Tug McGraw's first Phillies start

For Phillies fans of a certain age, an enduring memory of Tug McGraw is of the small lefthander leaping off the pitchers' mound at Veterans Stadium after striking out Willie Wilson to end the 1980 World Series—a strikeout that gave the franchise the first championship of its 97-year history. Known for his screwball as well as for his flaky antics off the mound, Tug was one of the greatest relievers in Phillies history. At the time he retired, before the expansion of the playoffs, he held the record for most career saves in the League Championship Series (5). His 180 career regular-season saves doesn't sound very impressive, until you consider that he pitched at a time when you could lead the league in any given year with around 25 saves. His career ERA+ of 117 (indicating he was about 17 percent better than the average pitcher at that time) is more obviously impressive. (By comparison, his teammate Steve Carlton had a career ERA+ of 115; another more recent lefty, Cliff Lee, is at 119 ERA+ for his career.)

What most people probably don't remember is that Tug occasionally started games as well—of his 824 career appearances, he was the starting pitcher 39 times. Most of those starts came early in his career, during his time with the Mets. Once he joined the Phillies in 1975, just three of his 463 career appearances with the club were starts.

Tug's first start with the Phillies was the most memorable of the three. It came on September 26, 1978, in a game at the Vet against the Montreal Expos. It was the second game of a doubleheader, and the Phillies' sixth game in four days. The Phils had won the earlier game, 5-3, thanks to a good outing by Jim Kaat, who gave up a run in six innings. (Random trivia: Pete Mackanin, former Phillies bench coach under Charlie Manuel, and recently rehired to serve as third-base coach of the 2014 squad, pinch-hit for Kaat in the bottom of the sixth; he popped up. Mackanin had 18 plate appearances with the Phillies in 1978-79.) Greg Luzinski was the hitting star of the first game, blasting a two-run homer and an RBI single.

In the first inning of Game 2, Tug gave up a leadoff double to former teammate Dave Cash, then struck out the next three batters. He gave up two singles in the second, but got out of trouble when Montreal's Chris Speier grounded to Mike Schmidt, who tagged the bag and threw to second for the double play. In the top of the third, Tug allowed another hit by Cash, but again escaped trouble when Phillies first baseman Jose Cardenal caught a line drive close to the bag and doubled Cash off.

Unfortunately, Montreal's Rudy May was also pitching well, as the Phillies were hitless in the first two innings. They looked like they might get something going when Bob Boone led off the third with a single to center field. Second baseman Ted Sizemore followed with another single, and Boone moved to second. But McGraw—who as a reliever batted only rarely; he had only four plate appearances to that point in the 1978 season—fouled one back to the catcher. Leadoff hitter Jerry Martin then struck out, and Larry Bowa grounded into a force at third to end the threat.

In the top of the fourth, Tug got the first two batters to fly out, but Warren Cromartie hit a solo home run to give the Expos the lead. Neither pitcher allowed a baserunner over the next two innings. Finally, after May had retired 10 straight batters, Larry Bowa singled with two out in the bottom of the sixth. A single by Gary Maddox and a walk to Luzinski loaded the bases, but Mike Schmidt hit an infield popup to end the inning, leaving the score still 1-0 in favor of Montreal.

McGraw also had been rolling. He had not allowed a hit or walk since giving up the homer to Cromartie, a stretch of nine batters retired. Should have been 10, but with two out in the top of the seventh, Bowa misplayed Gary Carter's ground ball, allowing Carter to reach first on the error. He wasn't there long; the next batter, Speier, banged a triple off the left-field wall, allowing Carter to score. Speier also tried to score as Luzinski chased the ball, but Bowa caught the relay from Luzinski and fired home, and Boone hung on to tag Speier for the inning-ending out. Montreal up, 2-0.

After the seventh inning, Danny Ozark apparently figured that his reliever had had enough. He brought in Ron Reed—who had pitched one-third of an inning in the first game of the doubleheader to collect his 15th save of the 1978 season—to pitch the last two innings of Game 2. Reed allowed Montreal to score again in the top of the ninth, and the Phillies lost, 3-0. Tug took the loss, despite an excellent line of 7 IP, 6H, 2R, 1ER, 0 BB, 6K. He was betrayed by the offense; the Phillies only managed four hits and two walks off May that evening.

Ultimately, the game really didn't matter much; at the end of the day, after splitting the doubleheader the Phillies had a 3.5 game lead over the Pirates with five to play. They beat Montreal the next day, then went to Pittsburgh for a season-ending four-game series, still holding that 3.5 game lead. The Pirates made it interesting with a pair of one-run victories to cut the Phillies lead to 1.5 games, but on September 30 the Phillies won a wild 10-8 game to clinch the division title and set up a playoff date with NL West champion Los Angeles.

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