The 1986 baseball season is remembered for a fateful groundball that went through the legs of Bill Buckner and set the stage for the New York Mets to defeat the Boston Red Sox in the World Series. That error was just one small part of what was perhaps the greatest postseason any sport has seen. The ALCS, NLCS and World Series were all heart-stoppers. TheSportsNotebook’s blog compilation about the 1986 MLB season preserves all of this and more.
The Mets and Red Sox joined the California Angels and Houston Astros in winning their divisions with reasonable ease. There were no dramatic finishes to the regular season and while that was a downer for fans, it allowed the anticipation for the postseason matchups to build up.
The following series of articles captures the best of the 1986 baseball season, including…
*How all four teams—the Mets, Red Sox, Angels and Astros—won their division titles. You’ll see their key contributors and the crucial moments of the regular season when they took command.
*Three teams that finished as runner-ups have stories worth remembering. 1986 was one of a string of years where both the New York Yankees and the Cincinnati Reds kept coming up short. And the San Francisco Giants enjoyed a turnaround season that set the stage for a division title in 1987. The season-long narratives are included here.
*Finally we come to the postseason and digging into all 20 games of the greatest October in baseball history. Go game-by-game as the Astros fought the Mets toe-to-toe thanks to some great pitching from Mike Scott, before New York finally got just enough big hits to survive. And see the Red Sox get pushed to the brink of elimination in Anaheim before a stunning rally saved them and eventually broke the hearts of the Angels.
*Then it’s the World Series, one that Boston seemed in control of right to the point of the groundball that lives in infamy throughout New England. You’ll see great pitching performances from Bruce Hurst, clutch hitting from Gary Carter and all of the twists and turns that made the 1986 World Series what it was.
These ten articles serve to tell the story of the 1986 baseball season, as it looked through the eyes of its best teams.
One team was one of baseball’s history-laden franchises, the other an expansion team. But they were united a shared heritage of heartbreak. The Boston Red Sox and California Angels met at the 1986 ALCS and it was inevitable that somebody’s fan base would be crushed when it was over. In a rare turnabout for the pre-2004 era it was the Red Sox who snatched victory from the jaws of defeat rather than the other way around.
Boston and California had each pulled away from their respective divisions and made September anticlimactic. Homefield advantage was determined on a rotation basis rather than merit, so there was really nothing to do for the last few weeks of the regular season than point to this showdown. You can read about the paths each team took to its division title at the links below. This article focuses exclusively on the games of the 1986 ALCS.
The series opened on a Tuesday night in Fenway Park, and it was a matchup of aces. Roger Clemens won by the Cy Young and MVP for the Red Sox, while the Angels’ Mike Witt finished third in the Cy Young voting. And to the surprise of the Fenway crowd, this was Witt’s night.
In the top of the second, Clemens issued a pair of walks and then in rapid succession, Ruppert Jones singled, Wally Joyner doubled and Brian Downing singled to left. It was suddenly 4-0. In the top of the third, California had some more two-out magic. After an error by Boston shortstop Spike Owen, the Angels got hits from Bob Boone and Gary Pettis and the lead was 5-zip.
Witt was in command and not until the sixth did the Red Sox get on the board. Owen drew a walk, Wade Boggs beat out an infield hit and Marty Barrett took a single the other way to right. But it was not the sign of an impending comeback. Witt finished off a complete-game five-hitter with no further damage. Clemens worked into the eighth, sparing the bullpen, but the Angels tacked on another couple runs in the 8-1 win.
Lefty Bruce Hurst got the ball for the Red Sox on Wednesday night who faced a virtual must-win on their homefield. Kirk McCaskill was on the mound for the Angels. This time it was Boston who came out on the attack. In the bottom of the first, Boggs lead off with a triple and Barrett doubled him home. In the bottom of the second, Rich Gedman and Owen singled and Boggs beat out another infield hit.
The bases were loaded with one out. Barrett popped a single to left and it was 2-0. McCaskill escaped further damage by getting Bill Buckner to bounce back to the mound and start a double play. California took advantage by tying the game up in the middle innings. Downing and Doug DeCinces opened with singles. A Boggs error and an infield hit by Dick Schofield brought in a run. One inning later Joyner homered to make it 2-2.
Boston got the lead back in the bottom of the frame when Buckner singled, veteran DH Don Baylor worked out a two-out walk and Dwight Evans doubled in the lead run. In the seventh, the Red Sox got real separation. After an error by second baseman Bobby Grich, Jim Rice singled and Baylor walked. Another error, this one by DeCinces at third, made the game 4-2.
McCaskill looked ready to get out of it when he got a ground ball to second that looked like a double play. California got the out at second, but Schofield’s throw to first went awry and two more runs scored. McCaskill was done and so were the Angels. Hurt gave up eleven hits, but finished the game because Joyner’s home run was the only one that went for extra bases. The Red Sox tacked on three runs in the eighth for good measure, keyed by Rice’s two-run homer. The final was 9-2.
An anticipated series had opened with two blowouts. At the very least, the Joyner routs had gone both ways, so there was room for excitement to build. And the three games out in Anaheim would be a building crescendo of drama.
Oil Can Boyd, the colorful Red Sox righthander got the Game 3 start and faced off with John Candelaria, a veteran of the Pittsburgh Pirates 1979 World Series champions. Boston got an early run in the second, but a baserunning error prevented a bigger inning. Rice led off with a walk and Baylor singled, but the lefthanded Candelaria picked Baylor off of first. Subsequent singles by Evans and Gedman only resulted in one run.
The Angels threatened in the fourth, putting runners on first and second with two outs. DeCinces then beat out an infield single to first, but Joyner tried to score all the way from second. Buckner wasn’t buying and threw him out at the plate. The Red Sox blew a bigger opportunity in the top of the fifth, failing to score after getting men on second and third with none out. Owens grounded to first, but failed to score the run, Barrett popped out and Candelaria escaped.
California finally tied it up in the sixth. Joyner drew a walk and moved up on a groundball. Hurst faced an old Boston nemesis, DH Reggie Jackson, who singled to tie the game. In the seventh, the Angels’ contact hitters displayed some muscle. The diminutive Schofield homered with two outs. After Bob Boone singled, speedy Gary Pettis also went deep. The Angels suddenly had a 4-1 lead.
The Red Sox made a move in the eighth when Barrett led off with a single. Rice drilled out a two-out double that spelled the end of the night for Candelaria. California manager Gene Mauch went to his closer, Donnie Moore, who promptly balked in a run. After issuing a walk to Evans, Moore surrendered a base hit to Rich Gedman that cut the lead to 4-3.
With two runners still on base Moore got the game’s biggest out, when Tony Armas flied out to center. California got an insurance run in the eighth when Jackson drew a walk, went all the way to third on a Boggs error and scored on a sac fly by Jones. Moore closed the ninth without incident and the 5-3 win put the Angels halfway to a pennant.
The significant downside that came out of the game for California was that Joyner would no longer be available. The first baseman and Rookie of the Year suffered a staph infection after Game 2 and while he tried to play in Game 3, it wasn’t working and he was out for the remainder of the ALCS.
The Red Sox turned to Clemens on three days’ rest to even the series. The Angels, in the stronger positon for the series, and having a future Hall of Famer in veteran Don Sutton available, kept on their normal rotation.
Clemens and Sutton traded zeroes for three innings in the prime-time game. In the top of the fourth, Boston missed a chance. Boggs led off with a double and Barrett bunted him up. But a Buckner fly ball wasn’t deep enough and Sutton escaped. The Red Sox got another chance in the sixth and cashed in. Armas started it with a single, Owen dropped down a sac bunt and with two outs, Buckner ultimately redeemed himself with an RBI single.
Sutton left after seven excellent innings and Vern Ruhle came on. But the bottom of the order was causing problems. Owen singled, took second on a groundball out and eventually scored on a base hit from Barrett. Chuck Finley came out of the Angel bullpen, but was let down by a pair of errors that resulted in Barrett scoring. Mauch, emptying his bullpen, to try and keep it close, went to Doug Corbett, who struck with Baylor with two outs and two on.
I still recall this Saturday night. A high school sophomore who was playing poker in a room separate from the TV set, I was walking back and forth and confidently reported to the other teenage card players that “the series is tied.” It would be a premature call.
Clemens, after a magnificent night, gave up a leadoff home run to DeCinces. With one out, consecutive singles from veteran pinch-hitter George Hendrick and Schofield, got the Red Sox ace out of the game. Manager John McNamara went to closer Calvin Schiraldi. Pettis greeted him with an RBI double that made it 3-2 and put runners on second and third.
After an intentional walk to Jones, Schiraldi came up with a big strikeout of Grich that looked ready to save the game. But with two outs, the closer plunked Downing. The score was tied and Reggie was coming to the plate. If nothing else, Schiraldi didn’t let the longtime New England nemesis deliver the final blow and Jackson grounded to second. But it merely delayed what looked like a fatal loss.
Schiraldi was still on the eleventh, as the Boston offense could get nothing going in extra innings. Angels’ catcher Jerry Narron singled and was bunted up by Pettis. Grich redeemed himself with a line drive single to left that won the game and put California on the brink of a pennant. With Witt ready to go on full rest for Sunday afternoon, and Clemens having been beaten twice, there seemed little hope left for the Red Sox.
Boston still came out strong, with Rice singling in the second inning and Gedman hitting a two-out home run. Hurst, on short rest, escaped jam in the innings’ bottom half pitching around a leadoff double by DeCinces and keeping the score 2-0. But the Boston bats fell silent, as Witt began cruising through the lineup. And California cut the lead in half on a solo shot by Boone in the third. They took the lead in the sixth when DeCinces hit a two-out double and Grich homered to make it 3-2.
The Angels appeared to all but sew up the pennant in the seventh. Hendrick legged out an infield hit. After a sac bunt by Boone, Pettis drew a walk and a double by Rob Wilfong put California up 5-2. There were just six outs left and Witt worked the eighth without incident.
Witt took the mound to open the ninth and quickly got into trouble. Buckner singled to center. After Rice struck out, Baylor homered and now it was 5-4. Witt recovered to get Evans to pop out and Angels Stadium was ready to celebrate. With the lefthanded hitting Gedman at the plate, Mauch decided to engage in situational managing and brought in lefty Gary Lucas.
This managerial decision has been the subject of considerable controversy, pulling your ace with one out to go and no one in base. In Mauch’s defense, Gedman had homered earlier and another one would tie the game. And the fact Baylor had already homered this inning suggested Witt was just hanging on. But when Lucas hit Gedman with a pitch, it seemed a useless change.
Mauch summoned the righthanded Moore to face Boston’s Dave Henderson. The count ran 2-2. One strike from elimination, Henderson homered on the next pitch. The Red Sox had a stunning 6-5 lead.
This is the moment when most recollection of the 1986 ALCS basically shuts down and the eventual Boston triumph seemed inevitable. It didn’t actually play out that way on late Sunday afternoon. The Angels rallied against the Red Sox bullpen in the ninth.
Boone led off with a single. Ruppert Jones came in to pinch run for the aging catcher and was bunted to second. McNamara played his own righty-lefty game and removed Bob Stanley, opting for lefty Joe Sambito to face Wilfong. It didn’t work. Wilfong singled and the game was tied. McNamara went back to the pen, going for righty Steve Crawford. He allowed a single to Schofield, sending Wilfong to third with the winning run and only one out. Downing was intentionally walked. DeCinces came to the plate and got a fly ball to right…but not deep enough to score. The agony of the Angels only increased when Grich hit a line drive, but right back at Crawford. The Red Sox had escaped the ninth inning not once, but twice and it was 6-6 as Sunday afternoon wore on.
Boston missed a chance in the tenth, as Rice grounded into a double play with runners on the corners and one out. Moore was still in the game in the top of the eleventh. Baylor was hit by a pitch and Evans singled. Gedman dropped down a bunt and beat it out. The bases were loaded with none out. Henderson—who else—hit a sac fly that made it 7-6. Even though no further damage resulted, this one was finally over. Schiraldi came in for the Red Sox and closed it out.
The Red Sox were flying high as the teams went back east, with a day off on Monday and resuming play on Tuesday. The Angels had to try and reclaim some momentum and they got right at it against Boyd.
After Jones worked a walk, Jackson and DeCinces hit back-to-back doubles for a quick 2-0 lead. But the Red Sox countered with a soft rally. Boggs and Barrett each worked full-count walks off McCaskill. A productive groundout, a passed ball and another productive ground ball tied the game.
In the third inning, Boston leveled McCaskill. Owens and Boggs singled to lead it off. Barrett doubled and Buckner singled to make it 4-2. Barrett tried to score on a groundball to third off the bat of Rice, but was thrown out at the plate. But with runners on first and second, Baylor singled to the opposite field. In an attempt to make another play at home, Joyner’s relay throw went wild and both runs scored, while Baylor went to third. Evans smacked a single to center making it 7-2 and ending McCaskill’s night.
California tried to rally in the fourth, putting the first two men on base. Boyd reached back to strike out Boone and Pettis and there were no runs. The Red Sox added to the lead in the fifth. After Baylor was hit by a pitch, Evans and Gedman singled, setting up an RBI groundball by Henderson. Even though Boggs ultimately killed the rally with a double-play, it wouldn’t really matter. The Angels got a solo home run from Downing in the seventh and an unearned run in the ninth, but even those were sandwiched around a two-run triple by Owen. The final was 10-4 and it was all coming down to a seventh game.
The Red Sox had Clemens available for a third start, while the Angels would turn to Candelaria. Even without Witt, you had still like the pitching option for California. Candelaria had some big-game mojo from 1979 and had pitched a shutout in Game 6 of the World Series in Baltimore, a game his Pirates faced elimination in. But October 15 in Fenway wouldn’t work out quite as well.
In the bottom of the second, an error by Schofield started the rally. It was followed by a base hit from Baylor, a walk to Evans and an RBI groundout from Gedman. With two outs, Boggs slapped a two-run single and it was 3-0.
Boston missed a chance in the third, when a Baylor double keyed a second and third situation with one out. But Evans couldn’t pick up the RBI and Candelaria escaped. But the roof finally fell in on the Angels in the fourth.
A fly ball off the bat of Henderson turned into an error by Pettis and Henderson ended up on third. Owens singled in the run. After a walk and two outs, Rice came to the plate. He smashed a three-run homer sending Fenway into a frenzy and at 7-0, this American League Championship Series was all but over.
Evans tacked on another home run in the seventh and Clemens pitched seven innings of four-hit ball and left after an eighth-inning single that the Angels turned into a meaningless run. The 8-1 final sent the Red Sox to the World Series for the first time since 1975. And it would be another chapter to the Angel history of heartbreak.
Barrett was named ALCS MVP, going 11-for-30. Other good contributors were Owen, whose 9-for-21 was a boon to the lineup out of the 9-hole. Gedman had ten hits and Baylor added nine of his own. On the Angel side, Boone went 10-for-22 and had the team closed it out in Game 5, Witt would almost certainly have been named series MVP.
The most notable struggle came from McCaskill, an integral part of the California rotation all year, but who only worked nine innings combined in his two starts and gave up 13 runs. And the loss of Joyner is a big what-might-have-been for Angels fans.
This American League Championship Series was just one-third of the most incredible October baseball has ever seen. The NLCS provided similar high-stakes drama between the Mets and Astros. And the World Series has a unique place in the game’s history, as it would be Boston’s turn to connect with a heritage of heartbreak, getting to one strike of winning the World Series before a series of unfortunate events, highlighted by a famous error from Buckner, took it away.
Even amidst the ending that Red Sox fans lived with for eighteen years, Henderson still remained a hero in the area for his vital role in the amazing ALCS battle.