Saturday, October 19, 2013

Miracle Men excerpt: Game 7, 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.

Wednesday, October 12, 1988
Los Angeles
Mets vs. Dodgers
NLCS Game 7
There was never a doubt that Orel Hershiser would start Game 7 for the Dodgers. 
There was plenty of doubt—and questions remain 25 years later—about Ron Darling starting Game 7 for the Mets. Many question why Doc Gooden didn’t start the game. Many believe the Mets thought they could win with Darling, and they were saving Gooden for Game 1 of the World Series.

Photo courtesy of LA Daily News
But really, Darling was the Mets’ only option because of the rainout. The rainout meant two off-days between Games 2 and 3 and no off-day between Games 5 and 6. Gooden started Game 1, then Game 4 on four days rest. With the travel day wiped out, Gooden would be starting Game 7 on two days rest. That just wasn’t realistic. Gooden was available in relief, but he wouldn’t start.
David Cone started Games 2 and 6 (on four days rest). Sid Fernandez started Game 5. That left Ron Darling, who started Game 3, to start Game 7 on three days rest.
How much did Hershiser have left in his arm? To review: he threw 100 pitches in 81/3 innings in Game 1, 109 pitches in 7 innings in freezing cold weather on three days rest in Game 3, three pitches to one batter on zero days of rest in Game 4, warmed up in the bullpen in Game 5, and was now starting Game 7. It was three starts and four appearances in nine days.
“There’s no telling what kind of condition The Bionic Man will be in,” Mets manager Davey Johnson said in pregame. “I was amazed he was throwing [in the bullpen in Game 5]. He’s going to have to be Superman. I don’t expect him to have much stuff.”
When told of Johnson’s comments, Hershiser replied, “Tell him to grab a bat.”
It wasn’t the last time Hershiser would tell somebody to grab a bat in October.
* * * 
How big was Game 7? It was so big, Kirk Gibson shaved. And he started. Of course he started.
Johnson looked like a prophet in the first inning. Hershiser had no idea where the ball was going.
Lenny Dykstra flew out to left field, and Gibson hobbled over to make the catch. Wally Backman singled to left, and Gibson gingerly cut the ball off and threw it back to the infield. Keith Hernandez walked, and Lasorda looked noticeably nervous. He fidgeted with his hands. He paced more. All of the Bulldog’s pitches were up in the zone, not down.
Remember, when Hershiser made a surprise relief appearance back in May, his next start didn’t go well. In fact, it was Hershiser’s second-worst start in 1988: seven runs on 12 hits in seven innings. Was history repeating itself?
“Let’s go Bulldog,” encouraged Lasorda, clapping his hands. “Come on, Bulldog.”
Next up were the big boys. Strawberry grounded to Sax at second base, but it wasn’t hit fast enough for Alfredo Griffin to turn the double play. Hershiser worked unusually slow—a sign he was struggling. Kevin McReynolds hit a line shot down the line...directly into the glove of third baseman Jeff Hamilton.
Photo courtesy of LA Daily News
It took him 29 pitches, but Hershiser survived the first inning. Hershiser walked directly into the video room, pressed rewind on the machine, saw what was wrong with his mechanics, and made some adjustments. As he watched a video monitor, his teammates got him a lead.
Sax started it—again—with a single to right-center. With Sax running, Hatcher hit a liner off the glove of Jefferies at third base and down the left-field line. Sax stopped at third.
Gibson spent batting practice working with Manny Mota on a new swing. Because his legs were shot, he would swing with his upper body. Gibson spread out wide and took no stride toward the ball. In this game, he didn’t try to bunt. He hit a fly ball to center, deep enough to score Sax. Darling struck out Marshall and Shelby to end the first inning, keeping the score 1–0.
Hershiser made the mechanical adjustment and pitched a cleaner second inning, allowing a deep fly ball by Jefferies that was caught at the warning track and a harmless two-out single to Kevin Elster.
In the bottom of the second inning, the Mets fell apart. Scioscia singled to right, and Hamilton singled to left. Alfredo Griffin, the No. 8 hitter, was due up. Hershiser was in the on-deck circle.
Johnson held up one finger in the Mets dugout, a signal for the type of defense he wanted. Johnson was expecting Griffin to bunt and even with the pitcher on deck. The call was for the corner infielders to charge. Jefferies nodded at the dugout and charged home. Hernandez nodded at the dugout but did not charge home.
Griffin squared to bunt and popped the ball into the air, directly right where Hernandez was supposed to be. Hernandez wasn’t there. If he had charged he would have caught it easily. But he didn’t. Darling had to field the ball, and now Hernandez couldn’t get back to first base in time. Everybody was safe. Bases loaded.
“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah,” Hernandez yelled at himself. The best defensive first baseman of a generation screwed up a fairly simple bunt play. Hernandez didn’t think Griffin was really going to bunt, not with Hershiser on deck, and out-thought himself.
Darling was rattled. He gestured with his glove toward where he expected Hernandez to be. Pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre visited the mount to calm down Darling, who stood there with his hands on his hips.
With Hershiser batting, the Mets brought the corner infielders in. On a 1–2 pitch, Hershiser hit a slow tapper to third base. Jefferies wanted to go home and peeked toward the plate. In the process, he didn’t field the ball cleanly. He hesitated then realized it was too late to go home. He decided to throw to first, and in the process he dropped the ball. If Jefferies had caught the ball cleanly and thrown home immediately, Scioscia would have been out easily.
Everybody was safe, a run scored, and the bases were still loaded. There should have been two outs. Instead, there were no outs. Hershiser appeared to injure his leg sprinting down to first base. He was favoring one side.
Sax ripped a single up the middle, scoring Hamilton and Griffin. Hershiser cautiously went to second base and didn’t think about trying for third base. The Dodgers led 4–0.
Photo courtesy of LA Daily News
Darling was done. Johnson brought in Gooden to make his first relief appearance since high school. Broadcasting on ABC, Jim Palmer said that Johnson should have used submariner Terry Leach because he was used to entering in the middle of an inning, whereas this was all foreign to Gooden. Doc felt it was weird, unreal, unbelievable.
During the pitching change, the trainer visited Hershiser to check on the right leg—Hershiser’s push-off leg when on the mound. But that wasn’t going to stop Lasorda from pushing the action on the bases. He called for a hit-and-run, and Hatcher hit a slow roller to second base. The only play for Backman was to first base. Hershiser went to third, and Sax went to second base.
With first base open, Gibson was intentionally walked to load the bases. Even on one leg, Gibson struck fear in the Mets. They’d rather pitch to a healthy and dangerous Mike Marshall. The strategy worked.
Marshall hit a grounder to Backman, a tailor-made double play. Of course, no double play is assured if Kirk Gibson is running from first base. Backman’s first mistake was playing the ball back, instead of charging the ball. That gave Gibson more time to reach second base. Even with a bad left knee, Gibson was breaking up the double play.
Gibson slid feet first at the bag and reached out with his hands to the right, trying to distract Elster. Backman’s shovel to Elster was high and pulled him off the bag. Everybody was safe. Again. Those should have been the third and fourth outs of the inning. Instead, it was now 5–0, and there was still only one out.
“You would never know Gibson has the hamstring injury,” Al Michaels said on ABC. “It was like he was cured in a second. He looked like he was 100 percent going into second base. Mind over matter.”
Gibson was hurting, however, and bad. Real bad. He sprained the medial collateral ligament in his right knee on that slide. The right knee was the good leg. Gibson had two bad legs now.
Shelby hit a fly ball to left field, deep enough to score Sax. It was 6–0 Dodgers. Hamilton struck out looking to finally end the inning.
“That wasn’t an inning,” Hernandez would say later, sucking on a cigarette. “That was a nightmare.”
The rest was academic. Hershiser wasn’t going to blow a six-run lead. The only questions were whether he would need bullpen help, and how much was his leg hurting?
Before the third inning started, Lasorda urged Hershiser, “Don’t let up! Go hard! Don’t save anything! We’ve got somebody behind you, if you can’t make it!” 
It was his fourth appearance of the series, so Hershiser altered his usual game plan. He didn’t think he could continue throwing sinkers low and away. He threw more fastballs. His curveball was working, so he threw that pitch more than usual, too. Hershiser allowed four hits the rest of the game, two by Jefferies, who was 6-for-11 off Hershiser in the series. All the other Mets hitters were 12-for-77 (.156) against Hershiser during that series.
Gibson stayed in the game, but departed after three innings. Hatcher moved from first base to left field.
In the sixth inning, Hershiser’s leg must have felt much better because he tried to bunt his way on base. He missed the bunt, then lined out. Sax singled up the middle, and Hershiser was shown on camera on the phone in the dugout.
“What’s he doing, ordering champagne?” Michaels commented.
In the ninth, needing one more out to end the series, a fan ran onto the field. It was all smiles in the dugout. Even Gibson was back in the dugout. During the delay, the crowd worked itself into a frenzy, and Hershiser was so over-pumped by the moment, he forgot what pitch to throw against Lee Mazzilli. He was supposed to throw a sinker that starts inside and darts away from lefties. Instead, he forgot and threw a four-seam fastball that hit Mazzilli.
With two strikes against Howard Johnson, Hershiser stepped off the mound. Dodger Stadium was on its feet, roaring with delirium. Hershiser wanted to soak up the scene, feel the energy of the crowd. Hershiser was nearly on the verge of tears. It was the situation he had dreamt of as a kid.
On a 3–2 pitch, Hershiser struck out Johnson looking for the final out. Hershiser dropped to a knee, said a quick prayer, and was mobbed by teammates on the field.
Gibson remained in the dugout. So did Fernando Valenzuela. It was a strange contrast of images. The entire team was celebrating on the field like little kids, except the legendary Valenzuela and the aching Gibson. Valenzuela shook Gibson’s hand, and assured him it was smarter to stay in the dugout and not risk further injury in the celebration.
“I wasn’t feeling like hopping around,” Gibson recalled. “All I was thinking about is, ‘What am I going to do to get myself ready to play in a few days?’”
In the visiting clubhouse, it was stunned silence.
“Seven months, gone like that,” Hernandez said. “This is the most disappointed I’ve been in my career.”
“We beat ourselves,” Strawberry said. “Now we have to live with it.”
In the home clubhouse, it was raucous and wet—very wet. Hershiser still couldn’t believe what he’d done, what his teammates had done, and that they’d beaten the big bad New York Mets.
“That’s why everyone in here is even happier than we would normally be,” Hershiser, the MVP of the series, said that night. “We’re not a team of destiny. We’re not a dominant team. We’re a team of balance that works hard and plays with its heart. When we’re firing on all cylinders, when we’re bunting and moving runners and doing all the little things, we can beat anyone. When even one of the cylinders breaks down, we can look like a high school team.”
Amid the chaos, Tommy was in classic Tommy mode.
“We saved a lot of people all over the country a lot of money,” Lasorda exclaimed. “A lot of people travel to the Lady of Lourdes to see miracles. Now they don’t have to. They can come to Dodger Stadium to see the biggest miracle of all.”
Ten years later, Marshall said, “Those games were the most fun I ever had in baseball.”
Twenty-five years later, Hatcher said, “It was the most high that I’ve ever had in the game of baseball. I could not sleep. I just wanted to get to the ballpark the next day. I just wanted to play. Tommy was getting me in the lineup. I wasn’t going to let him take me out of the lineup. It was the most adrenaline I’ve ever had in my life. When we played the Mets, we were playing the best team in baseball. Not taking anything away from Oakland. The Mets beat us up all year. When that final game was over, we all thought we’d beat the best team in baseball. That’s why we went into Oakland thinking nobody can beat us now. That’s how I felt. Talking to a lot of other guys, they felt the same way.”
* * *
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.
To read the excerpt from Game 6 of the 1988 NLCS, click here.


  1. Thank you very much for sharing such a beautiful article.