The two big markets of the National League battled in the 1988 NLCS, as the New York Mets and the Los Angeles Dodgers. The series had the best pitchers and best MVP candidates, and it went the full seven games, with several surprising plot twists, before the Dodgers finally prevailed.
Orel Hershiser had set a major league record when he threw 58 consecutive scoreless innings in September for the Dodgers and he would win the Cy Young Award. He was naturally LA’s Game 1 starter against the Mets’ Dwight Gooden, the 23-year-old who already had the 1985 Cy Young Award under his belt.
The Dodgers also had the NL MVP, in rightfielder Kirk Gibson, though some of us believe that Gibson’s Mets’ counterpart, Darryl Strawberry, would have been a better choice for the award. New York was the deeper team all-around and had won 100 games, compared to 94 for Los Angeles. Homefield advantage was determined on a rotation basis though, and it was the NL West’s turn. The best-of-seven series began in Los Angeles.
Los Angeles quickly manufactured a run in the first inning off Gooden, as Steve Sax led off with a single, stole second and scored on a two-out base hit to rightfield by Mike Marshall. The Mets’ ace quickly settled down though and the anticipated pitchers’ duel emerged.
It was still 1-0 in the seventh when LA manufactured another run. Mike Scioscia doubled to start the bottom of the inning, moved up on a groundball out and scored on a base hit by sub-.200 hitter Alfredo Griffin.
Hershiser kept the shutout into the ninth inning. Greg Jeffries got leadoff single, and scored on a double from Strawberry. With one out, Hershiser was removed for closer Jay Howell. A walk to Kevin McReynolds put the tying run aboard. Howell struck out Howard Johnson and got to within one out of a win.
Gary Carter came to the plate. The 34-year-old catcher was well past his prime and no longer a productive offensive player. But he was still clutch and a double to centerfield cleared the bases. The Mets had a stunning 3-2 win and with their win over LA’s ace on the road, seemed in complete control.
Dodger manager Tom Lasorda had to turn to a rookie, Tim Belcher, to essentially save the season. David Cone, a young 22-game winner was on the mound for the Mets. Once again, Marshall got a first inning RBI for Los Angeles, coming through with two outs after Mickey Hatcher had walked and moved to second on a balk.
In the second inning, Cone hit a batter, but had two outs and Belcher at the plate. At this most unlikely of moments, the game got completely away from the New York starter. Belcher, Sax and Hatcher all singled in succession. Gibson was intentionally walked, and Marshall singled. The score was suddenly 5-0.
New York made noise to get back in it in the fourth, when Jeffries drew a leadoff walk and Keith Hernandez homered. Los Angeles answered with a run in the fifth, and the game went to the ninth at 6-2. The Mets made it interesting. Lenny Dykstra doubled, then Hernandez and Strawberry singled. With one out, it was 6-3 and the tying run was at the plate.
LA had a deep bullpen and this time Alejandro Pena got the chance to close the door. He got McReynolds to pop out and Carter again came to the plate. This time it was a fly ball out to right and the NLCS was tied.
A travel day and a rainout resulted in the Dodgers bringing back Hershiser on three days’ rest for Game 3. Mets manager Davey Johnson, with a deeper rotation, stayed on schedule and went with Ron Darling. For the third straight game, the Dodgers got out to the early lead.
In the second inning, Marshall and John Shelby worked walks. Scioscia laid down a bunt, resulting in a Hernandez throwing error from his first base spot that resulted in a run and left runners on second and third with none out. Jeff Hamilton picked up one more run with an RBI groundout, but Darling struck out Griffin to keep the game at 2-0.
Sax created another run in the third with his speed, a leadoff single, a stolen base and he came around on a hit by Gibson. The Mets got the run back in the bottom of the inning on a break. Mookie Wilson had K’d for the second out, but the third strike was a wild pitch and Wilson got to first base. A single from Jeffries and double by Strawberry cut the lead to 3-1.
New York tied up the game in the sixth. A Strawberry single and error by Hamilton put a man in scoring position. With two outs, Carter and Wally Backman each delivered RBI singles and it was 3-3. Los Angeles took the lead back against Mets’ reliever Roger McDowell on two infield hits and two walks.
In the bottom of the eighth, Howell came on for his second chance to close out a Hershiser win. Howell walked McReynolds to start the inning and Lasorda wasted no time going to Pena. This time it didn’t matter. Backman doubled with two outs to tie the game 4-4.
Lasorda went to Jesse Orosco, who just two years earlier had closed the World Series for the Mets. That didn’t matter either. Wilson drove in the lead run. Jeffries was hit by a pitch, Hernandez walked with the bases loaded. Strawberry blooped a single. It was 8-4 and that’s where it ended.
Any scenario prior to the 1988 NLCS that had the Dodgers winning was surely dependent on Hershiser carrying the Dodgers. The ace was doing his job, but Los Angeles had now lost two of three games where he handed the bullpen a late lead.
New York was in command with Gooden on the mound, against 34-year-old John Tudor. Los Angeles quickly showed their resiliency though. Sax again got a first-inning rally going, with a single and stolen base. Hatcher walked, and both runners moved up on a groundball out. With two outs, Shelby drove each in with a single.
The Mets got to Tudor in the fourth. After a single from Hernandez, Strawberry and McReynolds each homered for a 3-2 lead. In the sixth, McReynolds doubled and Carter tripled to start the inning. With the score 4-2 and the game threatening to get away, Lasorda called on Brian Holton to keep his team alive. Holton got a strikeout, and after a walk, induced Gooden to hit into a double play.
It looked like Holton’s work might not matter, as Gooden kept the 4-2 lead into the ninth inning. He was still on the mound when Shelby worked him for a walk. And then this unpredictable NLCS took another plot twist, as Scioscia stunned the crowd with a two-run blast that tied the game.
The game stretched into the wee hours of the morning. With two outs in the 12th inning, McDowell was on the mound and Gibson homered. But the Mets had one more rally left in them
Tim Leary, normally a starter, was in the game for the Dodgers. Consecutive singles by Mickey Sasser and Lee Mazzilli got a rally going with one out, and Orosco came in. After a walk to Hernandez loaded the bases, Orosco got perhaps the out of the series when he induced Strawberry to pop up.
Orosco was a lefty and McReynolds, a good righthanded power hitter was now up. Lasorda went to the best righthander he could think of—Orel Hershiser. The ace came in and got a fly ball to centerfield to tie the series.
The teams had to be back in Los Angeles by Tuesday night, so Monday’s Game 5 required each to come right back and play a noon start on Monday. The Mets appeared to still be flat. LA got three in the fourth, when Rick Dempsey hit a two-out double with two men on and Griffin followed with another double off lefty starter Sid Fernandez.
One inning later, after Sax and Hatcher singled, Gibson homered, Fernandez was out and the Mets were staring at a 6-0 hole. They quickly made a move against Belcher in the bottom of the fifth, when singles by Johnson and Backman were followed by a two-out home run from Dykstra to cut the lead in half.
The game stayed 6-3 into the eighth, when Dykstra doubled and scored on a single by Jeffries to make it 6-4. The bullpens were on fumes and Lasorda dug deep to find Ricky Horton. He was able to get Hernandez, but Strawberry singled to reach base as the tying run with one out. Holton was summoned.
It was time for one more plot twist. McReynolds bounced a would-be single to the left side. But it hit Jeffries, and the runner was out. Carter flied to left. The inning was over, LA added an insurance run in the ninth and closed out a 7-4 win.
By late afternoon on Monday, the Mets had—in about eighteen hours—gone from having their ace on the mound and being three outs from a 3-1 series lead, to trailing the series 3-2, going on the road and having the prospect of Hershiser in Game 7 staring them down.
New York, to their credit, didn’t roll over. They went west and Game 6 saw them finally score the game’s first run. An error by Hatcher started the game, and Backman singled. McReynolds hit a sac fly to stake Cone to a 1-0 lead.
Each team then missed chances. Gibson’s failure to sacrifice bunt short-circuited a Dodger rally in the bottom of the inning and in then Backman struck out with a man on third and one out. The Mets were able to add a run in the third, when light-hitting shortstop Kevin Elster doubled in Strawberry.
New York was able to chase Leary in the fifth, after Strawberry drew a walk and McReynolds homered. Holton came in and did another yeoman’s job at limiting damage, but Cone was sharp tonight and the four-run lead was going to stand up. LA got a run back in the fifth, but New York immediately countered with a run of their own in the top of the sixth and the Dodgers never got the tying run to the plate in a 5-1 final.
Los Angeles now turned to the ultimate insurance policy—the best pitcher in baseball on their homefield. Darling was on the mound for New York. If nothing else, the Mets knew if they kept it close, they could break LA’s heart late in a Hershiser start.
This time New York couldn’t keep it close though. In fact, they came apart at the seams. Sax singled and came around to score on a Hatcher double and Gibson sac fly in the first. In the second inning, Scioscia and Hamilton singled to start the frame. Griffin put down a sac bunt and beat it out.
Hershiser came to the plate and grounded to third…but Johnson booted the ball. Sax drove in two runs with a single. Backman booted a grounder. Five runs were in, the score was 6-0 after two innings and the rest of the night was one long party in Dodger Stadium. That’s how the game ended, with a complete-game five-hitter for Hershiser.
Hershiser, with 24.2 IP in the series and a 1.09 ERA was named 1988 NLCS MVP. I can’t argue with this, but I’ll admit I did do some digging to see if another choice might have been more appropriate—after all, even though it wasn’t the ace’s fault, the fact the Dodgers lost his first two starts had to suggest someone else must have come through.
But while there were certainly heroes—Holton, Scioscia, Gibson and Sax—none had the series-long production to make an MVP choice defensible. So let’s stick with the chalk and honor Orel’s brilliance.
The magic kept going for the Dodgers in the World Series. They were even bigger underdogs to the 104-win Oakland Athletics then they had been to the Mets. But a stunning walkoff win in Game 1 on a home run by Gibson set the stage for a shocking five-game upset to give Los Angeles its second title of the decade, going with their 1981 ring.
Both the Dodgers and Mets disappeared from postseason play after this. Each team remained a contender, but lost some close division races in the ensuing years. LA didn’t make it back to October until 1995, by which team the postseason had expanded to four teams per league. The Dodgers didn’t make the NLCS again until 2008 and the Mets didn’t get back until 1999.