Party like it’s 1976

charlieBaring a collapse of New York Mets proportions, the Phillies will clinch the NL East for the third season in a row. The Three-peat in the East has occurred just one other time in team history and continues a string of a dearth of champs in the East. Following the Phillies’ victory in 1993, only the Braves and Mets have won the division aside from the current batch of Phillies.

In other words, the NL East resembles the NBA Finals during the 1980s when only the Celtics, Sixers, Rockets and Lakers ever got there. Eventually the Pistons and Bulls broke through, but for a long time it seemed as if only a handful of teams ever made it to the big dance.

Nevertheless, the clincher for the Phillies will likely come this weekend in Milwaukee. And as a result of sewing things up with a week to go in the season (at least), it will go down as the earliest clincher in terms of games played. To capture their first playoff berth in 26 years in 1976, the Phillies wrapped up the East in Game 155.

If the Phillies clinch before Sunday, it will be the earliest the team ensured a playoff berth ever. Even in 1950, before the advent of divisional play, the Phillies needed the full slate of games to get to the postseason.

Anyway, here’s a look at the playoff-clinching games since Major League Baseball started divisional play.

2008
Game 161 vs. Washington at Citizens Bank Park (Sept. 27)

Box score

Remember this one? Remember how you felt when Brad Lidge loaded the bases with one out and the go-ahead runs in scoring position and how the shot by Ryan Zimmerman looked like it was going to ruin the closer’s perfect slate?

Kind of feels a lot like this year, doesn’t it?

Aside from Jimmy Rollins’ heroic diving stop to spin the game-ending double play, this one is remembered for Jamie Moyer’s second straight win in a clinching game. Aside from his effort in Game 3 of the World Series, the finales in 2007 and 2008 will be the old lefty’s legacy with the Phillies.

jimmy2007
Game 162 vs. Washington at Citizens Bank Park (Sept. 30)

Box score

The fact that the Phillies were even in a position to win the East took an unprecedented collapse by the Mets. Couple the huge comeback (down 6½ games with 17 to go) with a 14-year playoff drought, and the clubhouse scene was one of the all-time great parties in the history of Philadelphia clinchers.

The truth is a lot of us never saw such a thing. Champagne corks popping and flying all over the room. Beer spray dousing everyone and anything that moves. Pharmaceuticals and English bulldogs show up and drag low-end celebrities and political chaff around, too.

In other words, it’s no different than the parties you threw in college only without the bonfire. Where this party had it over those from back in the college days is that Jade McCarthy and J.D. Durbin made it to this one, and, well… when Jade and J.D. show up then it’s a party.

Of course by the time the fog cleared and the playoffs began, the Phillies were gone in four days.

19931993
Game 157 vs. Pittsburgh at Three Rivers Stadium (Sept. 28)

Box score

Get a load of this… I watched this one from the balcony at the Troc at a Fugazi show. Some guy sitting in front of me had a Sony watchman TV and we got to see Mariano Duncan crush the game-winning grand slam before the band took the stage.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Commonwealth, Harry Kalas was singing High Hopes after the Phils finally wrapped it up. But since this was the Macho Row era of club, the party didn’t end with the sing-a-long. Oh no. Check out the box score for the day after the clincher and check who IS NOT in the lineup.

That oughta tell you how long into the night this one went.

1983
Game 160 vs. Chicago at Wrigley Field (Sept. 28)

Box score

Who would have guessed that there would have been just one more clincher for the Phillies in the next 24 years after this one? Sheesh.

Regardless, this one was in the days before there were lights at Wrigley Field so it’s likely that Larry Andersen took the guys over to The Lodge after the clubhouse celebration ended.

Here’s what I remember from this one – Mike Schmidt hit his 40th homer of the season and Bo Diaz clubbed two of them all off ex-Phillie Dick Ruthven. The last out was caught by Greg Gross in left field with Al “Mr. T” Holland on the mound. I guess Holland looked like Mr. T to get a nickname like that. Seemed like a fun guy.

1981
Won first half

This was the strike year so by virtue of being in first place by the time the work stoppage occurred, the Phillies went to the first-ever NLDS. They lost in five games to the Expos, though St. Louis had the best overall record in the NL East.

schmidt1980
Game 161 vs. Montreal at Olympic Stadium (Oct. 4)

Box score

If we were ranking the best regular-season games in Phillies history, this one would have to be in the top three. Maybe even the top two. Frankly, it had everything. Comebacks, drama, suspense, crazy manager moves and then Mike Schmidt’s home run in the 11th to give the Phillies the lead they never gave up.

Oh, but if Schmidt’s homer were the only highlight.

  • Bob Boone laced a two-out single in the top of the 9th to tie the game and force extra innings.
  • Tug McGraw pitched the last three innings allowing just one hit to go with four strikeouts to get the win.
  • September call up Don McCormack came in to catch in just his second big league inning in the ninth when Dallas Green yanked Boone for a pinch runner. McCormack got the first of his two Major League hits after Schmidt’s homer in the 11th. From there, McCormack went on to play in just 14 big league innings the rest of his career over three game.

How did Don McCormack get into that game?!

  • The top four hitters in the Phillies lineup (Rose, McBride, Schmidt, Luzinski) went 11-for-19.

lerch1978
Game 161 vs. Pittsburgh at Three Rivers Stadium (Sept. 30)

Box score

Here was the scenario for this one – if the Pirates won, then Game 162 would decide the NL East. Instead, the Phillies wrapped up division title No. 3 thanks to a clutch three-run homer from Greg Luzinski in the sixth inning.

The game started rather inauspiciously, too. Willie Stargell hit a grand slam in the first inning to give the Pirates the quick lead, but pitcher Randy Lerch made up for his pitching with a homer in the second and another in the fourth to cut the deficit to a run and set the table for Luzinski’s homer.

The game was not without drama at the end, either. Tug McGraw game on in the seventh and was within two outs of closing it out until the Pirates rallied for four runs and had the tying run at the plate when manager Danny Ozark went to Ron Reed to close it out.

1977
Game 157 vs. Chicago at Wrigley Field (Sept. 27)

Box score

I don’t remember this one, but from a look at the box score it looks like one of those old fashioned Wrigley Field games that used to be unique. Now those Wrigley Field games can break out anywhere in any ballpark. And since they play mostly night games at Wrigley these days, those wild games are a thing of the past.

Still, the second clincher for the Phillies featured five RBIs and a homer (and seven solid innings for the win) from Larry Christenson and one from Mike Schmidt in a 15-9 final.

jvukovich1976
Game 155 vs. Montreal at Parc Jarry (Sept. 26)

Box score

The was the first and maybe the best of the Phillies clubs that won all those division titles. The Phils won a franchise-record 101 games, but they didn’t quite match up well enough against The Big Red Machine, who were on their were to becoming the last National League team to win back-to-back World Series titles.

I suppose there is some irony in there somewhere that the Phillies are in the mix to match the 1975-76 Reds… just don’t feel like looking.

Anyway, this clincher was the first game of a doubleheader, highlighted by a complete game from Jim Lonborg. So needless to say the nightcap had a slightly different lineup after the Phillies wrapped up their first playoff berth since 1950. In fact, John Vukovich started in the second game for his season debut. Vuke went on to start in 13 more games over five years for the Phillies – all but three came in 1980.

So there it is… looking forward to adding the new one at the top of this list over the weekend. The good part is the clubhouse in Milwaukee is plenty big enough to find a dry spot from all party shrapnel flying around.

Good for you… now do it again

The Phillies have a magic number which is a pretty good indicator that the Phillies are putting the squeeze on the rest of the NL East. Any combination of wins coupled with Braves’ losses equaling 66 gives the Phils the division three-peat.

Insert Phil Hartman doing the sarcastic clap here:

Strangely, we’re in a stage of the Phillies’ history where simply winning the division isn’t good enough. Call it the price of success. A few years ago the Phillies could get away with adding guys like Paul Abbott and J.D. Durbin to the rotation and no one would bat an eye.

That’s just the way they did things back then.

But with success comes expectations. So instead of Abbott and Durbin, or a trade to add a strong middle-of-the-rotation guy like Joe Blanton, we want more and Ruben Amaro and his posse know it.

So we get Rodrigo Lopez, a pitcher out of the game for two years after Tommy John surgery, instead of Abbott. Lopez once won 44 games in three seasons for some run-of-the-mill teams in Baltimore. He has pitched in a bandbox against the likes of the Yankees and Red Sox and come out on the other side to talk about it.

And after the surgery Lopez may have lost some of his velocity and snap in his curve, but he’s made up for it in savvy and experience. Not to compare the two, but sometimes it seems as if the guys who come back from serious surgery have the look of a guy who as been to war. They have seen some things – grown up. They nearly had something very valuable taken away from them and know how fleeting a baseball life can be.

Lopez, however, hasn’t guaranteed himself anything even though he has been a cog in the new-look rotation that has allowed just two runs in the last 25 innings. That’s because Pedro Martinez threw 63-pitches over four innings of a simulated game on Tuesday morning. Chances are the three-time Cy Young Award winner will be ready for Major Leaguers by the first week of August, which just might mean curtains for Lopez.

But what happens if the Phillies are able to swing a deal for ace Roy Halladay (or a pitcher of that ilk)? What happens if Amaro can make that type of deal and not lose J.A> Happ, who goes then? Jamie Moyer? Cole Hamels? Joe Blanton?

Definitely not Happ or Pedro.

Yes, these are strange times for the Phillies. Winning has a way of changing things more than we realize. Probably more than the Phillies realize, too.