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Tim McCarver, a catcher for the Philadelphia Phillies, was carrying his postgame snack from the clubhouse buffet to his locker last Friday evening when he stumbled just enough to dislodge a golden ear of corn from the paper plate. In anguish, he watched its descent to a floor strewn with socks and jocks and other unsanitary paraphernalia. The explosion of profanity that accompanied this mishap would not seem out of place in most locker rooms, where even the most loathsome expletives are routine. But here, in the tranquillity of the Phillies' retreat, his curses resounded as if they had been bellowed in a cathedral. Almost apologetically, McCarver retrieved the fallen viand and repaired to his cubbyhole, his craggy features metamorphosed into those of a mischievous schoolboy. McCarver, an intelligent man, knew better; Phillies do not react so openly to untoward events. Had not his teammates stoically withstood the shock earlier that night of a second successive defeat in a season virtually devoid of setbacks? Who was he to bemoan the fumbling of an ear of corn? Let him eat cake.
In victory or defeat, the Phillies pride themselves on their placidity. They behave unconcernedly, as if they had been winning pennants for decades instead of aspiring to their first in 26 years. Such is the nature of a talented ball club which had threatened to run away from its pursuers in the National League East. The Phillies had won 32 of their first 43 games, including 13 in a row on the road, before first St. Louis, then San Francisco, proved them mortal. The Cardinals halted their string of away victories with a 7-1 clobbering Thursday and the Giants, cellar inhabitants for much of the season, defeated them 5-1 and 4-2, the first loss terminating Phillie Pitcher Jim Lonborg's personal win streak at eight straight. The three-game losing streak was Philadelphia's longest of the season.
The Phillies endured this sudden embarrassment philosophically, acknowledging the time-honored dictum that "You can't win 'em all." They are buoyed in defeat, as in victory, with what McCarver calls a "subtle confidence." Asked to define his terms, the catcher explains, "Ours is not the boisterous kind of confidence you find on some teams. That always seems a little thin on the edges. We've got a wealth of professionalism and we put things in the proper perspective. We are not going to sit back after this fast start and wait for the other teams to be impressed with us."
The Phillies are perpetually dogged by the presence of their Pennsylvania neighbors, the Pittsburgh Pirates, the team, as they put it, "to beat." To date, they have beaten the team to beat only as often as they have been beaten by it, the season series standing at two games to two. But this year's composed Phillies are not to be confused with their nervous and apprehensive predecessors. Defensively and offensively, they have been superb. At the end of last week they had the fewest errors (30) in the league and their batting average was only a percentage point shy of that of the slugging Reds.
The most pleasant surprise, however, has been Phillie pitching, a phase of the game at which they had not heretofore excelled. Lonborg, a former American League Cy Young Award winner whose career tumbled into mediocrity after a skiing accident nine years ago, was 8-1; Steve Carlton, a former National League Cy Young winner, was 5-3; 22-year-old Larry Christenson was 6-2; and 37-year-old Jim Kaat was 4-2. And Tom Underwood, who won 14 games for the Phillies last year, and Ron Reed, who won 13 for Atlanta and St. Louis, had been consistently effective as spot starters and relievers.
But Lonborg, a slow starter in most games and a strong finisher, gave up four runs in the first inning to San Francisco Friday, and that proved to be insurmountable. Then on Saturday, Carlton pitched well enough, but fell victim to his ancient nemesis, the gopher ball, Ken Reitz tagging him for a two-run homer in the second inning.
The Phillies' pitching may yet let them down. The same cannot be said for their fielding and hitting. The first five men in the batting order are exactly what baseball savants say they should be. The first two, Dave Cash and Larry Bowa, are .300 hitters with speed, and the next three, Mike Schmidt, Greg Luzinski and Dick Allen, are among the most powerful hitters in the game. And because all are generally consistent, it is rare indeed when any two of them slump at the same time. Cash, who has played in every game for the past two years, and Bowa both hit .305 in 1975 and are in that vicinity this season. Schmidt led the major leagues in homers a year ago with 38 and had 15 at week's end. Allen, whose disposition is as erratic as his play is steady, is currently hitting .326 after an abbreviated and unsuccessful 1975 season. Luzinski, the 225-pound Bull of the outfield, hit .300 a year ago with 34 homers and a major-league-leading 120 RBIs. Despite a relatively slow start, he is hitting .281 with seven homers and 34 RBIs.
The infield of Schmidt at third, Bowa at short, Cash at second and Allen at first is, with the possible exception of Cincinnati's, the best offensively and defensively in baseball. Cash and Bowa, the singles hitters, make the team function. Bowa, 30, is white and mustachioed. Cash, 28, is black and goateed. Both are consummate professionals who perform with a fluidity afield that Franklin P. Adams attributes poetically to Tinker and Evers. Bowa is the more emotional of the two, a sometime umpire-baiter whose experiments in Transcendental Meditation have helped subdue a bothersome temperament. Cash, a veteran of the 1971 Pirates' world championship team, is forever cool, a good soldier who knows his duty and performs it uncomplainingly.
"It's very important for people to know their roles," he says. "My main job is to get on base for the guys who hit behind me. I also have to run a little. That way the big hitters see a lot of fast-balls. The pitchers will be looking for me to run, so they want to get the ball up there in a hurry. I'd say I also have a responsibility to keep morale high, but this team is about as close as any I've been on. I can't really compare us with the '71 Pirates because we haven't done anything yet, but potentially we're as good as anyone. Instead of talking about what we're going to do, we do it. We don't get emotionally high winning or low losing. That's good, because it's too early to get excited. The real test will come when we lose a few in a row. Anybody can play when he's winning. The test is how you come back from losing. It's like a horse laying off the pace, then charging down the stretch."
Bowa shares Cash's cautious optimism. "We have an abundance of talent, but we still have a lot to prove," he says. "I think now we have the experience for the stretch, though. We have enough talent to rebound."