It was the strangest evening of a very strange season. Underneath a full moon Friday night, the Phillies' Steve Carlton beat St. Louis, his old team, 6-2 for his 300th career victory. But, though Carlton became only the 16th pitcher in history and the fifth in the last 59 years to reach that milestone, the accomplishment came off as flat as last night's champagne. Carlton may be headed for the Hall of Fame, but he bolted for the corridors under Busch Stadium like a common criminal, his hands shielding his face from camera flashes. Lefty hadn't said much of anything to the outside world in 10 years, and he wasn't going to start now.
This was also the night, and the defeat, that eliminated the defending world champion Cardinals from the National League East race, if you could call it that. Naturally, the Cards were upset. "Caribbean, here I come," said Outfielder Lonnie Smith.
The victory was the Phillies' eighth straight in a streak that would reach 10 by week's end and kept at bay the Pittsburgh Pirates, who that same night were pummeling the suddenly miserable Montreal Expos 10-1. Through Sunday's games Philadelphia had a four-game lead on Pittsburgh, with a magic number of three and a week to go. Said General Manager-Manager Paul Owens, "If you'd told me last spring in Clearwater that we'd be in this thing with the lineup we've had out there and that I'd be managing it, I would've said to you, 'Are you kidding me or what?' "
That Phillies' lineup included First Baseman Len Matuszek batting second, Rightfielder Joe Lefebvre hitting cleanup and Centerfielder Greg Gross in the sixth spot. Earlier in the season the three of them were, respectively, buried in Triple-A, in San Diego and on the bench. The lineup didn't include several notables, one of whom was Pete Rose, who's being asked to sit out his 15th pennant race.
This hasn't been the best of seasons for Carlton, either. He was 14-15 going into the game at St. Louis and had relinquished his role as ace of the staff to John Denny, who was 17-6. "Lefty has had a funny kind of year," says Claude Osteen, the Phillies' pitching coach and also the losing pitcher in Carlton's eighth, 44th and 68th victories. "His strikeouts are right up there, so you know he's not getting old. But his concentration hasn't been as sharp. He's made mistakes on pitches that he didn't used to make. But he's still the most amazing pitcher I've ever seen."
Actually, the most amazing thing was that Carlton almost agreed to speak after his victory. On Sept. 19, the Phillies announced that if Carlton won his 300th that week he would appear with announcer Harry Kalas on WTAF-TV with a radio simulcast on WCAU, answering reporters' carefully screened questions. But on Tuesday Carlton recanted, saying, through the Phillies' p.r. office, that the issue of his speaking had become bigger than the pennant race. "Milestones are nice, but, very honestly, they are secondary to winning," said the release.
In St. Louis on Friday, Joseph T. Carlton, Lefty's father, hung around the clubhouse, carrying a stack of pictures of Steve in younger days. But he declined to be interviewed. "Like father, like son," he said. "End of conversation."
Carlton shut out the Cardinals over the first three innings and also drove in the first Phillies' run in the second with a single through the right side of the infield. But in the fourth he made the kind of mistake he has been making all season, and David Green hit a fat fastball over the wall in left to tie the score at 2-2.
Then the Phillies came up with three more runs off Joaquin Andujar in the fifth, and Carlton settled down. He allowed a leadoff triple to Ozzie Smith in the eighth, but stranded Smith by striking out Willie McGee and George Hendrick and getting Green to hit back to the box. It was, however, his last inning, denying the fans the pleasure of a grand exit. "He could have gone another inning," said Osteen later, "but he had already thrown 137 pitches, and he has to come back again with three days' rest. I asked him if he wanted the ninth, and we both sort of decided not to risk it." Carlton's line on the night was eight innings, seven hits, two runs, both earned, one walk and a season-high 12 strikeouts.
Al (Mr. T) Holland, the Phillies' excellent reliever, pitched the ninth, striking out Ken Oberkfell for the final out. Carlton ran out of the dugout to shake Holland's hand. Recounted Holland, "Lefty said, 'Thank you.' And I said, 'No, thank you!' "