayson Stark: Lerch was pulled in the first inning after he already batted and hit a home run.
Doug Bird came in and after an out and a single allowed a triple to Donnie Moore. Yes, the relief pitcher (though Moore had a .250 lifetime BA with a double and a triple before 1979, so there’s that). So it was a typical 7-6 game after the first.
The rest of the game was a nightmare for pitchers. Bird, McGraw and Reed gave up 17 runs total along with Lerch’s five. But the Phils battered the Cubs pitchers as well. Bowa had five hits. Boone had five RBI. Maddox had four hits and four RBI.
It was tied at 22 all going into the 10th when Schmidt hit his second homer of the day and 14th of the season off of Bruce Sutter to win it. Rawly Eastwick somehow pitched two scoreless innings for the win.
Why am I telling you about that game?
With the win, the Phils were 24-10 and 3 ½ games up. The rest of May, they went 3-12, and wound up 3 ½ games behind in third. In the closing stretch of May, they scored 13 runs in 10 games, and that’s including a six-spot against the Cubs. The Expos shut them out three straight games in May. Something happened to the Phils offense.
June was just as bad. They went 12-16, and fell to fifth at one point. Montreal was 6 ½ games ahead of everyone, and the Pirates, Cubs, Cards and Phils were tightly bunched between second and fifth.
July stared with a doubleheader loss to the Cards, but before the All-Star break the Phils got hot again, winning seven of eight and went to the break in third, but at 50-41 and just three games out. A good end to July and they’d be in position.
Thud. Philadelphia went 2-6 to end the month, including beatings of 15-3 and 16-8 by the Dodgers.
In August, every hot streak was matched by a losing streak. They’d win four in a row, then lose six in a row. Win four, lose four, win four, lose three. They fell farther and farther behind, and a five game losing streak near the end of August sealed the fate of Ozark.
At 65-67, with the Phils 12 ½ games behind in 5th, he was fired and replaced by Dallas Green. In April, it was inconceivable that these Philadelphia Phillies would be under .500, but here they were.
Green was a no nonsense manager, and he managed them to a winning record in the end. But they were 14 games out and in fourth place – nowhere near the series.
Speculation has it that the 23-22 game exposed something in the Phillies (how, why?). It’s true they were 60-68 after that game, and their offense shut down and their pitching slid. But why? They persevered through a wind-blowing-out Wrigley game for a big win. Who knows? Something happened for sure.
It wasn’t injures. No one in the lineup missed significant time except Trillo. As for the rotation, Ruthven didn’t pitch after August 8th, and his ERA went from 1.65 on May 9th to 4.27 when he was shut down. Christenson missed most of July and September, but Dickie Noles came in and helped the staff when both were out.
What happened was down years from the accessory parts – Luzinski, McBride, Maddox, Trillo and Bowa hit under expectations. The big problem as the bullpen. McGraw had a 5.16 ERA. Brusstar got hurt. Reed had a 13-8 record with a 4.15 ERA. Eastwick’s ERA was 4.90. Reed also let in 40% of his inherited runners score. If they Phils fell behind, they couldn’t catch up or their bullpen never let them have a chance.
This was a temporary glitch. The next year the Phils went to the World Series with basically the same crew. An anomalous year, for sure, but disappointing none the less.
Chicken Wolf All-Stars: Mike Schmidt had a 7.9 WAR thanks to his 45 home runs, 120 walks, and excellent defense. Maddox was at 5.0, with 2.9 WAR coming from his defense!
Honorable Mention Team: Everyone knows the story of the 1964 Phillies. The 1965 Phils, who were expected to contend, were stuck in sixth, and allowed more runs than they scored in finishing 85-76, 11 ½ games behind.
Bad Blast from the Past: Most everyone knows about the 1950 Whiz Kids. A young staff featuring Robin Roberts and Curt Simmons led the Phils to an unlikely pennant. Great things were expected going forward. The 1951 Phils fell to 73-81. Yes Simmons was in the military, but the offense really let everyone down.