This is an excerpt from my recent book: "Miracle Men: Hershiser, Gibson and the Improbable '88 Dodgers" that is available to order here, here or at most major bookstores.
Tuesday, October 4, 1988
Mets vs. Dodgers
NLCS Game 1
The space shuttle Discovery returned to earth, landing at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert, and welcomed by more than 400,000 exuberant witnesses that included vice president George Bush. A NASA physician boarded the space plane, giving checkups to astronauts Frederick H. Hauck, Richard O. Covey, John M. Lounge, George D. Nelson, and David C. Hilmers. They exited the plane waving American flags. It was the first mission since the Challenger disaster 33 months earlier.
One-hundred fourteen miles to the south, doctors and trainers were checking on Kirk Gibson, as well. Gibson started six of the Dodgers’ final 14 regular season games. Part of this was because the Dodgers had a big lead and they could afford to rest him. The bigger reason was his body—in particular, a pulled hamstring and sore knee—needed time to heal.
Gibson had run hard once in the last two weeks. He couldn’t walk for two days afterward. It was the worst he’d felt all season. The hamstring was bothering him. But now his knee was killing him. Gibson thought he’d have to throttle down a little, if that was possible. He didn’t want to end up crippled. But he knew one thing.
“I will be in the lineup,” Gibson said. “I will be in the fucking lineup.”
Gibson didn’t fill out the lineup, though. Tommy Lasorda did. One factor would determine if Lasorda would start Gibson in Game 1 of the NLCS against the Mets.
The Mets won the season series—10-of-11 games—by a combined score of 49–18. One scout told the Philadelphia Inquirer the Mets should win in four games, all by the score of 10–0. But the Dodgers had Orel Hershiser. He would start Game 1, Game 4, and Game 7 if necessary. Hershiser not only couldn’t lose, he couldn’t give up a run. That made his starts crucial.
“If we beat Orel in the first game,” Mets first baseman Keith Hernandez said, “we’ll be in great shape. He has to win for them.”
One area the Dodgers knew they could exploit was on the bases. The only Mets pitcher who held runners on effectively was Ron Darling. Catcher Gary Carter struggled throwing out runners for three years.
|Photo courtesy of LA Times|
“That was the whole plan, really,” second baseman Steve Sax reflected. “Disrupt their staff. We wanted to do anything we could on the base paths to cause disruption. Anything we could do to throw them off-kilter.”
In the first inning of Game 1, Sax took advantage. He singled off Dwight Gooden, immediately stole second base, and went to third on Gibson’s grounder to the right side. Mike Marshall stroked a single to right field, and the Dodgers led 1–0.
That’s all Orel Hershiser needed, especially in the twilight with a 5:20 pm Pacific start, right?
Sure seemed like it. In the seventh, Mike Scioscia doubled, Jeff Hamilton grounded out, and Alfredo Griffin singled home a run. It was 2–0. Now it was really over, right?
Hershiser took a shutout into the ninth inning. The scoreless streak didn’t officially extend into the playoffs, but it was now at 67 innings. He’d allowed five hits, one walk, and struck out six so far in Game 1. He’d retired seven batters in a row, faced four batters over the minimum, and only twice had a Mets base runner reached third base. His pitch count was at 90.
Gregg Jefferies had just turned 21 years old, had one month of big-league experience, and had somehow lived up to the enormous hype since he was named Minor League Player of the Year. He referred to the pitcher on the mound as “Mr. Hershiser.” Jefferies was respectful but hardly intimidated.
Too young to realize what was going on, Jefferies did what most of the National League couldn’t do—rake Hershiser. Jefferies singled in the first, singled in the sixth, and started the ninth inning with a clean single up the middle.
On the first pitch to Keith Hernandez, Mets manager Davey Johnson put on the hit-and-run, and Hernandez hit a hard grounder to first. Hernandez was out, and Jefferies advanced to second.
Jefferies didn’t realize the ball was fair, though. He wandered off the base. Dodgers shortstop Alfredo Griffin slipped behind Jefferies and called for the ball, begged for the ball, but Franklin Stubbs didn’t realize the opportunity. The Mets screamed from the first-base dugout at Jefferies, and he got back to second base safely.
Months later, Hershiser would still taste the situation—two outs, nobody on base. Instead, a runner at second base, one out, and cleanup batter Darryl Strawberry at the plate.
With the count 2–2, Strawberry fouled off two pitches. Lasorda paced in the Dodgers’ dugout. The Mets wore their hats backward for a rally. Hershiser hung a curveball, but Strawberry was too eager to cream it. He nearly jumped off the ground, and he fouled it back. Hershiser came back with another curveball. This one had better spin, a better release. But he threw it too hard, not enough snap. Another hanging curve.
Strawberry smashed it into center field for a double. It was 2–1.
Hershiser had allowed a run, his first since August 30. He was human, after all. Hershiser was furious at himself for hanging two straight curveballs to Strawberry. His mind shifted to the next hitter, Kevin McReynolds, and closing out the victory. Then he saw pitching coach Ron Perranoski talking to the umpire. It took a moment to register what was happening.
Incredibly, Hershiser was being taken out of the game on a double switch. By the time Perranoski reached the mound, the move was made. Hershiser couldn’t plead his case, couldn’t talk his way into staying in the game. Jay Howell was coming into the game.
Howell pitched around McReynolds and walked him. Howell struck out Howard Johnson for the second out. Howell jumped ahead of Gary Carter with two curveballs. The crowd was on its feet, one strike from victory.
On the ABC telecast, analyst Tim McCarver said the Dodgers’ outfield was playing too deep for Gary Carter. “They’re playing the Gary Carter of five years ago,” McCarver said.
Howell snapped off another curve, low and away. Carter reached his bat outside, feebly, and barely made contact. The bat was broken. It was a blooper into shallow center field.
John Shelby was playing deep, preventing a double that would score two runs. Shelby got a decent jump, charged at full speed, and thought he would catch it. He dove for the ball.
The ball was ever so briefly inside Shelby’s glove, came out at impact with the ground, and rolled behind him.
“When the ball was hit, I ran in, and my first thought was that I wouldn’t need to dive,” Shelby reflected. “Then I realized I did need to dive. I actually got to the ball quicker than I thought. I actually extended too far. The ball hit me in the wrist. It handcuffed me.”
Strawberry scored easily. McReynolds was running with two outs and charging home. Shelby double-clutched before throwing home. Scioscia blocked the plate. McReynolds ran him over. The throw was way late. McReynolds scored the go- ahead run. It was 3–2 Mets.
|Photo courtesy of LA Dodgers|
“That was very devastating to me,” Shelby said. “But it wasn’t enough that it was going to affect me the rest of the series. I took a lot of pride in my defense. I would have felt worse if I had let the ball drop in and never tried to catch it. Anytime I try something, I never have second thoughts. If I never try, then I’ll second-guess myself the rest of my life.”
Randy Myers pitched the bottom of the ninth for the Mets. Seven pitches later, the game was over. The unthinkable had occurred. Hershiser had allowed a run. Hershiser was lifted. Hershiser started, and the Dodgers didn’t win.
Grilled by reporters, Lasorda said that Hershiser “definitely” was tired, referred to the hard-hit balls by Jefferies and Hernandez and the hanging curves to Strawberry.
Hershiser defended the decision, agreeing it was the right move. But he was adamant that he was not tired. Not in that game specifically. Not overall from a long season and all those scoreless innings.
Back at home, Hershiser couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t sit still. He was still angry, at himself, for those two hanging curveballs. It took Hershiser four hours to fall asleep.
“It’s not your fault, honey,” Jamie told her husband.
“Yes, it is.”