Friday, September 19, 2014

Epic Collapse: September 20--The '64 Phillies Face the Perfect Storm

When the Phillies boarded their plane to return to Philadelphia for their final homestand of the season after Bunning, back on three days of rest, beat the Dodgers 3-2 on September 20, they had a 6-1/2 game lead over both the Reds and the Cardinals and were seven games ahead of the Giants. With twelve games remaining, it would take a nearly perfect storm for the Phillies not to win the pennant. As fate would have it, the remaining schedule conspired to make that perfect storm plausible.

The '64 Phillies Face the Perfect Storm

We are now where most accounts of the '64 Phillies' historic collapse begin. When the Phillies took the field at home against the Reds on September 21, their lead was so strong that even if the Reds or Cardinals won all of their remaining games, the Phillies needed to win only seven of their last twelve to win the pennant outright. If the Cardinals or Reds won 10 of their last 13 games--which, in fact, St. Louis did--the Phillies could have finished the season 4-8 and still gone to the World Series.

Despite their long-shot chances, the remaining schedule favored both Cincinnati and St. Louis. The Reds had five of their 13 games remaining against the Phillies and the Cardinals had three left against them, giving both teams the opportunity to make up significant ground against the first-place team they had to overtake. Also playing in the Cards' and Reds' favor: Cincinnati had five games against the awful Mets and three against the sixth-place Pirates, who were 10-8 so far in September, and St. Louis had five games each against both those teams. The Giants, who really should not have been in the discussion at this point as any combination of six Phillies' wins or six losses of their own would eliminate them from contention, had the advantage of playing all 12 of their remaining games against the eighth-place Cubs and ninth-place Colts.

The Phillies, however, did not have any of the National League's worst teams on their remaining schedule. In eight of their final twelve games they had to contend against their two closest competitors--the Reds and Cardinals--meaning they would lose ground in any game they lost. And Philadelphia's four other games were against the Milwaukee Braves, who may have been in fifth place but whose potent line-up was well able to do serious damage to Mauch's worn out pitching staff. With Ray Culp out of action with his painful elbow and Dennis Bennett pitching against a painful shoulder ... and with Art Mahaffey having for the most part struggled in his starts since the beginning of August ... and with Rick Wise just turned 19 years old and failing to pitch beyond the first inning in either of his last two starts ... Jim Bunning and Chris Short were the only pitchers Mauch had faith in.

Philadelphia was scheduled to close the season with three games in St. Louis and two in Cincinnati. But at this point, the dawn of play on September 21, the pennant chances were dim for both those teams, and Mauch had reason to hope--even to expect--that neither would be a pennant threat by then.

To put their remaining schedules in a different perspective: even including the first-place Phillies as their opponents, the Reds and Cardinals were playing teams with a combined .483 winning percentage, while the Phillies were going against teams (the Reds, Braves and Cardinals) with a combined winning percentage of .544--a very significant difference. (The Cubs and Colts, whom the Giants were up against, had a combined .433 winning percentage.) Philadelphia had a far tougher schedule, but still ... a 6-1/2 game lead with only 12 remaining should have been safe, almost impossible to lose. And the Phillies seemed to have the advantage of the first seven of their final games being at home.

With a 46-28 record at Connie Mack Stadium, the Phillies at this point had the best home record in the National League. Their first three games were against the Reds, who really needed to sweep the series to have any realistic chance to catch the Phillies. While there was nothing at the moment the Phillies could do about the Cardinals and Giants, just one win in the three games would leave the Reds 5-1/2 back--a gap that would be virtually impossible for Cincinnati to close with only 10 games left after that. How important would just one win at home against Cincinnati have been? Even if the Cardinals swept their upcoming two-game series against the Mets in New York, one Phillies win against the Reds would have left St. Louis five behind with 11 remaining, and with not very much hope.

But for a perfect storm ...

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