Reinforced Phillies off quickly in bid for NL East title

The way the St. Louis Cardinals wound up 1982 in such a blaze of glory, it's easy to forget that for most of the regular season Philadelphia looked like the stronger club.

With three weeks to go, in fact, the Phillies held a slim lead in the National League East race. But they cooled off down the stretch while the Cardinals staged a late drive that carried them to the division title and victories in the playoffs and the World Series.

Because of these developments, it's generally supposed that the Phillies lost out via their so-so play in late September. But a strong case can be made that they really blew it at the very beginning of the season.

On this date a year ago, in fact, Philadelphia had a 3-11 record and was buried in last place, nine games behind St. Louis. From that point on, the Phillies had a significantly better record. But games played in April count just as much as those in July or August, and as things turned out that huge early deficit was just too much to overcome.

It looked like more of the same this spring, too, with an 0-3 start including two losses to the lowly New York Mets. But the Phillies quickly showed that they were not about to play any encore of 1982, winning nine of their next 11 games to surge right into the thick of a three-way battle with St. Louis and Montreal for the early division lead.

The way these teams match up they could well be nip-and-tuck all summer. But whatever happens, no one will be able to say that the Phillies blew it in April this time around.

No one can say the Phillies blew it in the off-season either, for of all three top contenders, they made by far the most significant moves to strengthen themselves. One was the big trade that brought them the speedy, hard-hitting outfielder Von Hayes from Cleveland. Another was the deal by which they obtained second baseman Joe Morgan from San Francisco. Still another was the pickup of veteran utility infielder Larry Milbourne from the Indians. And the one which may well turn out to be the most significant of all was the acquisition of free agent slugger Tony Perez after he was let go by the Boston Red Sox.

Hayes and Morgan, both left-handed hitters, give Manager Pat Corrales the offensive balance he lacked last year when most of Philadelphia's punch came from right-handers like five-time home run champion Mike Schmidt, outfielders Gary Matthews and Garry Maddox, and catcher Bo Diaz.

Milbourne, who as a New York Yankee filled in so well for injured shortstop Bucky Dent in the '81 World Series, has already seen action at second, third, and short and come through with some key hits including the 11th-inning single that won the home opener.

And then there is Perez. The 40-year-old slugger was projected only as a pinch hitter and occasional backup man for Pete Rose at first base - but he's turned out to be a lot more than that so far.

Because of outfield injuries, Corrales decided to put the versatile Rose in right in spring training to be ready for emergencies. This gave Perez a chance to play more than anticipated, and he responded by leading the team in hits and RBIs and sharing the lead in home runs during Grapefruit League action.

The Phillies opened the season with this alignment - still presumably as a stopgap measure. But Perez has been stinging the ball so hard (he's among the league batting leaders at .373, leads the team in hits, and is tied with Schmidt for the club lead in RBIs) that they just can't get him out of the lineup.

Morgan was acquired to fill the gap at second base left by sending Gold Glove winner Manny Trillo to Cleveland in the Hayes deal. Joe doesn't have Trillo's range, but he's an excellent, sure-handed infielder in his own right, and of course has always been an outstanding offensive player. He's off to a slow start (.174), but the record book says he'll hit sooner or later. And even now he's a valuable cog in the attack, ranking second on the team in walks and runs scored.

''Our infield has to be one of the best offensively and defensively,'' Corrales says of the alignment which has either Rose or Perez at first, Morgan at second, Schmidt at third, and Ivan DeJesus at shortstop.

Diaz is one of league's top catchers, while the outfield is so loaded that the problem is finding places for Hayes, Matthews, Maddox, and last year's rookie flash Bob Dernier - and that doesn't even take into consideration the current option of playing Rose out there so as to keep Perez and his hot bat in the game.

Then there is pitching - the key in the long run for any team - and the Phillies have the top man of all in four-time Cy Young Award winner Steve Carlton. The ace left-hander's worst-ever start (0-4, 6:75 earned run average) was a major factor in the team's ignition problems a year ago, but he's been incandescent this spring, compiling a 3-1 record, a 1.85 ERA, and 46 strikeouts in 39 innings.

Carlton can only pitch every fourth or fifth day, though, and some feel the Phillies may be a bit thin behind the big man after sending 13-game winner Mike Krukow to the Giants in the Morgan trade. Corrales doesn't see it that way, however, figuring that late-1982 pickup John Denny will be around all season this time, and that he and holdovers Larry Christenson and Dick Ruthven should provide a strong enough supporting cast.

In the bullpen, Ron Reed and Sid Monge have emerged as the leaders of a crew that includes 1980 World Series hero Tug McGraw (trying to come back after injury problems the last two seasons), Al Holland (obtained from the Giants) promising second-year man Porfi Altamirano, and veteran Ed Farmer.

''We don't have any Bruce Sutter,'' Corrales acknowledges in reference to the phenomenal St. Louis fireman, ''but we have a lot of good pitchers out there.

There's a lot of talent on this club - as shown not only by its 1980 world title but by its divison championships in 1976-77-78, it's first-half victory in the split 1981 season, and its record as the National League team with the most victories over the last seven years (615, with Los Angeles next at 607).

This year's team may be even better than most of its predecessors, too. It has more offensive balance and considerably more speed via the acquisition of Morgan and Hayes to go along with Dernier, who stole 42 bases as a part-timer last season. It has a lot more depth and flexibility thanks to the arrival of Perez and Milbourne. And it is full of players who are used to winning - led by Rose, Morgan, and Perez from those great Cincinnati teams of the 1970s, and Rose again with all the Phillies' own veterans from 1980.

It's a team that will be tough to beat - but then so are the Cardinals and Expos in this toughest of all divisions. In other words, it should be an interesting summer.

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