When Davey Johnson became the manager of the New York Mets they were a franchise at rock bottom. The Mets had finished fifth or sixth in the six-team NL East for seven straight years. Johnson took over in 1984 and immediately won 90 games, finishing in second place. The 1985 New York Mets inched even closer, contending to the season’s penultimate day.
The Mets were an exceptionally well-balanced team. If you look at the team-wide numbers, they were third in the National League in both runs scored and ERA. Offensively, they were third in home runs, fourth in batting average and fifth in walks.
If you broke it down individually, they had home run hitters in catcher Gary Carter, left fielder George Foster and rightfielder Daryl Strawberry. They had base stealers in Strawberry, second baseman Wally Backman and centerfielder Mookie Wilson. First baseman Keith Hernandez was just steady, finishing with an on-base percentage of .384, driving in 91 runs and playing fabulous defense.
There was a nice blend of experience and youth. Strawberry was only 23-years-old and already in his third year. Foster was 36, a one-time MVP with the Cincinnati Reds. Hernandez was battle-tested, having won a World Series ring in 1982 with the St. Louis Cardinals. Carter had been a clutch player for the Montreal Expos in their 1981 playoff run, and the Mets had gone all-out to get him. New York traded four players, notably Hubie Brooks, in order to acquire Carter prior to the 1985 season.
The pitching staff was marked by live young arms. Ron Darling was 24-years-old and finished 16-6 with a 2.90 ERA. Sid Fernandez, a talented 22-year-old lefty finished with 2.80 ERA as he split eighteen decisions. Some veteran help came from Ed Lynch, with 10 wins and a 3.44 ERA. The bullpen was anchored with a lefty-righty team of Jesse Orosco and Roger McDowell, each with 17 saves.
But no one electrified baseball more than 20-year old Dwight Gooden, the staff ace and already in his second season. Gooden had the most dominating pitching season in the modern age of baseball. He won 24 games, finished with a 1.53 ERA and worked 276 innings in the process.
In a year where the National League produced great starting pitchers in St. Louis’ John Tudor and Orel Hershiser with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Gooden was a unanimous choice for the NL Cy Young Award and finished fourth in the MVP voting.
It didn’t take long to realize the 1985 New York Mets season was going to be fun. They opened the season at home with the Cardinals and started with two extra-inning games. Carter won the Opening Day game with a walkoff home run in the tenth. In the second game, Tudor and Darling dueled, gave way to the bullpens and the Mets won in the 11th when Danny Heep drew a bases-loaded walk. The Mets won eight of their first nine games.
On Memorial Day, New York was 24-15 and a half-game back of the Chicago Cubs, who had won the NL East in 1984. Montreal was only a game out and St. Louis was lurking, at 4 ½ back. In early June, the Mets slumped. They lost five of seven games at home to the Dodgers and Cardinals, then dropped three of four in Philadelphia and were swept at Montreal.
A series with the Cubs, who were starting to slump, proved to be salve on the wound. The Mets swept that series, but then promptly lost eight of ten. The slump included being swept in St. Louis, with the Cardinals getting a walkoff win of their own in the finale. St. Louis was surging and moved to the top of the NL East. New York fell as many as five games out in early July, before suddenly righting the ship, winning twelve of thirteen and going into the All-Star break within 2 ½ games of St. Louis.
New York went 12-6 out of the break and pushed into first place by a half-game on August 5. They went on to win nine straight, but St. Louis kept pace. A homestand with NL West teams, including the division-leading Dodgers, didn’t go well. The Mets went a sluggish 4-5 on the homestand while the Cardinals heated up and flipped the standings. New York went from a game and a half up to three games back.
Showing baseball often doesn’t make sense, the Mets went west to face the same teams they had just struggled with at home…and calmly went 7-3, pulling back to within a half-game. When they hosted St. Louis for a big three-game series starting on September 10, the NL East race was a dead heat.
Howard Johnson, a 24-year-old third baseman that would eventually become a star, made the first big impact on the series. “HoJo” hit a grand slam in the first inning. Darling didn’t pitch great, as the Cardinals chipped away, but the starter held the lead and turned a 5-4 game over the McDowell, who got the last eight outs and secured the win.
Gooden and Tudor staged an epic pitchers’ duel on Wednesday. Gooden threw nine shutout innings. Tudor threw ten. Unfortunately for the Mets. Orosco gave up a home run in the tenth and it resulted in a 1-0 loss. In the finale, the Mets got back to scoring quickly. Successive two-out doubles in the first inning from Strawberry, Heep and Johnson keyed a four-run rally. By the end of two, the score was 6-0.
St. Louis again clawed back though, and this time they tied it 6-6 in the ninth, Orosco again giving up a big home run. In the bottom of the ninth, Wilson singled, was bunted over by Backman and scored on a base hit from Hernandez. In a series that lived up to its billing, the Mets left with a one-game lead.
There was still a lot of baseball left though, and the Cardinals just picked up and started winning, while the Mets began to struggle. New York went 9-7 over the next sixteen games—not bad, but not good enough to keep up with St. Louis who reclaimed first place, grew the lead as big as 4 ½ and still held a three-game lead when New York came to the heartland for one final series.
It was the final week of the season, so the Mets realistically needed to sweep and pull even going into the final weekend. Darling faced Tudor in the opener, and unbelievably, Tudor again threw ten shutout innings against the Mets. Darling gave nine though, and this time Orosco came through in relief, with two clean innings. When Tudor was removed, Strawberry homered in the 11th and New York was still alive with a 1-0 win.
Gooden got the ball on Wednesday and aided by three hits and a home run from Foster, the ace won 5-2. Thursday night’s finale would be the big one, but the Mets couldn’t quite over the hump. Aguilera struggled and gave up four early runs. The Mets got to within 4-3 but came up short.
The Mets and Cardinals went their separate ways for the weekend with the race all but settled, as St. Louis held a two-game advantage. Both teams won on Friday and St. Louis clinched on Saturday.
It was another year in second place for New York, but under Johnson’s leadership the Mets were getting closer. And one year later they would finally go all the way.