Bill Conlin: Even though they clinched, Phillies should play out season with best team

Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval (left) and leftfielder Cody Ross celebrate 4-1 victory over Arizona yesterday.
Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval (left) and leftfielder Cody Ross celebrate 4-1 victory over Arizona yesterday.
Posted: October 01, 2010

THE 1980 PHILLIES were still alive in the National League East race when the Cubs came to the Vet for four games. Dallas Green's contentious contender had just lost two of three at home to the first-place Expos.

The Phils trailed by a half-game with seven to play, the final three in Montreal. The first game of the Cubs series was as tense as baseball gets. Larry Bowa set the stage by ripping the fans on his pregame radio show, calling them "front-runners rooting for us to lose." Green benched veterans Garry Maddox, Greg Luzinski and Bob Boone. Naturally, Maddox, who replaced centerfielder Del Unser in the 12th inning, drove home Pete Rose in the 15th with the second run of a dramatic three-run rally that gave the Phils a 6-5 victory.

Maddox scored the walkoff winning run on a single by Manny Trillo. In the unhappiest winning clubhouse I have ever seen, Green ripped his warriors for the umpteenth time.

Everybody went home mad.

But the Magnificent Malcontents swept the four-game series and flew to Montreal tied for first place.

The crazy, rain-delayed game where they clinched the division in Game 161 with a 6-4 victory in 11 innings remains one of the most memorable in franchise history. Mike Schmidt's one-out homer off Stan Bahnsen in the top of the 11th with two bases open and rookie pinch-hitter Don McCormack on deck for his first major league at-bat . . . A physically and emotionally drained Tug McGraw striking out Larry Parrish for the final out, then throwing up in the clubhouse tunnel, strung out on nerves and the Tylenol he had gulped to deaden the pain in his left elbow . . . Rookie outfielder Lonnie Smith celebrating the moment by climbing atop a chair and berating the media doubters with scatological creativity.

Game 160 has slipped into history's shadows. That one was way beyond tense, as well. Schmidt and McGraw also were the heroes of that obscured victory, with an assist from starter Dick Ruthven.

It was a Friday night. Cavernous and grotesque Olympic Stadium was crammed with 57,121 crazed Quebecois, gathered for history's loudest group singing of "Valderi, valdera," the rousing chorus from "The Happy Wanderer."

Schmidt scored Rose with a first-inning sacrifice fly. Then he gave Ruthven a 2-0 lead in the sixth with his 47th homer. In the bottom of the inning, Andre Dawson's sacrifice fly made it 2-1. Green went to veteran relief pickup Sparky Lyle for the final out.

Sparky worked out of a seventh-inning jam and McGraw came on in the eighth to protect the 2-1 lead.

Tug was never more brilliant. He struck out pinch-hitter Bob Pate, then fanned Expos stars Dawson and Gary Carter. Warren Cromartie lined out to left for the first out of the ninth, then Tug, pitching with his hair on fire, struck out Parrish and future White Sox and Mets manager Jerry Manuel. Six outs, five Ks, a one-game lead with two to play.

For the first time in that nails-on-a-blackboard season, you got the feeling that maybe, just maybe, they were going to win it after all.

Which brings us to the real time of the Braves and Padres playing their 160th games tonight, Atlanta with a two-game edge for the National League wild-card berth. The Giants' victory over the D-backs yesterday, coupled with San Diego's loss to the Cubs, moved them into the shadow of the West crown.

The Padres at least have a measure of destiny control, if little else. They play the Giants in sold-out AT&T Park and need a weekend sweep to force a division tie. That's just about Mission Valley Impossible. All they would have to do is beat Matt Cain, Barry Zito and Jonathan Sanchez.

Meanwhile, the Phillies have that meaningless - for them - and anticlimactic series in Atlanta. But for the Bravos, it could mean everything.

The Phillies have a stake in the wild-card outcome, as well. Everybody seems to think if the Phillies get by a probable Division Series against the surprise Central-winning Reds, the Giants will be the team to respect most in the NLCS.

But let's be real. If the chance that the Phillies would have to go best-of-seven against Bobby Cox' best pitching, with the middle three games in a ballpark where the Braves rarely lose, doesn't concern you, it should.

I'll take my chances with the Giants, thanks. Or the Padres, should they pull a rabbit out of the hat. The Braves won't be running pitchers out there you never heard of in the NLCS. And Cox' bullpen is a killer. No thanks.

Baseball has a rich and mostly honored tradition of challenging teams going for the postseason with your best lineup and pitching. You do it to be fair to the other contenders. And to be fair to history. The only free pass in baseball should be when a manager holds up four fingers.

Charlie Manuel already has cut the Braves plenty of slack. Roy Halladay will do his next pitching in a bullpen session setting up Wednesday's Game 1 start. The Braves get Kyle Kendrick tonight. The skipper has not named his Saturday and Sunday starters. But if Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt start, it probably will be under spring-training pitch counts. Nor is it likely Manuel will play all his starters, and if he does, they also will be replaced in midgame by bench players Charlie is trying to sharpen for the postseason.

At the same time, as the skipper likes to say, if it comes down to Sunday and there is still a wild-card race, the Phillies must respond to the moment with the lineup and effort that tradition demands. After all, this is not the National Football League.

Send e-mail to bill1chair@aol.com.

For recent columns, go to

http://go.philly.com/conlin.

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