There was laughter in the Philadelphia Phillies locker room on the afternoon of May 17, and why not? The Phils had just beaten the Cubs at Chicago's Wrigley Field in the most ridiculous game of this and many other seasons. Philadelphia gave up 22 runs but scored 23 to win a squeaker in 10 innings. The Phils got 24 hits, five of them home runs, seven of them doubles. They led by seven runs before the Cubs came to bat, by nine after three innings and by a 21-9 score after 4½ innings. But the Cubs kept hacking away and finally tied the score 22-22 in the eighth. Mike Schmidt's home run in the top of the 10th brought a merciful end to the travesty. All's well that ends well, right?
Not exactly. As a matter of fact, not everyone in the Phils locker room was chortling after the game was over. Sure, Larry Bowa, with his five hits, was, and so was Bob Boone, with his five runs batted in. But over there in the corner, pitchers Randy Lerch, Doug Bird, Tug McGraw and Ron Reed were looking shell-shocked. They gave up 26 hits, six of them home runs—Dave Kingman had three of them—and their combined earned run average ballooned from 2.88 to 4.21. The battered Phils' pitching staff has not been the same since that historic victory. As a matter of fact, neither has the rest of the team, which evidently left a wake-up call for July.
As the Phils departed Chicago for a three-game home series against Montreal, they led the National League East by four games, their record being a gaudy 24-10, good for a .706 percentage. Last week they limped back into Chicago for the first time since The Game. In the five intervening weeks, Philadelphia lost 23 of 35 games—including eight of nine to Montreal, which is now in first place—and had gone into such a decline that when the Phils lost two of last week's three games with the Cubs they fell to fifth place in the division, seven games behind the Expos and only 6½ ahead of the last-place Mets.
The Phillies' tailspin started largely as the result of injuries to key players, but by the time they reached Chicago almost everyone was healthy again and the team was playing worse, not better. Philadelphia was in desperate trouble, in real danger of losing contact with Montreal in a division the Phils have won three seasons in a row. "Everything is temporary," said Third Baseman Mike Schmidt limply during the series in Chicago. "If we are the cream, we will rise to the top." Having said that, Schmidt and his mates went out and lost 11-4 to the Cubs, giving up 17 hits.
Pitching, especially the bullpen variety, has most often been the Phils' telling shortcoming of late. "It seems like we've been getting to the sixth or seventh inning O.K.," says Manager Danny Ozark, "then our pitching goes south on us." Ozark blames most of the pitching problems on the loss of Second Baseman Manny Trillo, out for six weeks with a fractured left forearm, and Shortstop Larry Bowa, who broke his right thumb and missed 16 games. "When you lose two defensive infielders of that caliber, the pitchers have a tendency to get too fine around the plate," says Ozark. "And once you start getting behind in the count to major league hitters, you're in deep trouble."
Righthander Dick Ruthven, who had jumped off to a 6-0 start, pitched for a month with a pulled groin muscle—his record dropped to 6-4 during that span—before finally admitting he was hurt. After sitting out 10 days, he came back last week and helped the Phils win 5-3 for their lone victory over the Cubs. Nino Espinosa, another righty, saw his record fall from 5-2 to 6-7, but it was hardly all Espinosa's fault; the Phillies were shut out in three of his starts. And Reliever Ron Reed, who had a league-leading 0.43 ERA before the 23-22 game, now has an ERA of 4.41. Things got so bad for Reed at one point that he experimented pitching sidearm for several turns. It didn't help.
"It's been a real team effort," says Boone. "One day we get good pitching and we don't hit, then the next day it's just the opposite. It's like being knee-deep in quicksand—the harder you run to get out of it, the deeper you sink."
The Phillies hit rock bottom without Bowa, upon whom they rely for .300 hitting as well as brilliance afield. With Bowa in absentia from May 23 through June 8, they were 3-13. "When we lost Bowa and Trillo we lost our momentum," says First Baseman Pete Rose, "and we haven't been able to get it back, even with our lineup intact."
One of the things that have surprised Rose most, and the thing that was never supposed to happen on a team with two Roman candles like Bowa and Rose, is the fizzed-out look the Phillies have had for almost a month. "I run out to first base when we're taking the field," says Rose, "and I have to stand out there two minutes before I have anybody to throw to. Maybe the Phillies were always that way, but they ran out on the field when I first joined the club. I still run to my position."
Bowa, who may like to lose even less than Rose, is plainly mystified by the slump. "I've never seen one go on this long with this much talent," he says. "Nobody seems to know what to do. If you have a headache you take two aspirin and go to bed. What do you take for a slump?"
The Phillies have one of the oldest—they would say "most experienced"—starting lineups in baseball, but no one is ready to say they are too old. And certainly no one is ready to concede that the Phils might not be as good as everyone expected them to be. "I think the realization is just beginning to set in on them that they're not really this bad," says Jayson Stark of The Philadelphia Inquirer. "Everything that could possibly go wrong has."
"If you had seen all the bad hops, bloop hits and freak plays that have beaten us in the last month, you'd think we were snakebit," says Ozark, whose job now appears safe after a spate of rumors that he was about to be canned.
Considering how badly they have played, the Phillies could be described as being charmed, not snakebit. In their last 41 games they have left 308 runners on base—or an average of 7.5 a game—while the Expos have stranded only 5.9. They were shut out in four of their eight consecutive losses to Montreal, and while they were going into their Phamous Phabulous Pholding Phillies act, the Expos were on a 20-12 tear.
"The way we've been playing," says Bowa, "we're very lucky to be no farther back than seven or eight games. It could be a lot worse."
Ozark, meanwhile, is already preparing for the long chase ahead, the first for the Phillies since they fell 8½ games behind in mid-June of 1977 and came on to win the division title. "I don't think about how far down we are," he says. "I think about how many games there are left to play. And I think now it's our turn."
The Wrigley Field scoreboard on May 17—minus the 10th-inning run—was Philly's high-water mark.