Friday, October 18, 2013

Miracle Men excerpt: Game 6, 1988 NLCS -- Mets at Dodgers

This is an excerpt from my recent book: "Miracle Men: Hershiser, Gibson & the Improbable 1988 Dodgers." You can order a copy here, here, or at most major bookstores.

Tuesday, October 11, 1988
Los Angeles
Mets vs. Dodgers
NLCS Game 6

David Cone was starting for the Mets. It seemed like an eternity since his newspaper career ended. He was glad the focus was just on baseball once again, called Game 6 the biggest start of his life, and was more worried about a suddenly potent Dodgers lineup than the bench jockeying he endured in Game 2. Davey Johnson gave him the option of traveling to Los Angeles ahead of the team to get more rest. Cone declined because he wanted to be with his teammates.
Tim Leary was starting for the Dodgers. An ineffective September pushed him to the bullpen at the start of the series. Leary understood. His arm was fatigued. He’d thrown a full Winter League season and then 228 2/3 innings in the regular season. His brief relief appearance in Game 4 didn’t go well. He was facing the team that originally drafted him. Ron Darling was his former roommate, and Wally Backman was his minor league teammate.
Orel Hershiser was not starting or relieving for the Dodgers. Hershiser started Game 1, started Game 3, pitched in relief in Game 4, and warmed up in Game 5. Hershiser volunteered to pitch Game 6 in relief. 
Lasorda said, “No chance.” Hershiser was being saved for Game 7. “He’s crazy, just crazy,” Lasorda said. “No way he pitches. I’ll tell Jamie [his wife] not to let him out of the house.”
If it’s possible for a game’s tone to get set by the National Anthem, this was it. Saxophonist Kenny G played an over-styled National Anthem that clocked at more than two minutes—the over-under for Super Bowl National Anthems is usually 1:34—and at times didn’t sound like the National Anthem.

Saxophone critic Steve Sax declared, “It was the worst I’ve ever heard, the absolute worst. It was terrible, fucking terrible.”
Mike Marshall agreed, “It was a disgrace to America.”
* * *
Kirk Gibson, implausibly, was back in the starting lineup. The hamstring wasn’t close to 100 percent, it was maybe 50 percent, but Gibson was going to play anyway. The decision was made about 30 minutes before first pitch.
In a season where Gibson could do little wrong, one of his biggest mistakes came in the first inning of Game 6.
David Cone told reporters before leaving for New York that he doesn’t get nervous, he doesn’t feel pressure. Then he started Game 6 by walking Steve Sax on four pitches. Then he threw two more balls to Mickey Hatcher.
Pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre, catcher Gary Carter, first baseman Keith Hernandez, and second baseman Wally Backman all came to the mound. “He was nervous,” Stottlemyre said. “I could see it on his face. I could see he was tense and over-keyed up. He didn’t say anything. I said, ‘I know you’re nervous. Try to relax, step off and throw to first twice, three times if necessary, to get loose.’”
Carter said he tried to settle Cone down.
Hernandez said he tried to pump Cone up.
Backman said he was trying to build Cone up, in a calming way.
After getting four different pieces of advice, Cone followed the advice of his pitching coach. He threw over to first base. In the process, he stumbled and almost fell down. Then he threw to first base without stumbling or almost falling down.
Cone threw home again and not only missed for ball three, it was a wild pitch that advanced Sax to second base. Cone was melting down in the Los Angeles heat. He finally threw a strike, then another ball, to put Hatcher on first base.
“Carter and Hernandez were telling me to sit back on my back leg, stop lunging,” Cone said after the game. “But it’s real hard to do when your heart is jumping, and at that point, all I wanted in the world was to throw a strike.”
Cone got the world. He threw a strike to Gibson. Then Gibson did what Stottlemyre, Carter, Hernandez, and Backman couldn’t do—he calmed down Cone. 
Photo courtesy of LA Daily News
Gibson, inexplicably, tried to bunt for a base hit on the next pitch. Cone was struggling to throw strikes. Gibson could barely run. Gibson had homered twice in his previous five at-bats. Yet, for some reason, Gibson tried to bunt. He bunted the ball right into Cone's arms.
“Oh my gosh,” Carter said, “that was a bonus for us.”
Marshall flew out to left field. Shelby struck out swinging. The threat was squashed. Including those two outs, Cone retired 13 of the next 14 batters. 
By the time the Dodgers put a runner on second base in the fifth inning, the Mets took a 4–0 lead from Leary. Mickey Hatcher got a run back in the fifth, an RBI single that scored relief pitcher Brian Holton (who got a rare at-bat and singled, after going 0-for-10 in the regular season). The lead was 4–1, but not for long. Dykstra doubled to chase Holton in the sixth, and Hernandez singled off Ricky Horton for a 5–1 lead.
That was all Cone needed. He allowed five hits, all singles. He walked one, after those two walks to start the game. He struck out six. He threw 120 pitches in the 5–1 complete-game victory.
Photo courtesy of LA Daily News
“Gibson bunting probably turned the game around,” Cone said. “I made a mistake, though. I should have let it drop. After I caught it, [Gibson] said, ‘You should have let it drop.’ And I probably should have.”
If Cone had dropped the ball, it would have been an easy triple play. The runners held at their bases. Gibson stood at the batter’s box.
Gibson patiently stood at his locker, answering wave after wave of questions about his health and about that fateful bunt. In his next three at-bats off Cone, he popped up to the infield each time. But that was a much different Cone than the nervous wreck in the first inning. Gibson took the blame for his decision to bunt.
“I screwed it up and should be held accountable,” Gibson said. “I’m sure it gave Cone a breath of life, but I didn’t second-guess myself then and I don’t now. I’m a good bunter, but the results were terrible.”
The best news for the Dodgers: Orel Hershiser didn’t bother warming up in the bullpen in Game 6, and Orel Hershiser was starting Game 7.
* * *
To order your copy of Miracle Men, click here.
To read the excerpt from Game 1 of the 1988 NLCS, click here.
To read the excerpt from Game 2 of the 1988 NLCS, click here.
To read the excerpt from Game 3 of the 1988 NLCS, click here.
To read the excerpt from Game 4 of the 1988 NLCS, click here.
To read the excerpt from Game 5 of the 1988 NLCS, click here

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