Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Random Past Season: 1991

Year: 1991
Record: 78-84 (3rd place in NL East, 20 games behind Pittsburgh Pirates)
Managers: Nick Leyva (4-9), Jim Fregosi (74-75
Coaches: Larry Bowa, Hal Lanier, Denis Menke, Johnny Podres, Mike Ryan, John Vukovich
General Manager: Lee Thomas
All-Star: John Kruk
Top Draft Pick: Tyler Green (1st Round, 10th overall)

About 1991: More than any other sport, the Major League Baseball season can be a real rollercoaster ride. Over 162 games, every team will have its share of highs and lows. For some, it can seem to be one extreme or another with little to no middle ground. The 1991 Philadelphia Phillies experienced such a season. It was a year that saw a managerial change very early in the campaign, a near-fatal car accident involving two of the club's key players, a no-hitter, and a summer swoon that was stopped by what is tied for the second-longest winning streak in franchise history. In the end, the Phils finished with a record of 78-84, 20 games behind the National League East champion Pittsburgh Pirates. While that may not seem like much, it was good enough for a third-place finish, the team's highest since finishing second in 1986. It also provided some hope that perhaps, at long last, the Phillies were not that far away from contention.

Despite winning 10 more games in 1990 than they had in 1989, the Phillies were not seen as a team on the rise as the 1991 season dawned. An offense that featured returning veterans Lenny Dykstra, Darren Daulton, Von Hayes, Charlie Hayes, Dale Murphy, and Dickie Thon, newcomer Wally Backman, and rookie Wes Chamberlain was considered adequate enough, but a pitching staff riddled with question marks and inexperience (especially after the loss of top '90 starter Ken Howell to shoulder surgery) was expected to be the team's downfall. Terry Mulholland (who no-hit the San Francisco Giants on August 15, 1990) would head up a young rotation, followed by Jason Grimsely, Jose DeJesus, and Pat Combs. The final spot was up for grabs, with journeyman Dave LaPoint ultimately prevailing over Tommy Greene, who joined a bullpen that featured Roger McDowell, Joe Boever, Bruce Ruffin, and Darrel Akerfelds. Added to the mix would be Mitch Williams, who was acquired from the Chicago Cubs in exchange for relievers Chuck McElroy and Bob Scanlan on the eve of the regular season opener. Another addition was former St. Louis Cardinal Danny Cox, whose '89 and '90 seasons were wiped out due to elbow problems, but was expected to resume his career after a brief rehab stint early in the '91 campaign.

Preseason prognostications almost exclusively saw the Phillies finishing last or next-to-last in the six-team NL East. As the club stumbled through the Grapefruit League schedule, reports began to surface that manager Nick Leyva was on the hot seat. The gloomy spring seemed to foreshadow a long season ahead, and by the time camp broke in April, the Phils already seemed like a defeated team resigned to their usual place at or near the bottom of the standings. It was probably no shock when they dropped their first two games of the regular season, though it was hard to fault the pitching staff for consecutive 2-1 losses to the New York Mets at Shea Stadium. Those two losses were followed by three victories, the second of which was an 11-4 romp over Jamie Moyer and the St. Louis Cardinals in the home opener. At 3-2, the Phillies had reached what turned out to be their high-water mark of the 1991 season, as they'd never be above .500 at any other point. Seven losses in the next eight games dropped the Phils to 4-9, and general manager Lee Thomas felt it was time for a change.

On April 23, 1991, Nick Leyva was relieved of his duties as manager of the Philadelphia Phillies. His replacement was Jim Fregosi, a longtime friend of Lee Thomas who had previously managed the California Angels and Chicago White Sox. After dropping the first two games of Fregosi's tenure, the Phils responded well to the change, winning 14 of their next 21 to pull back to .500 at 18-18. Included was a five-game winning streak between April 27 and May 1, the first time since 1987 the team had won that many games in a row.

Unfortunately, anything the club did on the field to that point was greatly overshadowed by the events that took place during the early morning hours of May 6. On the way home from John Kruk's bachelor party, Lenny Dykstra crashed his car into two trees, breaking three ribs, his right collarbone and cheekbone, as well as puncturing a lung and bruising his heart. Darren Daulton was a passenger in the car and suffered a broken left eye socket, scratched cornea, and bruised heart. Dykstra, whose blood alcohol level was nearly twice the legal limit at the time of the crash, managed to survive and would miss over two months of action while Daulton missed three weeks.

A couple weeks after that lowest of lows, the Phillies reached a high point on May 23 against the Montreal Expos at Olympic Stadium. There was more bad news going into this game as Danny Cox (who had joined the rotation in late April) had to be scratched due to a pulled groin, with Tommy Greene getting the call. Before a sparse Thursday afternoon crowd of 8833, Greene walked seven Expos but held them hitless over the first eight innings. With the bullpen up and throwing just in case, Greene set the first two Montreal hitters down in order in the ninth before stabbing a one-hop scorcher off the bat of Tim Wallach to complete the eighth no-hitter in franchise history. The 2-0 victory pushed the Phils back to .500 at 20-20. Unfortunately, it was the last time they'd reach sea level. Four consecutive losses followed the no-no, with Greene proving to be the stopper when he again shut out the Expos on May 28, allowing three hits while striking out nine and walking none in a 12-0 romp at Veterans Stadium. The team's record stood at 22-24 after a 2-1 win over Montreal the following night, but another four-game losing streak ensued and the Phillies were never fewer than three games below .500 the rest of the way.

By the end of June, the Phillies were 32-43 and in the basement of the NL East. It seemed as though the only drama that awaited the ballclub over the season's final three months was to see if they could avoid finishing last for the third time in four years. John Kruk was one of the few bright spots, hitting near .300 for most of the first half. He was the team's lone representative at the All-Star Game in Toronto, but perhaps fittingly, never got into the game. On the field, it was more of the same, as the Phils fell to 35-51 after being bludgeoned at home by the Giants, 17-5 on July 14.

The following night, Lenny Dykstra received a mixed reaction from the home crowd as he returned to the lineup for the first time since the crash. He went 2-for-5 and Darren Daulton hit his first career grand slam as the Phillies rallied from a 6-1 deficit to top the Los Angeles Dodgers, 9-8. The win sparked the Phils to a three-game sweep of the Dodgers before heading to San Diego and taking the first two of a three-game set from the Padres. The rollercoaster ride that was the 1991 Phillies season immediately took another steep dive, as they lost the final seven games of the road trip, limping home on July 30 with a record of 40-58. Aside from avoiding a last-place finish, it appeared as though the Phils may have their work cut out for them trying to avoid losing 100 games. But this was a year to expect the unexpected. Still, nobody could've ever dreamed of what was about to take place taking place.

On July 30, the Phillies welcomed the Padres to Veterans Stadium to open a brief two-game series and homestand. Jose DeJesus allowed seven hits and walked seven, but surrendered just one run over eight innings in a 2-1 victory to snap the seven-game skid. The following night, Wes Chamberlain blasted a pair of three-run home runs in a 9-3 rout. After the mini-sweep, it was off to Montreal for four with the Expos. The Phils took the first three games in Quebec, but the Expos seemed poised to take the finale as they loaded the bases with no outs in the bottom of the ninth with the score tied at 2-2. Mitch Williams pitched his way out of it, though, and an RBI double by Dale Murphy in the 10th gave the Phillies a 3-2 lead that the Wild Thing would preserve and give the ballclub a six-game winning streak.

Back home against the Cubs on August 6, the Phillies again found themselves in dire straits as Chicago took a 2-1 lead in the ninth. Lenny Dykstra fixed that by sending Paul Assenmacher's first pitch of the bottom of the frame to the seats in right field for a 3-3 tie. Two innings later, Murphy again delivered the deciding blow with a walkoff grand slam and a 6-2 win. Williams again was the pitcher of record, and he and the team would make it three straight extra inning victories the next night as Chamberlain's 11th-inning RBI single scored Randy Ready with the final run in a 5-4 triumph. The Phils completed the sweep of Chicago and made it nine wins in a row with an 11-1 plastering in the series finale. The streak reached double digits in a seesaw 5-4 victory over the Expos on August 9, with Dickie Thon's sacrifice fly in the bottom of the eighth scoring John Kruk with the decisive run. Williams was the winning pitcher for the fifth time during the streak. Win number 11 came the next night by a score of 4-2, and the Phillies made it an even dozen on August 11 as Charlie Hayes scampered home on a Jeff Fassero wild pitch in the eighth inning to give the Phils a 5-4 lead that Williams held in the ninth. On August 12, Terry Mulholland outdueled Dennis Martinez, 2-1, and the Phillies had their longest winning streak since 1977 at 13 in a row. It was tied for the second-longest streak in franchise history, behind the 1887 club that won 16 straight.

All good things must come to an end, and for the Phillies, their 13-game winning streak ended at Three Rivers Stadium in a 4-3 loss to the Pirates on August 13. A 5-3 loss in Pittsburgh the next night continued another streak, as it dropped the Phils to 0-8 against the Buccos in '91 before finally entering the win column with a 6-4 victory in the finale of the three-game set. The Phillies did get some measure of revenge the following week when they swept the Pirates at the Vet, with all three wins coming in walkoff fashion. Dickie Thon was the hero in the series opener, as his two-run homer off Stan Belinda with two outs in the ninth lifted the Phils to a 6-5 triumph. The last two games were won by scores of 6-5 and 4-3 in 11 innings, respectively, with RBI singles by Wally Backman and Darren Daulton delivering the final tallies. With the season entering its home stretch, the Phillies didn't have any postseason aspirations, but finishing above .500 for the first time in five years now seemed to be a reasonable goal. Disaster would strike once more, though.

The Phillies held a 3-1 lead over the Cincinnati Reds with two outs in the second inning of a game at Riverfront Stadium on August 26 when Chris Sabo stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and sent a drive to deep center. Lenny Dykstra took extra bases and three RBI away from Sabo with a running grab, hanging onto the ball when he crashed into the unpadded wall. Leading off the top of the third, Dykstra was unable to finish his at-bat, immediately running to the clubhouse after swinging the bat. He'd broken his collarbone and would miss the season's final six weeks. Cincinnati rallied for a 5-4 victory, leaving the Phils with a record of 60-64. They'd play slightly south of .500 ball the rest of the way en route their final mark of 78-84.

In an up-and-down season, there were predictably a variety of individual performances when the final numbers went into the books. John Kruk was far and away the team's top offensive performer, hitting .294 with 21 home runs and 92 RBI, leading the club in each of those categories. Lenny Dykstra hit .297, but appeared in just 63 games. Very telling was the fact the Phillies went 36-27 with Dykstra in the lineup, 42-57 without him. Dale Murphy finished what would be his last full season with a .252 average, 18 homers, and 81 RBI. Wes Chamberlain's name was tossed about in Rookie of the Year discussion for much of the summer, but a poor final month took him out of the running as he ended up at .240 with 13 homers and 50 RBI. Darren Daulton never really recovered from the car accident in '91, hitting a paltry .196 with 12 home runs and 42 RBI. Charlie Hayes hit a disappointing .230 with 12 roundtrippers and 53 RBI in the last season of his first Phillies tenure, while Dickie Thon's stay in Philadelphia ended with a .252 average, 9 homers, and 44 RBI. Von Hayes also had a forgettable final season as a Phillie, hitting just .225 without a home run in 77 games. He also missed over two months due to a broken wrist sustained after being hit by Reds pitcher Tom Browning. Dave Hollins, Ricky Jordan, and Jim Lindeman chipped in with strong performances off the bench.

On the mound, Terry Mulholland really came into his own in 1991, going 16-13 with a 3.61 ERA and eight complete games. Tommy Greene didn't rest on his laurels after his no-hitter, finishing at 13-7 with a 3.38 ERA. Jose DeJesus showed promise by going 10-9 with a 3.42 ERA, but injuries would prevent him from ever throwing another pitch in a Phillies uniform after '91. The rotation was in a constant state of flux after those three, however, with Pat Combs and Jason Grimsley having particularly disappointing campaigns. In the bullpen, Mitch Williams was the star, going 12-5 with 30 saves and a 2.34 ERA. Eight of those wins and five of those saves came in August, for which he was named National League Pitcher of the Month. The Wild Thing's stellar performance made Roger McDowell expendable, and he was traded to the Dodgers in exchange for fellow reliever Mike Hartley and outfielder Braulio Castillo on July 31.

When all was said and done, 1991 was the fifth consecutive losing season for the Philadelphia Phillies. Despite that fact and all the obstacles they faced along the way, it wasn't quite the gloom and doom that everyone had been expecting when the season began. The unlikely 13-game winning streak vaulted the club to some level of respectability. It was now a matter of moving forward and taking the next step towards becoming a legitimate contender.

Personal Recollection: It really was a rollercoaster ride for the Phillies in 1991, wasn't it? In fact, that year's Home Companion was entitled "What a Ride!" and narrated by John Kruk. The way a team performs during the exhibition season very rarely gives any kind of indication of how they'll fare once the games count, but the Phils did seem very listless that spring. There were problems with Nick Leyva going back to the previous year, which Kruk noted in his autobiography, I Ain't An Athlete, Lady...

According to Kruk, Leyva took a hard-nosed approach to the team in his first season at the helm in 1989 and was often distant. Then in 1990, he decided to try and be one of the guys. The inconsistent demeanor rubbed many players the wrong way and it had gotten to the point where they didn't know what they were going to get on a daily basis in 1991. The final straw evidently came prior to the Home Opener, when Darren Daulton went into Leyva's office after noticing he wasn't in the starting lineup. After Daulton met with Leyva, the lineup was changed. That was on April 12, and 11 days later, Leyva was gone. The team still had its share of issues on the field after Jim Fregosi took over, but it did seem as though everyone knew where they stood with him.

I remember hearing about the accident involving Lenny Dykstra and Darren Daulton on the way to school the morning it occurred. There weren't a whole lot of details given at that time, but later in the day more news came out about how serious it really was. Both were lucky to survive, especially Dykstra. Kruk mentioned in his book how he felt responsible for the whole thing when it happened, since it was his bachelor party they were coming home from. Of course, it wasn't Kruk's fault at all, and fortunately everyone made a full recovery.

The beauty of a no-hitter is that it can happen to anyone at any time, and that's what happened with Tommy Greene. Called upon to make a spot start, he ends up making history. Like Terry Mulholland's no-no the year before, I only saw the last inning on TV, as in '90 my family was on vacation and saw only the last inning when ESPN cut in. This time, I was in school (fifth grade at Masterman middle school) and caught a couple innings on the radio during the ride home before arriving in time for the ninth. It was weird to see bullpen activity when a guy had a no-hitter going, but Greene was effectively wild that day. Greene made a very nice grab on the ball hit by Tim Wallach for the final out, as it was probably headed back up the middle. And of course, there was a Harry Kalas call to go along with it: "Hard ground ball, GREAT GRAB GREENE, IT'S OVER! HE'S PITCHED A NO-HIT, NO-RUN GAME, MAKING THE FINAL OUT HIMSELF! TOMMY GREENE A NO-HITTER! That young man has to really be excited, the flight to Pittsburgh's going to be wonderful."

Dreadful Phillies summers were commonplace by the time 1991 rolled around, and on July 30 of that year, there didn't seem to be any reason to think the rest of that one would be any different. I remember after the first win (which as previously mentioned came immediately on the heels of a seven-game losing streak), my dad said to me, "Well, maybe they'll win about 10 in a row now." True story. Not sure if he knew something nobody else did, but the Phils ended up doing him three better.

Man, what an awesome two-week oasis that was. Everything that could go right went right. Granted, eight of those 13 wins were against a pretty bad Expos team, but you still have to do a whole lot of things right to win that many games in a row. Six of the victories were decided in the final at-bat. The Phillies became the hot team in town again for a brief period. Even though I'm also a huge fan of the Eagles, Flyers, and Sixers, it was nice to see the Phils generating that buzz. Little did we know that two years later, we'd have an entire season just like it.

Mitch Williams was absolutely brilliant during the winning streak, as he was for much of the year. Because of what ultimately happened in 1993, it's mostly forgotten that 1991 was the Wild Thing's best season as a Phillie. I would have to believe it ranks pretty high among the top seasons ever for a Phillies reliever. Terry Mulholland really started to blossom after his no-hitter and it carried over into '90. Tommy Greene followed a similar path, but aside from '91 and '93, injuries prevented us from seeing just how good Greene could've been. Jose DeJesus didn't throw a no-hitter, but he had pretty nasty stuff himself. Like Greene, injuries prevented us from seeing the finished product in DeJesus.

Back to the Home Companion, one aspect that Phillies fans raised during the current generation would find pretty silly is how big of a deal was made out of finishing in third place. I remember one scene when the Phils took over third, they showed a player (I believe it was Wally Backman) changing the magnetic standings board in the clubhouse. Kruk mentioned how it felt like they were in a pennant race. The "clincher" came on the season's next-to-last day as Terry Mulholland shut out the Mets, 1-0. It goes without saying that times surely have changed.

The Phillies commemorated the 20th anniversary of Veterans Stadium in 1991. I was at the Home Opener that year and I'll never forget how loudly Nick Leyva was booed during introductions. Everyone knew the guy was on the way out. Jim Bunning threw out the first ball, as he got the win in the first game at the Vet in 1971. On that night, Roger McDowell was on the mound to record the final out. Noting this on the Home Companion, John Kruk quips, "I wonder what they'll be saying about Roger McDowell in 20 years." Well, 2011 marked 20 years since that took place. McDowell got into a little trouble with some fans in San Francisco prior to a game last year. I won't go into detail here, but look it up if you're unfamiliar. So that question was answered.

No matter how well or poorly the team has performed in a given year, I always feel a little sadness at the end of each Phillies season (the obvious exception to this point being 2008). You get used to them being there every day, and then suddenly they're not for four or five months. Despite that sadness, there was also a sense of relief at the conclusion of most seasons growing up. Let's face it, the Phils weren't very good for the vast majority of my youth and it was good to turn the page and look forward to the next season, even though there often wasn't a whole lot of hope for improvement. When the 1991 campaign came to a close, there was finally a real sense of optimism moving forward, that maybe this team was finally ready to come into its own. Of course, things didn't go as planned in 1992, but sure enough, we did have that one glorious summer of 1993. You have to think that some of that season's seeds were planted during that magical two-week run in 1991. Good times, good times.

That's my story on the 1991 Phillies season. Feel free to share your own recollections

1 comment:

  1. Retrosheet's 1991 Phillies page: