The Seasonal Narrative Of The 1982 Los Angeles Dodgers

The 1982 Los Angeles Dodgers were the latest in a string of excellent teams put out by manager Tom Lasorda. Since taking over in 1977, the manager had won three National League pennants, gone to a one-game playoff another time and won his first World Series title the year before in 1981. The ’82 edition competed all the way to the season’s final day before just missing another chance.

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Pitching defined the Dodgers and they were anchored by three starters who combined to start 110 games. Fernando Valenzuela followed up his 1981 Cy Young season with an ’82 performance that included 19 wins, a 2.87 ERA and 285 innings pitched. Bob Welch was a 16-game winner with a 3.36 ERA. And Jerry Reuss, the veteran lefty, won 18 games and posted an ERA of 3.11.

The bullpen was deep and balanced. Steve Howe was the closer, though in an age that saw a lot of complete games that only added up to 13 saves. Even so, Howe logged nearly 100 innings and finished with 2.08 ERA. Dave Stewart, a future star as a starter (albeit primarily in Oakland) was building his career with a mix of relief work and spot starting. Stewart went 9-8 with a 3.81 ERA in 146 innings.

Terry Forster provided veteran help with a 3.04 ERA and 22-year-old Tom Niedenfuer, who would eventually become the closer, worked 69 innings with a 2.71 ERA.

The staff’s only problem was a lack of rotation depth and the decline of 32-year-old Burt Hooton was the most obvious symptom. Hooton, who had been MVP of the 1981 NLCS the previous October, only made 21 starts and went 4-7 with a 4.03 ERA.

Los Angeles could also hit, ranking fourth in the National League in runs scored. In spite of playing in expansive, pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium, they were second in the league in home runs. The best player was right fielder Pedro Guerrero, who finished with a stat line of .378 on-base percentage/.536 slugging percentage, along with 32 home runs and 100 RBI. Dusty Baker, on the opposite side of the outfield wasn’t far behind at .361/.458 with 23 home runs and 88 RBI.

Third baseman Ron Cey, the 34-year-old mainstay and hero of the 1981 World Series triumph, hit 24 home runs and drove in 79 runs. Rick Monday, who hit the home run that secured the decisive game of the 1981 NLCS, came off the bench and in 254 at-bats posted a .372/.481 stat line.

Other key contributors included 33-year-old shortstop Bill Russell, who put up a .357 on-base percentage, and young centerfielder Ken Landreaux and his .341 OBP. And even though first baseman Steve Garvey, long one of the bulwarks of the attack, showed clear signs of decline with a pedestrian .301/.418 stat line, he still drove in 86 runs.

The Dodgers had been characterized by tremendous continuity under Lasorda, but 1982 also saw the first changes into the previously stable lineup. Veteran catcher Steve Yeager was displaced by 22-year-old Mike Scioscia. And the infield was broken up. Davey Lopes, a beloved second baseman, had joined Garvey-Russell-Cey in one of the best infield quartets in baseball history. Lopes was traded to Oakland in the offseason to pave the way for rookie Steve Sax.

Both moves proved to be the right ones. Scioscia didn’t hit much in 1982 but he began the process of growing into one of the best game managers in baseball behind the plate and turned into a mainstay himself. And Sax began a solid career with a 1982 marked by 49 stolen bases and NL Rookie of the Year honors.

Los Angeles started slowly, losing four straight in San Diego and beginning 6-8. That, in of itself, wasn’t too much of a problem but the Atlanta Braves (who, along with the Cincinnati Reds were in the NL West prior to 1994 when the leagues moved from two divisions to three and expanded the playoffs) got off to a blazing start. The Dodgers were in a quick 7 ½ game hole.

Streakiness would define this team though. They won four straight in Montreal, a rematch of the previous year’s NLCS and followed it up with a sweep of Philadelphia, another contender. By Memorial Day, Los Angeles had stabilized with a record of 24-24. They were in third place. Atlanta had cooled down, so the deficit was only four games, with San Diego nestled in between.

In early June, the streaks turned on the Dodgers. They hosted the Braves for a three-game series and lost all three. Los Angeles fell as far as 8 ½ games out. Then they turned it back around, winning 10 of 13 in a road trip against division foes, including a series win over Atlanta. At the All-Star break, the Dodgers were 46-42, still in third place, though the deficit was now seven games.

A middling performance out of the break, losing seven of thirteen and falling ten games back, seemed to indicate that this was not going to be LA’s year. Then, in a year of streaks, the most stunning one dramatically changed the face of the NL West race.

The Dodgers went to Atlanta for four games. Los Angeles started by sweeping a doubleheader, scoring 18 runs in the process. Valenzuela threw a complete-game shutout in the third game. Baker homered twice in the finale keying a 9-4 win and completing the series sweep.

Nor was Los Angeles done streaking. Atlanta came west for a four-game series starting on August 5. The Dodgers trailed the opener 2-1 in the ninth, were able to tie the game on an error and won it in the 10th on a Cey sac fly. On August 6, they trailed 4-3 in the ninth and used two errors and a walk to score twice and win again.

In the third game, it was the Dodgers’ turn to blow a lead, giving up a 6-4 lead in the ninth. But they still won it in the 11th when Baker singled, stole second and scored on a base hit by outfielder Mike Marshall. Welch was brilliant in the finale, throwing eight shutout innings and Niedenfuer slammed the door on a 2-0 win.

The Dodgers had beaten the Braves eight straight times. The NL West margin had suddenly shrunk to a game and a half. Atlanta kept reeling, Los Angeles kept surging and the Dodgers were plus-four games by August 18.

Los Angeles was the veteran team with the decorated postseason pedigree. Atlanta was the young up-and-comer. This is where the standard script would tell us the Dodgers just took over the race and rolled on home. But the 1982 NL West race was anything but standard.

Atlanta’s streakiness in 1982 made Los Angeles look like a model of consistency. And when the Dodgers cooled off just a bit and went through a 7-8 stretch, the Braves stormed back. On Labor Day, Los Angeles was 75-62 and again 1 ½ games out. San Diego was in third at 5 ½ games out while San Francisco was off the radar in fourth place.

The Padres began to fade in September, thanks in no small part to the Dodgers sweeping their SoCal rival. In the two weeks after Labor Day, the Dodgers went 10-3, took over first place and built up a 2 ½ game lead. It looked like a two-team race with the defending champs again in command.

Are you ready for another plot twist? The Giants suddenly came barreling down the stretch. In this same post-Labor Day period they had chipped to within five games and passed San Diego. And on the week of September 20-26, the Dodgers lost two to the Padres and then suffered a weekend series sweep at the hands of the Giants—in Los Angeles, no less.

The Braves didn’t take advantage, so the result was a three-team race going into the final week. Los Angeles was 85-70, up one game on both Atlanta and San Francisco.

And the Dodgers kept losing. They dropped two straight at home to the woeful Reds. The Braves slipped into first place on the strength of beating the Giants two straight.

Los Angeles and Atlanta went head-to-head for two games in Dodger Stadium on Wednesday and Thursday. LA wasted a good outing from Valenzuela and lost 4-3 in twelve innings when Forster gave up two runs. They recovered and kept their season alive by winning 10-3 on Thursday. Garvey delivered three hits and Baker hit a back-breaking double that helped the break the game open in a five-run seventh inning.

Going into the final weekend, it was Atlanta by a game with Los Angeles and San Francisco tied for second. And it would be a showdown finale—the Dodgers and Giants were head-to-head in San Francisco, while the Braves had to travel to face a Padres team that might have faded, but was still dangerous.

Reuss took the ball for the Friday opener. He was brilliant and he had to be, because it was a scoreless tie in the eighth inning. Monday showed his penchant for the clutch home run hadn’t been left behind in Montreal the previous October, when hit a grand slam. The Dodgers won 4-0, but the Braves answered with a win by the same score in San Diego.

The LA offense unloaded on Saturday and eliminated San Francisco. Sax and Russell got three hits apiece, with Landreaux, Cey and Scioscia all homering. The final was 15-2. But still no help from San Diego, where Atlanta won 4-2.

Sunday was high tension. The finale in San Francisco was tied 2-2 in the seventh inning. In San Diego, the Padres had jumped the Braves for five runs in the fifth and led 5-1, so the door was open for LA to set up a Monday afternoon playoff game for the NL West title.

But the long and storied Dodgers-Giants rivalry that includes tales from both coasts, got another installment here. Joe Morgan, who had long tormented Los Angeles as a member of Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine, did it again as a member of the Giants. He hit a three-run blast in the bottom of the seventh off Forster. The game ended 5-3. Atlanta’s loss went to waste. Los Angeles’ bid for another postseason trip was finished.

In one sense, 1982 continued the end of an era, that being the breakup of the veteran core. The Dodgers parted ways with Garvey and Cey in the offseason. But in a bigger sense, the machine kept rolling—Los Angeles returned to the top of the NL West in 1983, again in 1985 and won another World Series in 1988.