After eight years we are finally beginning to understand what the American and National League playoffs are all about. They were conceived as a bridge between the grind of the regular season and the grandeur of the World Series, sort of an October Semi-Classic. Baseball's publicity men even insist on calling them the Championship Series, a sonorous label that suggests a competition of excellence. Alas, that has seldom been the case. There have been too few climactic fifth games, and once the first pitch of the World Series is thrown, even if it is a curveball in the dirt, no one remembers the playoffs anyway.
But if the Championship Series have failed to live up to their name, they nevertheless have served an important purpose, revealing weaknesses that were previously obscured. There is a false air of invincibility about playoff teams. Each is a champion in its own right, the class of its division and the toast of its town. When you talk to players about to participate in the playoffs, you almost invariably find them ready to skip consideration of the business at hand and to move directly to discussion of the World Series. What, after all, are five more intraleague games when you already have performed so well in 162?
Ay, there's the rub. In an era when the regular season is generously sprinkled with romps over expansion teams and diluted talent, the playoffs are just about the only honest test to determine which of a league's teams is its best and which is only a shallow pretender. And the playoffs have been a marvel of efficiency at doing this. Since they began in 1969, 11 of the 16 have been settled in four games or less. Half have been three-game sweeps. The "anything" that can happen in these short series has usually turned out to be the right thing.
All of this is likely to become apparent again when the playoffs begin next week. Philadelphia and Los Angeles will open the National League series at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday, and Kansas City and New York will renew last year's American League playoff rivalry at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday. This assumes that the Yankees are able to maintain their Eastern Division advantage over Baltimore and Boston. They entered the final week of the season three games ahead of the Red Sox and 3� in front of the Orioles, and they had the easiest remaining schedule.
The 11th hour activity in the American League East may be much ado about nothing, because Kansas City is superior to all three of its possible opponents. Philadelphia, the other playoff loser last season, should also take advantage of its second chance and defeat the Dodgers. The Royals and Phillies offer none of the glamour and tradition of their opponents, but they do have the better baseball teams. So much for the Celebrity Sweepstakes.
Los Angeles and Philadelphia have been anticipating their meeting for some time now. Although the Dodgers did not clinch the Western Division title until last week, they have led, it seems, since Tom Lasorda became manager on Sept. 29, 1976. The race was all but over on May 6 when Los Angeles had a 22-4 record and a 10� game lead over the late, great Reds. Cincinnati played Los Angeles virtually even thereafter, but the defending world champions never came close to catching up. Los Angeles' ability to stay well ahead may be its most significant accomplishment. The Dodgers had five months to fall on their faces, five months to listen to Cincy Manager Sparky Anderson's constant predictions that they would, but they never did.
The Phillies started slowly in the East and did not take over first place until Aug. 5, when they began an auspicious three-game sweep of the Dodgers in Philadelphia. The divisional winners split their 12 games this year, each going 4-2 in its home park. This pattern suggests that one of Philadelphia's big advantages could be the playoff schedule, which puts the final three games at Veterans Stadium where the Phils have won 75% of the time. The Phillies are also favored by precedent, the team with the scheduling edge having won seven of the National League playoffs.
But even without the schedule on its side. Philadelphia would seem the worthier club. Both teams hit with power, but the Phillies have better overall batting strength. Los Angeles has more capable starting pitchers, but the Philly bullpen is far superior. The Dodgers have the top base stealing threat in Dave Lopes, but he is offset by the fast Philadelphia threesome of Larry Bowa, Bake McBride and Garry Maddox. The L.A. defense is good, but the Philly defense is better, particularly at third base, shortstop and center field. Los Angeles offers a matched pair of antique—but not antiquated—pinch hitters in Manny Mota and Vic Davalillo. Philadelphia counters with greater depth. "The bench is their big advantage," says Anderson. "It's the best I've seen in the big leagues."
Those three August games in Philadelphia might have been a preview of the playoffs. The Phillies won the first 8-3 by scoring seven runs in the eighth inning. In the next game. Dodger castoff Ted Sizemore's 10th-inning single drove in the only run of the night. The wins both times went to Reliever Gene Garber. Finally, Steve Carlton outdueled Don Sutton for a 3-1 victory.
Los Angeles is counting on its pitching and power because it leads the league in both ERA and home runs. Certainly Philadelphia cannot match the rotation of Tommy John, Sutton and probably Burt Hooton, but for all the Dodgers' explosiveness, they have had a way of wasting good pitching performances. Sometimes the fault lay in a failure to hit in the clutch; more often it was the result of shoddy relief work. Those flaws were the primary reasons that Los Angeles was unable to maintain its early pace.