With 31 games still to play, the figurative ground is being tamped over the most expensive team in baseball. But rather gently, with a rare touch of compassion. Usually, the Phillies' annual burial is loud and quite ugly.

This understanding is especially odd, given the fact that this town's boo birds cackle and scratch as wickedly as any in sport and the Phils were expected to soar above the National League, if not all of baseball, for the first time in 29 years.

All the Phils seemed to need before the season was a spinal tap, someone who could jolt them into season-long excellence and keep them from turning into straw men during postseason playoff pressure. Since the stem of a Rose was considered stronger than the Phils' collective backbone, a genuine Hall of Famer made the team arguably the best combination of hitting and defense in the majors.

But although Pete Rose has justified every penny of his estimated $800,000-per-year salary, the Phils' lineup suddenly took a strange shape, like a powerful-looking engine with three cylinders on one side and four on the other. Essentially, the Phils have three leadoff hitters, with two of them -- Larry Bowa and Rose -- batting second and third.

The leadoff man, Bake McBride, has 10 homers, 33 walks and nearly twice as many strikeouts. Bowa has just seven sacrifice bunts, and Rose, the No. 3 hitter, has 109 singles, 76 walks and just 50 runs batted in.

Behind them is baseball's streakiest hitter, Mike Schmidt, whose 39 homers were just six fewer than the entire Houston Astros but who has been looking for No. 40 since Aug. 8. And behind him is Greg Luzinski, who would help immensely if he just hit his weight. He is hitting .260.

The fellow who has concocted this lineup also is generally credited with abusing several Phillies' arms, over-working relief aces Ron Reed and Tug McGraw the way assorted football coaches run productive halfbacks into a premature retirement.

Reaction to Danny Ozark is the tipoff that Philly fans have a heart, thought perhaps not a mind. He is booed heartily every time he walks onto the field, but opinion was so divided during one talk show last week that the host started a Danny-yes or Danny-no poll.

Ozark is as decent a man as ever managed at any level -- and he has managed at all levels, driven enough bush-league buses to rate a top-job with a splendid team. But perhaps what God had in mind for Danny was third-base coach.

Whatever, Ozark was not praised much for the Phils' winning 292 games and three National League East titles the last three seasons. So, possibly fair play demands that he not be overly blamed for the team being eliminated from the race -- realistically if not mathematically -- during a five-game series in Pittsburgh the first weekend in August.

That put the Phils in bleak perspective. They were healthy, for the most part, but all their pitchers seemed to be throwing everything from a stretch. The infielders should have demanded combat pay.

If the Phil hitters are genuine timber, their pitchers, even at full strength, are balsa wood. Except for Steve Carlton, Nino Espinosa and the relievers who have burned out from trying to put out too many fires.

With as fine a defense as any pitcher has a right to expect, the Phils' staff has an earned-run average of 4.22. With a team of chronic muffers, say the Padres, that ERA would swiftly approach infinity.

Poor Espinosa has pitched much better than his 13-10 record indicates. His ERA is 3.49, but the Phils have been shut out in six of his games.

A major reason for the Philly phold has been injuries. No team can function smoothly with its double-play combination (shortstop Bowa and second baseman Manny Trillo) out a total of 56 games. Also, Luzinski missed 13 games and pitchers Larry Christenson, Dick Ruthven and Randy Lerch once were placed on the disabled list "[WORDS ILLEGIBLE]".

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He is assuming "[WORDS ILLEGIBLE]" final gasp at saving his job, "[WORDS ILLEGIBLE]" dizzy moves. But "[WORDS ILLEGIBLE]" pinch hitting for "[WORDS ILLEGIBLE]" when Greg Gross hit a "[WORDS ILLEGIBLE]" to center.

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Any sort of heavy hand "[WORDS ILLEGIBLE]" resisted, if not ignored, because "[WORDS ILLEGIBLE]" Phillies' corps is lavishly paid "[WORD ILLEGIBLE]" working on long-term contracts. "[WORDS ILLEGIBLE]" rumors already are aflutter that "[WORD ILLEGIBLE]" Bride and Luzinski will be traded in the offseason.

Last weekend, the Phillies invited members of the '64 team to play a squad of National League old-timers at Veterans Stadium. In '64 the Phils blew a 6 1/2-game lead in the final 12 games and lost the pennant to St. Louis.

"It reminded me," said catcher Tim McCarver, "that I was on that Cardinal team and we were 11 1/2 games out on Aug. 23. But we won. So you know it's possible."

Except for one matter. There is no '64 Phillies team ahead of the '79 Phillies.