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50 of 50

50 Greatest Phillies Games: 37. Lefty spins magic in the NLCS

Until March 27, we’ll be counting down the 50 greatest Phillies games of the last 50 years. This is 50 of 50.

And this is No. 37.

THE DATE: Oct. 4, 1983

THE GAME: Phillies vs. Los Angeles Dodgers, Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles, Calif.

THE STAKES: Game 1, National League Championship Series

THE GREAT: The 1983 Phillies were weird. Underachieving for much of the year, the team finally whooped opponents to shreds late in the season.

Dig this: From Sept. 6 through the end of the season, the Phillies went 22-5. On Sept. 17 the Phils were tied with the Pirates for the division lead. By Oct. 2 they had a six-game advantage over Pittsburgh and the field.

The biggest reason the Phils played so well? They had veteran players who got serious once the calendar reached September. An offense that included Mike Schmidt, Garry Maddox, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez and Gary Matthews (not to mention youngsters Von Hayes and Juan Samuel) scored 4.87 runs per game in September and October. Schmidt poured it on in the second half, smacking 26 of his league-leading 40 home runs in after June 30. And Morgan (called “Sweet Pea” by Harry Kalas), who turned 40 in the middle of the team’s September surge, hit a splendid .337/.452/.593 in September and October.

But pitching carried them much of the year, thanks mostly to Cy Young winner John Denny and ace reliever Al “Mr. T” Holland. Steve Carlton wasn’t too shabby either, putting up a 3.11 ERA with 275 strikeouts, more than twice as much of any of his teammates.

So despite Denny’s superb 1983, manager Paul Owens called on his 38-year-old ace to start Game 1 of the National League Championship Series.

Carlton was facing a familiar foe: the Dodgers. But Los Angeles, who defeated the Phils in the 1977 and ‘78 championship series, went younger while the Phils went older. Instead of Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes and Ron Cey, the Dodgers had Mike Marshall, Steve Sax and Pedro Guerrero. But the Dodgers’ strength, like the Phils, was on the mound, with the exciting Fernando Valenzuela backed by Bob Welch, Alejandro Pena, reliever Steve Howe and Game 1 starter Jerry Reuss.

Thus a pitcher’s duel was to be expected. And if the Phils could only use some veteran guile to get a run or two, maybe that would be all they’d need.

And that’s what happened. With two outs in the first, Schmidt smacked another clutch home run to make it 1-0 Phils. From there, it was up to “Lefty.”

It looked shaky from the jump. Sax hit the first pitch from Carlton to deep short, legging out a single. But as Carlton had done so many times in his career, he erased Sax from the ledger with a pickoff throw. After that, “Lefty” shut down the Dodgers with plenty of fly balls, taking advantage of the spacious stadium dimensions.

Carlton met a speed bump in the sixth. Sax again led off with a single, and moved to second on a Russell sacrifice bunt. A wild pitch moved Sax to third with one out, but the crafty ace engineered an infield pop off the bat of Dusty Baker. Carefully pitching Guerrero to a walk, Carlton then sat down the young Marshall with a three-pitch swinging strikeout.

The top of the order came back in the eighth, and again Sax greeted Carlton with a single (this time with one out). A two-out single by Baker put runners on the corners. Guerrero was next, the Dodgers’ best hitter with a staggering .298/.373/.531 line, and Carlton was running out of juice. Maybe he knew it, too, because he threw four unintentional intentional balls to Guerrero, loading the bases for Marshall.

Sensing Carlton was done, Owens pulled him for Holland. The 30-year-old lefty, who struck out 100 in 91 innings, forced Marshall to punch a fly to right, perfect distance for Sixto Lezcano to close his glove on it.

Holland came back in the ninth, and got two quick outs before Derrel Thomas hit a chopper that Schmidt couldn’t corral. Though Thomas stole second, Holland buckled down and induced a groundout off the bat of Greg Brock to seal the game.

Carlton surrendered seven hits, all singles, and walked two while striking out six. Holland was perfect, sans Schmidt’s error. It was yet another outstanding outing for one of baseball’s greatest pitchers, closed by a reliever at the top of his game.

While the Dodgers would tie the series in Game 2, thanks to Valenzuela, the Phils would blow the Dodgers out of the water at Veterans Stadium, taking the final two games of the series by a combined 14-4, thanks in large part to “Sarge” Matthews and his home runs. But it was Game 1 that shined brightest – a fantastic pitcher’s duel with one big hit, and a bunch of stars doing what they do best to ensure victory.

Box score from Baseball Reference

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