A Slow Start Dooms The 1990 Los Angeles Dodgers

The 1990 Los Angeles Dodgers just took too long to get started. After digging a deep hole in the NL West race, the Dodgers made a spirited comeback before ultimately coming up short and finishing in second place.

Los Angeles had slipped under .500 in 1989, following a strong 12-year run from 1977-88 that saw them win six division titles, four National League pennants and two World Series titles, including in 1988. They rebounded into contention primarily on the strength of an offense and one elite starting pitcher.

The Dodgers finished third in the National League in runs scored. Eddie Murray, the 34-year-old first baseman, had enjoyed his best years in Baltimore, but he still had pop in his bat. Murray finished with a .414 on-base percentage, hit 26 home runs and drove in 95 run. Kal Daniels posted a stat line of .389 OBP/.531 slugging percentage in left field. In spite of the fade of Kirk Gibson, manager Tom Lasorda also got contributions from third baseman Mike Sharperson and made good use of his bench.

Los Angeles pitching only ranked seventh in ERA in spite of the vast dimensions of Dodger Stadium. But every fifth day they could turn to Ramon Martinez. In 33 starts he went 20-6 with a 2.92 ERA and finished second in the Cy Young voting. If not for later injuries, Ramon might have joined his younger brother Pedro in Cooperstown. 1990 was a taste of what a healthy Ramon could do.

The Dodgers were on a roller-coaster in the first couple months of the season. A lowlight was a 1-7 road trip through Philadelphia and New York. That was offset by five straight wins in St. Louis and Chicago. But the Cincinnati Reds, an NL West team prior to the realignment of 1994 that created the Central Division in both leagues, had barreled out of the gate and won their first nine games.

When Los Angeles lost three of four at home to Cincinnati around Memorial Day weekend and were subsequently swept in Pittsburgh, they were digging themselves a deep hole. Playing poorly in June didn’t help. By the All-Star break, the Dodgers were 39-43 and 12 ½ games out. They were dead in the water.

Only no one told that to the Dodgers. They came back from the break and won 13 of 19 to close July. By the time September arrived the divisional deficit was still imposing at 6 ½ games. But with two head-to-head series against Cincinnati on tap, there was a shot.

The first battle came at home the weekend after Labor Day. The Dodgers didn’t hit well in Friday’s opener, but drew three first-inning walks and capitalized on an error. They got an unlikely pitching gem from Jim Nedlinger who only gave up one unearned run in eight innings. Los Angles won 3-1.

Fernando Valenzuela, the Dodger icon who had been so important in the 1980s, was on the downside of his career in 1990 and it showed on Saturday. He gave up five runs in the first three innings and lost 8-4. With the season on the line, Ramon took the ball on Sunday. He went the distance, while veteran rightfielder Hubie Brooks led the offense with two hits and a home run. A 6-4 win kept Los Angeles alive.

The following weekend in Cincinnati, the Dodgers were ready to turn up the heat even further. Trailing 2-1 in the sixth on Friday, Murray homered to tie it. After two outs, Los Angeles unloaded for seven more runs and won 10-4. Ramon pitched on Saturday and threw a complete-game six-hit shutout to win 3-zip.

If the Dodgers could complete a sweep on Sunday, the race would be on. And they grabbed two quick runs in the top of the first. But Mike Morgan was unable to hold the lead, quickly giving both runs back. Los Angeles squandered a bases-loaded chance when Juan Samuel grounded into a double play. Cincinnati got the momentum back, won 9-5 and the race never tightened further.

1990 had still been a comeback season for Lasorda and the franchise. They finished second again in 1991, although this time contending to the final day of the season in an epic race with the Atlanta Braves. After slipping in the three years from 1992-94, Lasorda made one final playoff run with the organization he loved in 1995.