The 1983 Los Angeles Dodgers were just one more off the assembly line of contending teams that manager Tom Lasorda rolled out from 1977-88. Over the previous six years, the Dodgers had already won three National League pennants, the 1981 World Series and contended the final day two other occasions. In 1983, they won an NL West title.
Pitching drove the success of the ’83 team with a staff ERA that was the best in the National League. Fernando Valenzuela, Jerry Reuss and Bob Welch combined to make 97 starts. Valenzuela, two years removed from a Cy Young Award, won 15 games in a workhorse-like 35 starts, although the ERA was a bit high at 3.75. Welch won 15 more with an ERA of 2.65. And though the veteran Reuss only went 12-11, his ERA was a solid 2.94 and he went to the post 31 times.
Lasorda filled out the rotation with good work from Alejandro Pena, who was 12-9 with a 2.75 ERA. And though veteran Burt Hooton was in decline at age 33, he still made 27 starts and went 9-8. And the bullpen was outstanding. Steve Howe saved 18 games (a reasonable number in the era when complete games were far more the norm) with a dazzling ERA of 1.44. Tom Niedenfuer saved 11 more with an ERA of a buck-90.
The combination of the lefty Howe and the righty Niedenfuer enabled Lasorda to attack from both sides in the late innings. The manager also had a young Dave Stewart, who worked 76 innings in relief with a 2.96 ERA. Joe Beckwith and Pat Zachry were similarly reliable.
Los Angeles needed pitching excellence, because its offense was mediocre. The lineup was in transition, as the veterans who were part of so much success continued to be shipped off. Steve Garvey went to San Diego via free agency with no resistance from the Dodgers. Ron Cey was traded to the Cubs.
An infield of Garvey and Cey at the corners, with Davey Lopes and Bill Russell up the middle, had defined this franchise for years. Now Russell was the only one left and at age 33 he was a mediocre offensive player at best. Other holdovers included catcher Steve Yeager and leftfielder Dusty Baker, both 34-years-old and neither all that productive.
Los Angeles did have a rising star in 27-year-old third baseman Pedro Guerrero. He finished with an on-base percentage of .373 and a slugging percentage of .531. Guerrero hit 32 home runs and finished with 103 RBI as he basically carried the offense. He finished fourth in the MVP voting, with the ultimate winner being Atlanta’s Dale Murphy and future Hall of Famers Andre Dawson (Montreal) and Mike Schmidt (Philadelphia) having excellent years. But a good argument existed for any of the four to be at the top of the ballot.
Guerrero got help from 23-year-old second baseman Steve Sax, who finished with a respectable OBP of .342 and stole 50 bases. Greg Brock was Garvey’s highly touted replacement at first base. Brock only hit .224, but made up for some of that with a great batting eye that led to a .343 OBP. He also hit 20 home runs. Centerfielder Ken Landreaux could drive the ball in the deep alleys of Dodger Stadium and posted a .451 slugging percentage.
The Dodgers came blazing out of the gate, starting 20-7 and taking five of six games from defending World Series champion St. Louis. The only problem was that the division rival Braves (who were in the NL West in the two-division alignment that existed through 1993) were almost as hot. Los Angeles and Atlanta were the two best teams in baseball by Memorial Day, with the Dodgers a game and a half up.
Los Angeles struck first in the head-to-head battles with Atlanta that began in June, taking four of six games. The NL West lead reached 5 ½ games on June 19. But from that day until the Fourth of July, which also ended the first half, the Dodgers went 4-10 against the Padres and Astros. San Diego was an improved team, but Houston wasn’t very good, so this was a missed opportunity and the consequence was Los Angeles trailing Atlanta by a game at the break. Both were still the two best teams in MLB.
The post-All-Star break period didn’t get any better as Los Angeles went 10-15 and fell 6 ½ back. The low point came on August 13, a Saturday in Atlanta. They took a 7-6 lead on a Brock home run in the top of the ninth. Howe gave up a two-run blast in the bottom of the ninth. But they won the series finale on Sunday and after that started a 14-3 stretch that coincided with the Braves suddenly falling on hard times. By Labor Day, LA was 79-57 and 2 ½ games up.
The teams were no longer the top two in baseball, but the Dodgers had the pole position for the NL West stretch drive. And that stretch drive started in earnest on September 9 with a three-game series in Dodger Stadium and the lead now sitting on a clean three games.
Pena was brilliant in the opener, throwing seven shutout innings in a 3-2 win. The Dodgers seemed ready to carry the momentum into the next day when they grabbed an early 3-zip lead. But Valenzuela couldn’t hold the lead and Los Angeles came apart in extra innings when a Russell error opened the floodgates in a 6-3 loss.
Rick Honeycutt, a lefthander who could both start and relieve had been acquired in an August deal for Dave Stewart. It was a trade that was a disaster in the long-term as Stewart became one of the best—and most clutch—starting pitchers in the game. And it didn’t work out that well in the short-term as Honeycutt’s start in the series finale illustrates. He was hit hard and Los Angeles trailed 6-3. But the bullpen, led by three shutout innings from Beckwith stopped the bleeding. It set the stage for a dramatic ninth inning.
The Dodgers got three hits and drew three walks. The game was tied 6-6, with runners on second and third and one out. Role player R.J. Reynolds dropped down a bunt and Guerrero came in with the winning run. Los Angeles was four games up.
Even though the Dodgers lost three straight in San Francisco, they were able to win three of five games from Houston and the lead held steady at four when Los Angeles traveled to Atlanta for another head-to-head weekend series starting September 23.
Just winning one game would keep Los Angeles in firm control of the race and they took the pressure off right away on Friday night. Landreaux and Baker each homered and combined to drive in seven runs. Sax added three hits in an 11-2 rout. Even though LA dropped the final two games, scoring just three combined runs, they still led by three games with a week to play and no more head-to-head battles on the horizon.
After a first half where the Dodgers and Braves had set the bar for the rest of baseball, they sort of crawled to the finish line. Even though Los Angeles split four games from Monday through Thursday the lead held at three games and guaranteed them at least a one-game playoff. They finished the job on Friday night in a 4-3 win over San Francisco—and even that wasn’t necessary. About a half-hour before the game ended, the word came that Atlanta had lost in San Diego and Dodger Stadium erupted. No one had to watch a September call-up named Orel Hershiser throw two important shutout innings in the win.
The Philadelphia Phillies were a familiar foe in the National League Championship Series. Los Angeles ousted Philadelphia from the NLCS in both 1977 and 1978. This year was Philly’s revenge. After splitting the first two games in Dodger Stadium, the Phils took over what was then a best-of-five series. Los Angeles was routed on the road in Games 3 & 4 and the season ended.
Even without a World Series trip, the 1983 Los Angeles Dodgers continued to build the impressive legacy this franchise had in the period from 1977-88, hanging another NL West banner.