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Greg Luzinski badly wanted to take batting practice, but the sky was a threatening gray, and a bright yellow tarpaulin covered the green AstroTurf infield of Montreal's Olympic Stadium. The Philadelphia leftfielder would have to wait until the game began to get in his licks, unless, as someone suggested, he wanted to swing against the pitching machine in the batting cage beneath the stands. The cage may have been a suitable alternative for some, but not for Luzinski. The Bull gets his pleasure from menacing men, not machines, from launching balls over fences, not into nets. "I am not a cagey hitter," he said with a shrug of his massive shoulders.
Facing a live pitcher later that night, Luzinski stroked a single, drove in one run and scored another as the Phillies extended their winning streak to 13 games, a club record, strengthened their hold on first place in the National League East and improved the best record in baseball to 71-44. At the end of the week Luzinski was still bruising—he is sixth in the league in hitting, second in RBIs and third in home runs—and his team was still cruising. After taking two of three in Montreal, Philadelphia returned home to Veterans Stadium and swept three games against Houston.
With a 6� game lead over Pittsburgh, the Phillies are the only one of the four defending division champions solidly on top in 1977. But it took an unexpectedly long time for them to get there. They lost six of their first seven games for their worst start in nine years, did not pass .500 until May 21 and did not move into first place until Aug. 5. "There were a lot of reasons for our slow start," says Manager Danny Ozark. "The main one could have been that the players expected the season to be a cheesecake." Through the malapropistic haze, Ozark's point was perfectly clear.
The cheesecakewalk finally did begin on June 26 when Philadelphia commenced to win 11 of 12 games, climbing from fourth place to second and reducing Chicago's unlikely 8�-game lead to a more believable three-game gap. The August surge has more than taken care of the rest of that margin, and a recent four-game sweep of the Cubs in Wrigley Field may have taken care of Chicago.
The most dramatic improvement in the last two months has been among the pitchers. Young Larry Christenson beat Houston 9-5 last week for his eighth straight victory, and old Jim Lonborg, who started the season on the disabled list, defeated Montreal 8-3 for his sixth win in his last seven decisions. Steve Carlton, pitching only to his designated catcher, Tim McCarver (see box), has been effective all along, especially at home, where he is 14-1. Carlton has also picked off 16 runners and is batting .270. After a shaky start the bullpen of Gene (House of David) Garber, Tug McGraw and Ron Reed has 32 saves and 20 victories. And McGraw still has as much screwball in him off the field as on. During the plane ride home from Montreal two nights after Elvis Presley died, he combed his hair in a ducktail, unbuttoned his shirt and sang a memorial medley of Presley songs. No one swooned.
Lonborg, too sophisticated for that sort of thing, was concerning himself with the rebirth of the Phillies. "We knew in spring training there was something special about this team," he said. "It took us longer than we expected, but the secret of our success is that we stayed together during a very tough period."
Actually, this may be an extra-special team, stronger and deeper than the one last year that set a club record of 101 victories. That it is more popular, too, is indicated by the average attendance of 33,778 at Veterans Stadium, an increase of 1,970 over last season's record pace. However, the players are not the only attraction. More than 46,000 showed up for a game against Houston last week, but it was Halter Top Night, one of the club's innumerable promotions.
"Philly is a fun place to play," says Richie Hebner, the former Pittsburgh third baseman who came to Philadelphia as a free agent, found Mike Schmidt in residence at third and became a first baseman. "I'm loving it here. The crowds are much better than in Pittsburgh, because the people are hungry for a winner. They go crazy."
Hebner is one of a cluster of newcomers contributing mightily to the Phils' success. After hitting .246 and .249 during his last two Pirate seasons, he has shot up to .288, and in an 8-3 win over the Expos last week he slugged the first grand-slam homer of his career.
Another new infielder is Ted Sizemore, who moved in at second when the valuable Dave Cash signed as a free agent with the Expos. A scrappy player who was the National League's 1969 Rookie of the Year, Sizemore had fallen on hard times at the plate during the last three seasons with St. Louis and Los Angeles. In 1976 he appeared in only 84 games for the Dodgers and hit .241. Now his average is .279. "He has played beyond everybody's expectations," says Garber.