Time Machine: 1978

The late '70s saw the Phillies and Pittsburgh Pirates engaged in historic battles in the old version of the National League East. For Phillies fans, it was good versus evil. If beating the Pirates and keeping them from winning the NL East was equal to saving the world, then the Phillies had in fact saved us all in '76 and '77. As the Phillies came into 1978 though, they were tired of their season ending with the NLCS and were instead, looking for a trip to the World Series.

If Larry Bowa is fire and volatility, Danny Ozark was a calm, serene walk through a meadow. Not that Ozark couldn't muster a little flame of his own from time to time, but he was outwardly at peace with the world. After all, a team that finished last in the National League East for three straight seasons before his arrival, had turned things around. After a dismal '73 campaign, Ozark pulled the Phillies to 80-82 in '74, his sophomore season as manager. By '75, the Phillies would finish just 6 ½ games out of first and would celebrate division titles in '76 and '77.

Most of the '78 season was spent with the Phillies looking down from the top of the division. They were on a pace that would see them win less games than in the previous two seasons, but they were still the team to beat. The evil empire of their day, the Pittsburgh Pirates, were hanging around in second as the two teams waged their fourth straight division battle.

As the June 15th trading deadline neared, the Phillies front office leader Paul Owens looked for reinforcements. With a couple of possible deals dying on the vine, Owens would turn to the Atlanta Braves and New York Yankees for help.

Ted Turner, owner of the Braves, had made an enemy in pitcher Dick Ruthven. The story goes that Turner had made a pass at Ruthven's wife and the two were waging a fairly public battle over the alleged transgression. Ruthven was pitching poorly in Atlanta, but Owens believed that a change of scenery was all that was needed. Atlanta held out until the Phillies agreed to send reliever Gene Garber to them in exchange for the disgruntled Ruthven. The Phillies had played somewhat of a Robin Hood role on themselves, robbing from their rich bullpen to pay their poor starting rotation. Then, the other part of the plan came into focus as popular, but dispensable Jay Johnstone was shipped to New York for Rawly Eastwick.

Ruthven's change of scenery did in fact give him new life. Not that he was dominating, but he was a fresh addition to the rotation. The Phillies would get 20 starts out of Ruthven, who went 7-5, 4.21 for the Phillies in '78. The addition of Ruthven had paid dividends.

Steve Carlton and Larry Christenson were both pitching in some bad luck. Carlton would finish with a 2.84 ERA and Christenson would wind up at 3.24, but between them, their record was just 29-27. Jim Kaat and Jim Lonborg both struggled through the season, leading to the addition of Ruthven. One fresh surprise was lefty Randy Lerch. The Phillies saw Lerch finish with a 5.06 ERA in '77, but still thought he had something to give and they refused to give up on him. As fate would have it, Lerch would be called upon in a crucial spot in Pittsburgh.

The season hung on a key four-game series with Pittsburgh to end the season. The Phils held a 3 ½ game lead over the Bucs as they prepared to meet their archrivals. The series opened with a doubleheader Friday night and the Phillies were looking for a simple split, which would guarantee them the division title. Instead, the Pirates swept the Phillies winning 5-4 and 2-1. To make matters worse, Pittsburgh had gotten past Ruthven and Carlton in the doubleheader. Pittsburgh smelled blood.

On Saturday, Lerch went up against Don Robinson. Ozark hoped for Lerch to give his team just enough to hand it over to the bullpen. For Ozark, it was a good thing that he didn't ask for anything more; Lerch worked five innings, allowing four earned runs and the Phillies trailed 4-3 with two homeruns from Lerch being the only thing that kept the Phillies in the game. Jose Cardenal pinch-hit for Lerch in the top of the sixth when the Phillies went on to score three runs. Later, they would expand their lead to 10-4 and it looked like the division was theirs. Tug McGraw, who had already worked two innings, fell apart in the ninth, getting just one out. Ron Reed then came on and after surrendering a hit to Bill Robinson that made the game 10-8, Reed then struck out Willie Stargell and got a ground out from Phil Garner to end the game.

If the addition of Ruthven had helped the rotation, the addition of Eastwick did little to replace Garber. Eastwick's form as a former Fireman of the Year winner was gone. He went 3-6, 4.88 in a Phillies uniform. Fortunately though, the gamble had paid off and the strong Phillies bullpen didn't miss a beat. McGraw finished with 16 saves, while Reed finished with 5.

1978 was also the season that the fans really had turned on future Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt. After a 38-101-.274 season in 1977, Schmidt slumped to hitting just 21 homeruns. His average also dipped, closing the season at .251. The slack was picked up by Greg Luzinski. "The Bull" would nearly duplicate Schmidt's '77 season, going 35-101-.265, with his 35th longball coming in the clincher against Pittsburgh. Richie Hebner contributed 17 homerusn and hit .283, while Garry Maddox, Bake McBride and Larry Bowa provided speed on the basepaths.

While the Phillies would win a third straight division title in 1978, their trip to the postseason would again be short-lived. The Dodgers beat the Phillies in four games in the NLCS, again ending the Phillies season short of the World Series.

For Ozark, it was the beginning of the end. By the time August of 1979 ended, he would be gone as Phillies manager, clearing a spot for Dallas Green and the elusive World Series trip that Phillies fans had longed for.

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