From the lowest clubhouse boy to the very highest front-office poo-bah, everyone in baseball agrees that the Phillies are a team on the verge—but no one is exactly sure what Philadelphia is on the verge of. On Dec. 5 the Phillies signed free-agent Pete Rose to play first base, thereby ensuring the winning of their first National League pennant since 1950. After all, with Rose's hot bat and fiery spirit, how could Philadelphia fail? Two months later, however, 13-game winner Larry Christenson broke his right collarbone and the Phillies suddenly lost the Eastern Division. After all, without a solid pitching staff, how could they succeed? Which of these early portents is correct will not be known until fall, but for now they are a source of much speculation.
The Phillies have had a relatively easy time of it the last three seasons, winning the division by an average of five games over second-place Pittsburgh and by 15 games over three different third-place clubs. They have shown variety in the way they have done it, too: a fast start in '76, a fast finish in '77 and a late holding action in '78.
Even though last season's final margin was a perilously narrow 1� games, Philadelphia still made a strong case for its overall superiority, because so many of its important players had off years. This suggests that the Phillies don't just dominate the division, they own it. They will have the opportunity to reaffirm this in 1979, when they try to become the first National League team to win four consecutive division titles.
Philadelphia benefits by playing in the weaker half of the National League. The Phillies and Pirates were the only Eastern teams to play better than .500 ball last year, and only Pittsburgh had a winning record against the West. When Philadelphia lost its third straight championship series, 3-1 to the Dodgers, the defeat worsened the division's overall playoff record to seven losses in 10 appearances.
The Phillies hope Rose not only will solidify their first-place standing in the East but also will give them an edge over any playoff opponent. Soon after signing his four-year, $3.2 million contract, Rose said, "I see myself as being the something extra that can put the Phillies over the top and into the World Series." So do his teammates. "Getting Pete is definitely a morale booster," says Centerfielder Garry Maddox. Shortstop Larry Bowa believes, "Pete will lead by example. I can see him getting the one big hit in a key playoff situation that the rest of us have never gotten before."
By replacing Richie Hebner at first, Rose now has a chance to make the All-Star team at a fifth position (following appearances at second and third and in right and left). To prepare for just such a change, he began working out at first base during Cincinnati's late fall tour of Japan, even though he did not know then what team he'd be playing for in '79.
One skill Rose does not have to work on is his hitting. As he swings for his 14th .300 season, he will give the Phillies the consistent leadoff man they have lacked since Dave Cash departed two years ago. Now, with switch hitters Rose and Bowa, who had 192 hits last season, batting one-two, opposing pitchers will get no rest.
Another valuable newcomer to the Phillie infield is former Cub Manny Trillo, a first-rate second baseman who will fill a yawning gap five players failed to plug in '78. His wide range will be particularly valuable on balls hit to Rose's right. At first base, Pete not only has the disadvantage of being righthanded, but he is unaccustomed to going to his right and no longer has even the modest range he had as a young second baseman.
The rest of the everyday lineup is unchanged. Bowa (.294) and Bob Boone (.283) are coming off fine seasons, and Third Baseman Mike Schmidt (.251 with 21 homers and 78 RBIs) and outfielders Greg Luzinski (.265, 35, 101) and Bake McBride (.269) can be counted on to improve on their somewhat disappointing totals of a year ago.
Philadelphia's only serious concern is the quality of its pitching. The Phillies tried all spring to land a top starter, but the best they could do was a deal that sent Hebner to the Mets for Nino Espinosa. The young righthander was 2-7 after July 30 last year when he seemed to lose something on his fastball. So Philadelphia still has just three proven starters: Steve Carlton, who was 16-13 on the mound and .291 at the plate; Dick Ruthven, who was 13-5 after arriving from Atlanta in June; and Randy Lerch (11-8).