How The 1986 New York Mets Ran Away With The NL East

The 1986 New York Mets came into the season having knocked on the door in 1984 and 1985. Davey Johnson took the managerial reins for ’84 and promptly turned a losing team into a contender. After a second-place finish that year, the Mets again finished second in 1985 after a riveting race with the St. Louis Cardinals. In 1986, the Mets left all comers in the dust in a dominant regular season.

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They won 108 games and were the National League’s best in most every significant statistical category. They scored the most runs, and were tops in on-bae percentage, slugging percentage and batting average. They were third in home runs. The pitching staff was dominant, the best in the league in ERA.

Dwight Gooden was only 21-years-old and coming off an amazing Cy Young year in 1985. Gooden wasn’t quite that good in ’86, but he still won 17 games with a 2.84 ERA. Ron Darling won 15 games with a 2.81 ERA. Bob Ojeda, acquired in an eight-player deal with the Boston Red Sox prior to the year, was actually the best of a great group, with 18 wins and a 2.57 ERA. Sid Fernandez was the weak link—he “only” had a 3.52 ERA and sixteen wins.

These four arms went to the mound a combined total of 128 times. It covered up for a bullpen that was good, but not deep. Roger McDowell and Jesse Orosco were a righty/lefty combo at the end of games. They combined for 22 wins and 43 saves. Doug Sisk was solid in setup work, with a 3.06 ERA. Otherwise, the only other arm was Rick Aguilera and he spent as much time as a fifth starter as he did in the pen, making twenty starts and finishing with a 3.88 ERA.

The lineup was keyed by 24-year-old rightfielder Darryl Strawberry. The “Straw” hit 27 home runs, drove in 93 runs and posted a .358 on-base percentage.

A feisty 23-year-old centerfielder named Lenny Dykstra had a stat line of .377 on-base percentage and some surprising pop with a .445 slugging percentage. Another little sparkplug was second baseman Wally Backman and his .376 OBP.

There were excellent veterans in catcher Gary Carter (24 home runs/105 RBI), first baseman Keith Hernandez (.413 on-base percentage) and third baseman Ray Knight (.351 OBP). The one disappointment in the veteran group was leftfielder George Foster. A part of Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine in the 1970s, Foster had hit 73 home runs the previous three seasons with the Mets. But his production tanked at age 37, signaling the end of his career and he had to be released in August.

Johnson was able to fill in the gap though. Mookie Wilson provided the speed, with 25 steals. Kevin Mitchell provided some thunder, with a .466 slugging percentage. Danny Heep was a steady contributor off the bench with a .379 OBP. There were simply no weaknesses on the 1986 New York Mets.

After losing three of their first five games to the Phillies and Cardinals, they Mets took off. They won eleven straight, including a four-game sweep in St. Louis. By May 10 they were 20-4. Before the spring was over, they won seven of eight against the Astros and Reds, who would end up 1-2 in the NL West. On Memorial Day, the Mets were soaring at 27-11. They were four games up on the Montreal Expos and the rest of the division was submerged under. 500.

New York kept it rolling, sweeping the defending NL West champion Los Angeles Dodgers three straight out of the holiday. In early June, they took two of three from the Phils and swept the Pirates four straight. The record reached 43-16 and the lead was bumped to 10 ½ games. There was a brief dip where the Mets lost five of nine, including four of six to the Expos. But in late June they ripped off another sweep of the Cardinals and won three of four from the Astros. Even though they lost three in a row to the Reds and the lead was “cut” to 9 ½ games, June 30 was the last time New York’s divisional margin was less than ten games.

At the All-Star break, the Mets were 13 ½ games ahead of the Expos and 17 ½ ahead of the Phillies. But all of baseball was only wondering now how this team would fare in the playoffs. As it turned out a four-game series in Houston turned out to be a sneak preview of what was ahead in October.

After winning the opener 13-2 and losing 3-0 on Friday, the Mets and Astros played two wild games over the weekend. On Saturday, New York trailed 4-0 in the ninth inning to eventual Cy Young winner Mike Scott. They got home runs from Dykstra and Strawberry and tied the game before McDowell gave up a home run in the bottom of the ninth in the 5-4 loss.

Sunday was more of the same. The Mets were down 4-2 in the eighth and then scored three times, with Hernandez and Mitchell each going deep. In the bottom of the eight, Sisk and Orosco melted down, gave up four runs and New York was back in an 8-5 hole. Undeterred, the Mets used three hits, a walk and a hit by pitch to tie the game at 8-8 in the ninth. McDowell pitched three shutout innings and helped extend the game to the 15th, but he eventually gave up the winning run and lost 9-9.

The Mets had lost three of four, but they had proved they could rally against the Astro bullpen. It’s something that would save them in October.

After that series, it was just about formally clinching the NL East. The lead was twenty games in late August and the Mets went on a 15-3 run through a soft part of the schedule. The clinching itself ran into some snags. New York came into second-place Philadelphia needing one win to wrap it up and lost three straight. They went to St. Louis, scene of their heartbreak in 1985 and lost again. The Mets were able to clinch a tie the next night, but the Phillies also won and delayed the celebration.

On September 17, in the afternoon at Wrigley Field, New York made it official. Gooden tossed a complete-game six-hitter, the Mets won 4-2 and the champagne could start flowing.

It was a good thing the Mets fans had such an easy run through the regular season, because their stress levels would be tested to the max in October. They were helpless against Houston’s Scott in the NLCS, losing to him in Games 1 & 4 and making no bones about their desire to avoid facing Scott again in Game 7. It took rallies off the bullpen in Games 3 & 6, the latter a stunning 16-inning affair reminiscent of the July series to avoid that and wrap up the pennant.

And the World Series with the Red Sox would have live in on baseball lore thanks to Bill Buckner’s infamous error in Game 6. What should be noted is that to make that moment possible the Mets had to come off the mat after losing the first two games at home. In the sixth game itself, trailing 5-3 in the 10th inning with two outs and none aboard, they had to muster three straight hits to set up the Boston implosion. And in Game 7, New York had to rally from an early 3-0 deficit.

The 1986 New York Mets spent the regular season showing their greatness. In October they showed their resilience.