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Bill Conlin: Phillies' 2008 offense might be better than 1977 powerhouse

TODAY'S EXERCISE: Match up the best offensive Phillies team you've seen in days of yore with a 2008 offense that might be the best in franchise history. But first, some observations:

Shane Victorino's .291 batting average is second-highest among the Phillies' regular starters this season. (Gregory Smith/AP)
Shane Victorino's .291 batting average is second-highest among the Phillies' regular starters this season. (Gregory Smith/AP)Read more

TODAY'S EXERCISE: Match up the best offensive Phillies team you've seen in days of yore with a 2008 offense that might be the best in franchise history. But first, some observations:

Psychological trauma, sports- team-collapse variety, often leaves reality gaps in our memories.

Black Friday of 1977 - Game 3 of the NLCS against the Dodgers - is known as "The 10-Minute Collapse." But the actual moment of truth, Manny Mota's two-out fly to the warning track in left that Greg Luzinski failed to catch, was more like 10 seconds, counting the wild relay throw that set up the rest of the inning.

A black hole of denial surrounds that loss. The Phillies had two more possible home games to atone for the baseball crimes committed while squandering that 5-3 lead. And Steve Carlton vs. Tommy John in Game 4 seemed to flip the odds back in the Phils' favor. But the veteran lefthander outpitched Lefty in a swirling mist of rain. Thirty-one years later, The 10-Minute Collapse is all that remains.

In Game 6 of 1993, what if Joe Carter had popped up? Was there a guarantee that Curt Schilling would have beaten the talented Blue Jays in a Game 7?

But this is about offense, the run-scoring kind, not the kind of offense that scars our souls.

It comes down to either a '77 team that won 101 games or the '93 upstarts who won 97 on the way to an easy NL East title. One will face off with a 21st century attack that appears headed for special status.

Each was prolific. But their approaches to offense could not have been more different. The scalawags and rascals of '93 took a grinding, relentless approach to the business of scoring 877 runs. One number tells most of it: an on base-percentage of .351, commendable for an individual, but insane for an entire team.

Unlike the 2008 mashers, who specialize in late-inning lightning, the 1977 team ended a lot of games early. After the Phils sent a pitcher to an early shower one night, a scout cracked, "The least this team could do is wait until the fans got to their seats." And the '77 team could longball an opponent from any spot in the lineup - even No. 9. Carlton batted .268 with three homers and 15 RBI. Larry Christenson also hit three with 13 RBI.

The 77ers hit .279 as a team, pounded 186 homers and finished with a .346 OBP and .448 slugging average.

But they accomplished those numbers playing in Veterans Stadium, a so-called "neutral" ballpark. The Pirates, Cardinals and Reds played in similar all-purpose yards. There was no interleague play, no Rockies or D-backs, no spate of new retro-parks, most with hitter-friendly dimensions. Suffice it to say, these Phillies would not be on the scoring and homer pace they are on playing by '77 parameters. And Mike Schmidt's Phillies might have put up epic numbers playing in Citizens Bank Park.

But the structures of both teams are similar enough for side-by-side comparisons regardless of ballpark and era gaps. In fact, some key 2008 stats are on track to wind up eerily similar. This team projects to hit a club- record 235 homers. That team hit 186, led by Greg Luzinski's 39 and Mike Schmidt's 38, and a total of seven players homered in double figures. Chase Utley, Pat Burrell and Ryan Howard are already in double figures with 97 games remaining. Pedro Feliz, Jason Werth, Geoff Jenkins and Chris Coste are on track for double-digit dongs and could make seven, as well.

Those Phillies scored 847 runs. These Phillies are on an 857 pace. That's close. As for the dreaded strikeouts, the '77 gang whiffed an economical 806 times. Charlie Manuel's Big Wind Machine is headed for 1,054. But . . . An amazing seven National League teams have struck out more this season than the Phils' to-date total of 423. Take away Howard's obscene 87 and you're looking at Club Contact.

In their 65th game of the 1977 season, the Phils engaged basically the same Big Red Machine that swept them in the '76 LCS (Hello, Rockies). It was 9-9 after six. Christenson gave up seven and Ron Reed gave up a pair. But the Phils scored six unanswered runs while Tug McGraw was finishing with three scoreless innings.

PITA (Pitchers In Traction Again) would be aghast at such abuse.

But Tugger was not the headline. My piece saluted "The Mouse That Roared." In the seventh inning, shortstop Larry Bowa pounced on a fastball from former teammate Joe Hoerner and ripped it to left-center for the only grand slam of his career. It was a grab-a-towel-and-fan-your-fainted-teammate moment.

Another thing stands out from that Game 65: The victory left the second-place Phils with an underwhelming 36-29 record. They trailed the Cubs by an alarming 6 1/2 games.

General manager Paul Owens had been unhappy with the production at the top of Danny Ozark's lineup. Second baseman Ted Sizemore had been a great No. 2 hitter behind Lou Brock in St. Louis, but the slap hitter didn't have a great basestealer to protect here.

The trade deadline in 1977 was June 15. The Phils were in Cincinnati and the press box emptied when the Reds announced they had just traded for Mets ace Tom Seaver. Owens and Minister of Trade Hugh Alexander quietly returned to the hotel the homeward-bound Phils already had checked out of and completed a far more significant deal. The Pope sent some top prospects to the Cardinals for rightfielder Bake McBride.

McBride - "Shake and Bake" - was soon leading off for a lineup that finally was stabilized. Garry Maddox, never comfortable leading off, batted No. 2. Sizemore's weak bat was moved to the back of the order.

McBride and Maddox put up numbers similar to those Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino have been putting up this season. You'll agree Mike Schmidt and Chase Utley are a fine match in the No. 3 hole. Ditto Luzinski and Howard batting cleanup. The Bull hit .309 and drove in a career-high 130 runs. Despite his troubles, Howard is on pace for 122.

Like Charlie Manuel, Ozark was blessed with a versatile bench and his reserve outfield and pinch-hitting options included Jay Johnstone, Jerry Martin and Ollie Brown. His infield reserves included unselfish Terry Harmon and walking-baseball encyclopedia Davey Johnson, a pennant-winning manager in waiting. Tim McCarver caught Lefty. Bob Boone caught everybody else.

The Phillies made up for a quiet 1977 hurricane season. After the All-Star Game, they were a Category 5 baseball storm. They had cut the Cubs' lead to 2 1/2 games by taking three of four going into the break. But by July 29 they had sagged to third place, three out of the lead and had been downgraded to a Tropical Fraud.

But on Aug. 23, they led the Pirates by 7 1/2 games. They had cracked the race open with the hottest stretch in franchise history, going 21-2 with a 13-game winning streak between losses to go 33 games over .500. In one stretch, they scored 10 runs in four straight games.

The Phillies' current 12-2 run and weekend sweep of the Braves is starting to look eerily similar to the '77 drive from chaser to chasee.

Both teams had extreme longball power. But a complementary ability to extend innings and add on runs when the longball is lacking is a shared characteristic.

The game has changed immeasurably since 1977, making comparisons almost pointless. But good hitters are good hitters in any era. Mike Schmidt never had the kind of so-hot-it's-silly roll Chase Utley has been on so far this year. But how many of those frequent warning-track flies No. 20 hit in the Vet and similar cookie-cutter stadiums would be into the flowers and beyond in the Money Pit?

If I had to pick the one Phillies lineup I would least like to face, it would be . . .

The 1977 Phillies playing in Citizens Bank Park. But that's a fantasy reach, isn't it?

Charlie Manuel's team playing in the Vet, the Money Pit or even in Yellowstone Park represents a dry-mouth game for any pitching staff.

You are watching the most potent Phils lineup of my time. And yours. *

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