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This season may be best remembered for having its most spectacular races after the schedule was concluded. That's because this was the year baseball took a swift kick in its reserve clause, and that enabled 29 players to play out their options. They are now free agents and can sit back while clubs sprint toward them with lucrative offers. Fortunately, there was more to the season than this, especially in the final week, which was filled with dramatic moments.

In this Bicentennial year it is fitting that the Phillies came out on top for the first time in 26 seasons. And after their early-September slump, the Phils finished with a flourish, winning seven of their last eight games to end up with a 9-game lead over the Pirates. Two of those victories were earned last week by Jim Lonborg, who amassed 18 wins in an extraordinary comeback season. Another went to Steve Carlton (20-7). Mike Schmidt drove in his 107th run and hit his 38th homer. That blast made him the first man since Ralph Kiner in 1951 to win three successive major league home-run titles. Across the state in Pittsburgh, Pirate GM Joe Brown and Manager Danny Murtaugh, who had six first-place finishes and won two World Series during the '60s and '70s, both announced their retirements. Finishing strong were New York, which took 25 of its last 40 games, and Chicago, which bumped St. Louis out of fourth place with a 36-29 spurt. Jerry Koosman won 21 games for the third-place Mets, Skip Lock-wood had 19 saves and Dave Kingman hit 37 homers. Ray Burris of the Cubs, who was 4-11 on July 18, wrapped up a sparkling resurgence by ending up 15-13. And Bill Madlock (.339) took his second straight batting title by going 4 for 4 in his last game to nose out Ken Griffey (.336) of the Reds, who went 0 for 2. The Cardinals' Lou Brock, 37, hit .301 and stole 56 bases—leaving him 27 shy of Ty Cobb's career mark of 892. Despite .235 hitting by the Expos, Woodie Fryman was 13-13. Overachievers abounded for Western Division-winning Cincinnati. RBI champ George Foster and do-it-all Joe Morgan and Pete Rose are among the leading MVP candidates. Also in the running is Reliever Rawley Eastwick (11-5, 26 saves and a 2.08 ERA). Forty years to the day after he had his only at bat in the big leagues, Walter Alston, 64, retired as skipper of the Dodgers. In 23 years his teams came out on top seven times and won four World Series. A longtime Dodger coach, Tom Lasorda, will manage Los Angeles in 1977. Steve Garvey became the first Dodger to get 200 hits in three consecutive years. In Houston the Astros rebounded from their worst season (64-97) to wind up third with an 80-82 record. Bob Watson batted .313 and had 102 RBIs, and in the Astros' finale. Pitcher James Rodney Richard homered, beat the Giants 10-1 and became a 20-game winner. Two Padres have excellent chances to win postseason awards. Randy Jones (22-14 and a 2.74 ERA) could get the Cy Young, and Reliever Butch Metzger (11-4, 16 saves) is the front-runner for Rookie of the Year. John Montefusco of San Francisco tossed a no-hitter last week against Atlanta. Atlanta Pitching Coach Herm Starrette came through with the most vital "save" of the year. When Manager Dave Bristol gagged on a piece of ham and began turning blue, it was Starrette who saved him from choking to death.

In the closest of the divisional races, Oakland took the first two games of a three-game series against first-place Kansas City. Vida Blue earned his 18th victory in the opener, 8-3, and Mike Torrez won 1-0 for his 16th. That cut the Royals' lead to 2½ games. Desperate for pitching help, the Royals called on Larry Gura in the final game. Making only his second start of the year, Gura stopped the A's 4-0. Two days later the Royals clinched first place when Frank Tanana (19-10) of the Angels outdueled Blue and beat the A's 2-0 with the help of a 12th-inning homer by Rusty Torres. Going into the last day of play, the batting race was a classic: Hal McRae of the Royals was hitting .330784, teammate George Brett .330733 and Rod Carew of the Twins .329. It was Brett (.3333) who prevailed by going 3 for 4 on Sunday while McRae (.3321) and Carew (.331) were both 2 for 4. Brett's clinching hit was an in-side-the-park homer on his final swing. Among those being touted for the Cy Young Award was Minnesota Reliever Bill Campbell (17-5, 20 saves, 3.01 ERA). California's Nolan Ryan, 10-17 on Aug. 28, downed Chicago 3-0 and Oakland 1-0, both on two hits to bring his record to 17-18. After replacing Dick Williams as manager on July 23, Norm Sherry compiled a 37-29 record and brought the Angels from last place to fourth. Texas led for most of the opening month, then sagged badly. The Rangers batted only .250, and their 80 homers placed them ninth in the league. With Bill Veeck back, Chicago attendance climbed by more than 164,000 to 914.945. To lure more fans next year and to escape the cellar, Veeck knows what he needs: better players. He is contemplating a scouting mission to Cuba during which he apparently hopes to convince Fidel Castro to let the White Sox sign some of the talented young Cuban players. Trades enabled New York to conquer the East. Mickey Rivers (.312, 95 runs, 43 steals) and Ed Figueroa (19-10, 3.02 ERA) were obtained from California for Bobby Bonds. Dock Ellis, late of the Pirates, was 17-8. Longtime Yankee Catcher Thurman Munson became the only player in either league to bat .300 and drive in 100 runs in each of the last two seasons. Baltimore was the only team in the majors with two 20-game winners: Jim Palmer (22-13) and Wayne Garland (20-7). Dave LaRoche and Jim Kern combined for 36 saves, but Cleveland could not keep Boston from snatching third place. The Red Sox were not the dynamic team of 1975, despite Luis Tiant (21-12) and Carl Yastrzemski (102 RBIs). Fred Lynn, last season's MVP, hit .314 and had 65 RBIs—down 17 points and 40 ribbies. Boston's other rookie sensation of a year ago, Jim Rice, hit .282 and drove in 82 runs—drops of 27 points and 20 RBIs. Detroit had two of the most dazzling performers. Ron LeFlore put together an early-season 30-game hitting streak, then along came rookie Mark (The Bird) Fidrych, who last week beat Cleveland 4-0 and Milwaukee 4-1 to raise his record to 19-9, win the league ERA title with 2.34 and virtually sew up the Rookie of the Year award. For Milwaukee it was a sad season that included a last-place finish and the end of Henry Aaron's 23-year career. Aaron hit .229, with 10 homers. His final tally: 755.