The Los Angeles Dodgers took a serious step back in 1984. After the first seven years under manager Tom Lasorda had produced four NL West titles, three National League pennants and the 1981 World Series title, the Dodgers finished under .500 in 1984. They looked ready to fall behind other powers that seemed to be rising in the NL West. Instead, the 1985 Los Angeles Dodgers completely reversed course, had a comeback year and returned won Lasorda’s fifth division title.
Pitching was the Dodger staple and 24-year-old Fernando Valenzuela, already in his fifth year in the majors, won 17 games with a 2.45 ERA. Another young arm splashed upon the scene, one with the name of Orel Hershiser. The young righthander went a dazzling 19-3, finished with a 2.03 ERA and ended up third in the NL Cy Young voting. Lasorda got work from reliable lefty Jerry Reuss and another vet in Bob Welch, each of whom won 14 games.
The pitching staff finished with the best ERA in the National League, and a deep bullpen played a key role. Tom Niedenfuer, the 25-year-old closer saved 19 games with a 2.71 ERA. Ken Howell kicked in 12 saves with a 3.77 ERA and Carlos Diaz was at 2.61.
Offensively, the Dodgers were carried by leftfielder Pedro Guerrero, who finished with an on-base percentage of .422, hit 33 home runs and drove in 87 runs. Mike Scioscia, then a 26-year-old catcher, also had an OBP over .400, keyed by phenomenal plate discipline resulting in 77 walks.
More power on the corners came from first baseman Greg Brock and rightfielder Mike Marshall, as they combined to hit 49 home runs. Steve Sax was a big table-setter, with his .352 on-base percentage. It added up to a lineup that ranked fifth in the National League in runs scored.
The Dodgers were slow out of the gate and were 21-22 on Memorial Day, in fourth place and 5 ½ games back of the San Diego Padres. The Padres had won the NL pennant in 1984 and with a corps of young talent appeared to be the future of the NL West. If you thought the Dodgers were the past, the first couple months of the 1985 season wouldn’t have done anything to dissuade you.
Perhaps the summer months would have changed some minds though. Because Los Angeles gradually started to gain steam going toward the All-Star break and a 12-4 stretch to end the first half pushed the Dodgers into first place.
The stretch included series wins over the Cincinnati Reds, also contending in the NL West, the St. Louis Cardinals, future champs of the NL East and the Chicago Cubs, the defending champs of the NL East.
Los Angeles started the second half the same way they finished the first. They took three of four from St. Louis out of the break, went 12-5 and suddenly they were six games up. At the end of August, the front office made a deal to help the offense, adding third baseman Bill Madlock. In his 34 games for the Dodgers, Madlock hit .360.
The best news was that the acquisition of Madlock would matter more for the playoffs than for the stretch drive though, because the Dodgers blew the NL West open. Their lead grew to as many nine games in mid-August and never became close the rest of the way.
Los Angeles had a problem with San Diego head-to-head—the Dodgers lost 8 of 10 to the Padres—but the teams went in opposite directions as soon as they stopped playing each other. In fact, it was the Reds who ended up in second and the Padres fell hard to a third-place tie with the Houston Astros.
In a year where three of the four divisions went to the final Saturday of the regular season, Los Angeles was the anomaly. They clinched on the final Wednesday, a 9-3 home win over Atlanta. Marshall had three hits, a home run and three RBI, Hershiser got the win and the party could start in Hollywood.
The Cardinals were waiting in the NLCS, and Los Angeles opened with two wins on their home field. It proved to be their final wins of the season though. After dropping Games 3 & 4, LA lost two straight heartbreakers. They lost Game 5 on a walkoff home run to St. Louis shortstop Ozzie Smith. In Game 6 at Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles was one out from forcing a seventh game when Niedenfuer gave up a three-home run to Jack Clark and the result was a 7-5 loss.
The 1985 Los Angeles Dodgers were still a great success story. Over the next three years they continued the pattern of playing dead, in 1986 and 1987, and then rising from the ashes—when they won the 1988 World Series title.