Maybe things just caught up with them or maybe they hit their coasting mode too early, but whatever the reason, the Phillies quickly saw their post-season plans eroding. The Pirates made their move and in a three-week span cut the Phillies division lead from 15 games to three games.
To their credit, the Phillies didn't panic. While fans and the media talked about reliving 1964, Tug McGraw put everything in perspective. McGraw talked about how the Phillies could make history because no team had ever blown a 15 game lead only to turn it around and win the division. To McGraw – and some of the other members of the '76 squad – it almost seemed planned. A diversion to make things interesting.
The Phillies traveled to Montreal for a double-header on September 26th, needing one win to clinch the division. Jim Lonborg pitched a classic as the Phillies coasted in the opening game, winning 4-1 to send the Phillies to the post-season for the first time since the Whiz Kids of 1950.
As for the post-season, it looked like it might be another walk in the park for the Phillies, who were to face the Cincinnati Reds. In the season series, the Phillies had dominated Cincinnati, going 8-4 against the Reds. The Phillies had under estimated the pressure of the post-season. As for the Reds, they knew the drill, having been to the playoffs and the World Series before. For the Phillies, it was all uncharted territory. Still, the Phillies swaggered their way into the post-season confident of a World Series coming to Philadelphia.
Game One saw Steve Carlton square off against Don Gullett. As the game entered the eighth inning, the Phillies trailed 3-1. The only Phillies run had come on a sacrifice fly by Greg Luzinski that had given the Phillies an early 1-0 lead to give the home crowd confidence in their team. George Foster homered off of Carlton, but the real hitting star of the game was Carlton's mound opponent, Don Gullett. The Reds starter picked up three RBI on a 2-for-4 night. The Reds seemed to have put it away in the top of the eighth with three runs, but to their credit, the Phillies didn't fold. Instead, a sacrifice fly from Mike Schmidt and a pinch-hit RBI single from Jay Johnstone cut the lead to 6-3 in the bottom of the ninth. Rawley Eastwick regained his composure though and recorded the final out to give the Reds a 1-0 lead in the series.
The next night, it was Lonborg's turn as he went up against Pat Zachry. Again, Lonborg turned it up a notch and had a no-hitter through five innings. The Phillies had given their starter a 2-0 lead and it looked like the Phillies could tie the series. Then, it all fell apart. An error by Dick Allen led to four Reds runs in the sixth. The Reds put it away with two more runs in the seventh as they coasted to a 6-2 win and a 2-0 series lead.
As the series shifted to Cincinnati, the Phillies hadn't lost their fight. Jim Kaat took the hill for the Phillies. Kaat had struggled late in the season, but Ozark figured he would come around in the post-season. Kaat was everything the Phillies needed and they led 3-0 going into the seventh inning. The Reds put their first two runners on base against Kaat and Ozark turned to Ron Reed, who faltered, allowing the Reds to come up with four runs in the inning. As the Phillies came to bat in the eighth, they weren't done. They scraped out two runs for a 5-4 lead and another run in the ninth gave the Phillies a 6-4 lead as the Reds came up for their last at bats. George Foster and Johnny Bench hit back-to-back homeruns to quickly tie the game and force Reed's exit. Gene Garber came in and gave up a single to Dave Concepcion. Ozark quickly lifted Garber in favor of Tommy Underwood, who loaded the bases on two walks. Ken Griffey then came up and hit a high-hopper to first base that went off Bobby Tolan's glove and the Reds celebrated their three-game sweep of the Phillies.
The post-season crash hurt, but the Phillies had finally turned the table. Their future looked bright with the likes of Schmidt, Luzinski, Carlton and others who were either among the best players around or were establishing themselves in that category. Carlton finished the season 20-7 with a 3.13 ERA. Lonborg went 18-10, while Kaat finished 12-14. The best news was the performance of youngsters Underwood and Larry Christenson. Christenson was 13-8 with a 3.67 ERA,while Underwood went 10-5, 3.52 for the Phillies. The staff had a solid mix of veterans and young pitchers and figured to be formidable for some time to come.
Offensively, Mike Schmidt led the league with 38 homeruns, while Luzinski and Allen combined for 36 homeruns. The Phillies had speed in the likes of Larry Bowa, who stole 30 bases and Garry Maddox, who swiped 29. Defensively, the Phillies were one of the stronger clubs around.
1976 was the beginning of three straight division titles for the Phillies, although each of them would finish with a disappointment in the post-season. For the first time in their history, the Phillies drew over two-million fans in the still state-of-the-art Veterans Stadium. Philadelphia was in a period of baseball renewal.