Sparky Anderson had brought consistent winning baseball to Detroit. Since his arrival in 1980, the Tigers had posted a winning record every year. The highlight of the run was a dominant run to the 1984 World Series title. The 1986 Detroit Tigers were squarely in that tradition, with only the more stringent standards of the era keeping them from the postseason.
Detroit’s everyday lineup enjoyed a nice bounceback year, after offensive failures were primarily responsible for the 1985 team’s failure to make a serious bid at repeating. The collective comeback was keyed by an anticipated individual revival from Hall of Fame shortstop Alan Trammell. After a rough year in ’85, Trammell posted a stat line of .347 on-base percentage/.469 slugging percentage in 1986.
Kirk Gibson had a good all-around year in rightfield, hitting 28 homers and stealing 34 bases. Darrell Evans was a reliable power hitter at first base and he hit 29 home runs. Lance Parrish, one of the game’s better power-hitting catchers, was limited to 91 games, but still went deep 22 times. A trade to get 24-year-old Darnell Coles to play third paid off, as Coles popped 20 more dingers. The Tigers led the American League in home runs.
But they had hit home runs in 1985 and that wasn’t enough to keep the offense as a whole from being mediocre. The reason 1986 was different—in addition to Trammell’s return to form—was a more balanced attack that could score in different ways. The Tigers ranked third in the AL in walks and fourth in stolen bases.
Individually, second baseman Lou Whitaker’s stat line was .338/.437. Dave Collins was acquired to provide outfield depth. Collins got regular playing time, finished with a .340 OBP and swiped 27 bags. John Grubb, the 37-year-old designated hitter, posted a dazzling .412/.590 stat line in part-time duty .
All of which was good enough for Detroit to rank third in the American League in runs scored. But the pitching slipped a bit.
It was no fault of Jack Morris. The ace went to the mound 35 times, finished with a 21-8 record and a 3.27 ERA. But the staff behind him had problems.
Walt Terrell and Frank Tanana each made 30-plus starts and combined to win 27 games, but both had ERAs in the 4s. The normally reliable Dan Petry only went to the post twenty times and struggled to a 4.66 ERA.
Sparky tried to squeeze some starts out of everyone from highly regarded 22-year-old Eric King to Dave LaPoint to Randy O’Neal, all of whom worked in both starting and relief. But only King, with his 3.51 ERA was anywhere close to consistent. Willie Hernandez saved 24 games in the closer’s role, but his ERA was abnormally high at 3.55. Hernandez was in steady decline from his 1984 Cy Young & MVP season. And the Tiger staff as a whole, while credible, still settled for sixth in the American League in ERA.
Detroit came out of the gate playing mediocre baseball. They won a couple series with Boston, who emerged as the early leader in the AL East. But in early May, the Tigers lost six of eight against teams from the AL West. By the Memorial Day turn, Detroit was sitting on .500, in sixth place and seven games back of the Red Sox.
Here might be a good time to step back and lay out the landscape of major league baseball prior to the realignment of 1994. There were only two divisions per league, an East and a West, with seven teams apiece. Only the first-place teams went to the playoffs, advancing directly to the League Championship Series. Detroit, along with Cleveland and Milwaukee (an American League team prior to 1998) joined Boston, New York, Toronto and Baltimore in the old AL East.
The season teetered on the brink in early June, as the Tigers lost seven of ten games to the Blue Jays and Yanks, slipped to 27-32 and were staring at a twelve-game deficit. Seven games against the Orioles were the needed antidote. Detroit won six to stabilize the ship. But they were still 43-44 at the All-Star break, 13 games behind the Red Sox and still in sixth place.
Since the high of winning the World Series in 1984, the Tigers had now spent a good year and a half playing mediocre baseball. Late July of 1986 saw a turnaround. Detroit reeled off a 16-6 stretch. Boston stumbled .The Tigers rose through the ranks to third place and closed to within 4 ½ games of the lead. And the Red Sox were coming to Detroit for four games in early August.
All of baseball—to say nothing of Boston fans themselves—were just waiting for this Red Sox team to blow it and it seemed most of the AL East taking turns in fashioning themselves the challenger. This four-game set was Detroit’s chance.
It didn’t start well on Thursday night. O’Neal was knocked out early, the bats only managed five hits and Detroit lost 6-1. Tanana took the ball on Friday night and struggled, falling behind 6-1 and then 8-4. The Tigers made a stirring rally in the eighth, scoring three times and putting runners on first and second with two outs. But Gibson flied out. In the ninth, Evans hit a one-out double. But Collins and Coles both flew out. Another loss.
On Sunday afternoon, Detroit had taken a 6-4 lead after seven, thanks to a grand slam from Evans. Bill Campbell came out of the bullpen and was a train wreck. Five runs later, the Tigers were looking at a 9-6 loss. Morris was brilliant in Monday night’s wraparound finale, with a complete-game three-hit shutout. But the opportunity was missed and Detroit was 6 ½ games out.
There was still time to turn it back around, but the return trip to Fenway saw two losses in three games. On August 28, the Tigers were seven games out. There were no games left against the Red Sox, so the margin for error was thin. On a road trip out west, Detroit lost seven of ten. They came home twelve games off the pace and with a record of 71-67. Any hopes of a pennant push were over.
Detroit didn’t mail in the season though. They played some spirited baseball to wrap it up, including going 7-2 on a road trip against AL East rivals to end the season. The final record was 87-75. That was good enough be tied for fourth-best in the American League and sixth-best in the major leagues as a whole. In other words, by the standards of today, it was a playoff-caliber year.
The improvement off the disappointment of 1985 had put the Tigers back on a positive trajectory. And in 1987, they won one of the great pennant races of the decade to get back on top of the AL East.
The 1986 Pittsburgh Pirates represented the start of a new era. Chuck Tanner’s nine-year tenure as manager–one that included a World Series title in 1979–had come crashing down in a 1985 season that saw the team lose 104 games on the field and go through embarrassing drug revelations off it, came to an end. Jim Leyland was called in to begin the rebuild. And while the Pirates got modestly better in ‘86, Leyland’s first year was a rough one.
The good news was that after an ‘85 season that saw the Bucs finish at or near the bottom of the National League in both runs scored and ERA, they started to inch back toward the middle. In a 12-team NL, Pittsburgh was sixth in offense and eighth with their pitching staff. And there were some notable individual performances.
Tony Pena bounced back from a bad ‘85 to post a .356 on-base percentage and continued to build on his reputation as one of the game’s better defensive catchers. Johnny Ray, a solid second baseman, hit .301 and hit 33 doubles. Veteran third baseman Jim Morrison slugged .482 and doubled 35 times. Hitting the ball in the gaps was the key strength of the Pittsburgh offense–the only one in fact, as they led the league in two-baggers.
Sid Bream was 25-years-old and stepped in at first base, doubling 37 times and slugging .450. And the Pirates broke in a 21-year-old centerfielder you may have heard of. Barry Bonds had a respectable .330 on-base percentage in his first taste of major league action.
The veterans of the pitching staff were respectable. Rick Rhoden won 15 games with a 2.84 ERA at the age of 33. Rick Reuschel, now 37-years-old, only won nine games. But he was reliable, making 34 starts and finishing with a manageable 3.96 ERA. The bigger problem was that no one else provided any consistency beyond the two Ricks.
Leyland’s rookie season got off to a nice start. The Pirates started 6-2, including winning five of six games against the Chicago Cubs. But then Pittsburgh went to face the New York Mets and lost seven of eight. In the alignment that existed prior to 1994, the Pirates shared the NL East with the Mets, Phillies, Cardinals, Cubs and Montreal Expos (today’s Washington Nationals) and there was no wild-card fallback. By Memorial Day, Pittsburgh was 16-22 and eleven back of the first-place Mets.
The Mets dominated the division all season long and the Pirates were no exception to getting crushed underfoot. They lost four times in a five-game home series with New York in June, then lost four straight on their return visit to Queens. The good news is that Pittsburgh kept beating Chicago, sweeping the Cubbies and they also won a couple series from a Los Angeles Dodgers’ team that had a miserable 1986.
By the All-Star break, Pittsburgh was 36-50. Certainly not a good record, but in comparison to 1985, it wasn’t bad. And if nothing else, they weren’t alone in the cellar–Chicago had the same record.
The Pirates came out of the break and won three of four from the San Diego Padres. But they promptly lost their next five and soon after were swept four straight by Montreal. And their mastery of the Cubs disappeared–a twelve-game road trip through Chicago, St. Louis and Philadelphia only produced four wins. By Labor Day, the record was 53-77 and Pittsburgh was alone in last place.
Anyone who wanted to keep cheering the Pirates on in September could focus on the fact they were only 1 ½ games behind the Cubs and avoiding last place would be a nice accomplishment for this rebuilding year. But Pittsburgh lost four of the six games they played with Chicago in the final month, finished 64-98 and were in the NL East cellar with room to spare.
The good news is this–the pain of the rebuilding year was behind the franchise and things would start moving back upward. They nearly got to .500 in 1987and then jumped up to second place in 1988. After a brief step back in 1989, Leyland’s Pirates regained their momentum and 1990 marked the first of three straight NL East titles.
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.
The 1986 World Series is one of the games’ historic, thanks to an ill-fated groundball that skipped through the legs of Bill Buckner. But the battle between the New York Mets and Boston Red Sox had more—it had early twists of fate, a Game 7 itself that was dramatic and the entire Game 6 run-up to the Buckner error.
New York came into the Series as the favorite, a 108-win team that then survived a tough fight with the Houston Astros to win the NLCS. Boston had been a surprise winner of the AL East and then staged a dramatic comeback to beat the California Angels in the ALCS. You can read more about the regular season journeys of both the Mets and Red Sox and their LCS battles at the links below. This article will focus exclusively on the games of the 1986 World Series.
The World Series opened on a Saturday night in Shea Stadium, with the Mets’ Ron Darling—the current Turner Broadcasting postseason analyst who also does Mets games during the season—against Red Sox lefty Bruce Hurst. Both pitchers would dominate.
New York missed an early opportunity in the third, putting runners on first and second with one out, before Hurst got Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter to kill the threat. No one else threatened until the top of the seventh when the Red Sox made a move, with considerable help from the Mets.
Jim Rice drew a walk, took second on a wild pitch and scored on an error by New York second baseman Tim Teufel, in for starter Wally Backman only because Hurst was a lefty and Teufel was a right-handed bat. This softest of runs was all that was needed. The teams combined for just nine hits and all were singles. Boston’s 1-0 win gave them an early hold on the series.
The Red Sox could now give the ball to their ace. Roger Clemens was a 24-game winner who won both the Cy Young and MVP awards in 1986. He faced off with New York’s Dwight Gooden, who had won the Cy Young in 1985 and enjoyed a strong year in ’86.
Pitching continued to dominate through two innings as neither team could get a hit. In the top of the third, it was Gooden who blinked first.
Boston shortstop Spike Owen worked a walk. Clemens came to the plate and dropped down a bunt. An error by Hernandez left both runners on. The top of the order came up and in succession, Wade Boggs doubled, Marty Barrett singled and Buckner singled. It was 3-0 and there were still two on with none out. Rice’s fly ball to rightfield moved Barrett to third base, but Gooden buckled down to strike out Dwight Evans and Rich Gedman and keep the score as is.
New York bounced right back in the bottom of the third, scoring its first runs of the Series and they also started with the bottom of the order. Rafael Santana singled and Gooden beat out his bunt. Leadoff man Lenny Dykstra sacrificed again to put runners on second and third. A single by Backman scored one run and a RBI groundball from Hernandez scored another to cut the lead to 3-2.
Over the next two innings, the Red Sox broke it open. Dave Henderson, a hero of the ALCS, led off the top of the fourth with a home run. In the fifth, Rice started with a single and Evans hit a two-run blast. It was 6-2 and everything was set up for Clemens, but he couldn’t get settled in. In the bottom of the fifth, he issued a walk to Backman and Hernandez singled. Manager John McNamara pulled the trigger and pulled his ace before he could qualify for the win.
Reliever Steve Crawford gave up a run-scoring single to Gary Carter, but was able to strike out Darryl Strawberry and keep the score 6-3. The Mets stopped hitting and the Red Sox kept going. In the top of the seventh Boston got five straight singles, with Rice, Evans, Gedman, Henderson and Owen all coming in succession. Two runs came in. Another was tacked on in the ninth.
The Red Sox finished the game with 18 hits, double the combined output of both teams from Game 1. Every starter had a hit, seven of the eight position players had multiple hits, six drove in runs and six scored runs. It was a complete team emasculation of Gooden in the 9-3 win.
Only once before in history had a team lost two straight at home to open the Series and then gone on to win it. And the first time had come in 1985, when the Kansas City Royals did it against the St. Louis Cardinals. What were the odds it was going to happen two years in a row? The Mets were in a serious trouble as the Series went to Fenway for games on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday night.
Prior to the season, the Red Sox and Mets had made an eight-player trade in which the focal points were New York getting lefty starter Bob Ojeda and Boston getting a talented young closer in Calvin Schiraldi. It was Ojeda on the mound as the Mets tried realistically to save their season in Game 3.
And the New York offense came on the attack against Red Sox starter Oil Can Boyd. Dykstra opened the game with a home run to rightfield. After Backman and Hernandez singled, Carter doubled to score another run and set up second and third. With one out, Danny Heep singled both runs in and Ojeda had a 4-0 lead before he took the mound.
Boston got a run back in the third when Dave Henderson singled, Boggs walked and Barrett hit an RBI single. But that was the only noise the Red Sox would make all night. The Mets put it away in the seventh. With one out, Santana and Dykstra singled and with two outs, Hernandez drew a walk and Carter knocked in two runs with a base. They added another run in the eighth. The game ended 7-1 with Ojeda giving up five hits in seven innings of work.
With the Mets still facing a desperate situation, they went back to Darling for Game 4. The Red Sox should have considered the same tactic and returned to Hurst—both he and Clemens had worked on short rest in the ALCS and this was a customary short series approach at the time. Boston’s fourth starter, Al Nipper, was easily the biggest liability in the rotation.
The Red Sox threatened early, loading the bases with two outs in the first and Gedman starting the second with a double. Darling escaped both times and in the fourth, the Mets got after Nipper.
Backman led off with a single and Carter homered over the Green Monster. Strawberry doubled down the left field line and scored on a single from Knight.
Darling was continuing to pitch well and made the 3-0 lead stand up. The Mets threatened to add to the lead in the sixth when Carter doubled and reached third with one out. But he was thrown out at the plate by Rice attempting to score on a fly ball. Nipper, to his credit, at least gave his team a chance.
But the Mets broke it open against Crawford. In the seventh, Mookie Wilson singled with one out and Dykstra homered with two outs. Carter again homered over the Green Monster in the eighth. The lead was 6-0 and even though Darling left after seven innings and the Red Sox scored twice in the eighth, they never got the tying run to the plate in the 6-2 final.
Through four games we already seen two big twists, with the underdog Red Sox grabbing the early lead and the Mets then showing their resilience in front of the Fenway crowd. Hurst and Gooden were on the mound for a crucial Game 5.
Not only had the road teams won all four games, but the home teams had never even led. That changed in the bottom of the second with Henderson tripled into the Fenway Triangle in rightcenter and scored on a sac fly from Owen. Boston got another run in the third. An error by Santana and a walk opened the door and Evans hit a two-out RBI single to make it 2-0.
Hurst was again in complete command and not until the fifth did New York threaten, putting runners on second and third with one out. He struck out Dykstra and got out of the inning. The Red Sox then added some insurance in the bottom of the inning.
Another triple to the Triangle, this one from Rice, got it rolling. Don Baylor, the DH was only able to start in the Fenway games, singled in the run and Evans followed with another single. Gooden was lifted and Sid Fernandez came on. Henderson doubled to left for another run and it was 4-0.
The last two innings got a little bit interesting. Red Sox fans serenaded Strawberry with “Dar-ryl, Darryl!” taunting chants, and drawing an equally mocking doff of the cap from Strawberry. And on the field, the Mets made a bit of a move. Teufel homered in the eighth, the first time the Mets had scored off Hurst in seventeen innings. In the ninth, with two outs, Wilson doubled and Santana singled to make it 4-2 and bring the tying run to the plate. Hurst again struck out Dykstra to close the win.
Boston was one win from their first championship since 1918 and the fans were feeling it. This World Series was shaping up as one in which the overall series was competitive, but the individual games at least modestly one-sided. All that was about to change as they headed back to New York for the weekend.
The Red Sox gave the ball to Clemens and the Mets countered with Ojeda. Boggs started the game by beating out an infield hit and with two outs scored on a double by Evans. In the bottom of the second, Owen singled with one out. Boston again finished the rally with two outs, with a single to right by Boggs moving Owen to third and a base hit from Barrett bringing him home.
Clemens cruised through four with the 2-0 lead before New York made a counterattack. Strawberry started it with a single and stole second. Knight singled to center to cut the lead in half. Wilson singled and moved Knight to third. There was still none out and the infield was playing for the double play. Clemens got it, with Heep grounding into a 4-6-3 twin-killing that brought the tying run in through the backdoor.
The Mets again threatened in the sixth, with runners on first and third, one out and Carter and Strawberry due up. Clemens K’d them both and one inning later the Red Sox got the lead.
Ojeda was removed for Roger McDowell, the best righthanded option out of the New York bullpen. Barrett walked and then took second a groundball out from Buckner. Rice grounded to third, but a throwing error by Knight set up a second and third situation. Gedman came to the plate and singled to left, but in a play that would loom large, Rice was thrown out at home by Mookie Wilson. Boston had a 3-2 lead, but it could have been more.
Prior to the eighth, Clemens was removed and there were debates about whether he asked out or McNamara made the decision on his own. Given how well Clemens was pitching, and his competitive nature, it seems unlikely the pitcher would have asked out on his own. Schiraldi was summoned.
Lee Mazzilli came up as a pinch-hitter, batting in the pitcher’s spot, and singled to right. Dykstra laid down a bunt that wasn’t handled and everyone was safe. Backman bunted again and there were runners on second and third. Hernandez was intentionally walked to set up the force at home, but Carter did his job and lifted a sac fly that tied the game. Strawberry had the chance to give his team the lead, but flew out to center.
The Mets got in position to win the game in the ninth, with a walk and yet another muffed bunt putting two aboard with none out. This time, Schiraldi punched out Howard Johnson, then got Mazzilli and Dykstra to send the game to extra innings.
Rick Aguilera, a combination fifth starter/long reliever, had come on for the ninth. In the tenth, Henderson greeted him with a leadoff home run. After hitting the home run that saved the Red Sox in the ALCS, Henderson was in position to become a New England hero. That outcome seemed even more likely after, with two outs, Boggs doubled and Barrett singled him in.
Schiraldi was still on to hold the 5-3 lead. He got Backman and Hernandez to fly out. Carter came up and kept the game alive with a single to left. Moments earlier, Kevin Mitchell had been in the clubhouse making arrangements for his flight into the offseason, so certain was he that the game was over. He had to rush back into his pants when summoned to pinch-hit. He singled. Knight singled.
The score was now 5-4, runners were on first and third and Mookie Wilson was at the plate. Bob Stanley was called into the game. Earlier in the year, Stanley had been booed by the fans. His response was that they would love him in October when he got the last out of the World Series.
With that opportunity in front of him, Stanley and Gedman couldn’t get on the same page and an inside pitch skipped past the catcher and tied the game, with Knight moving up to second. It was then that Wilson hit the groundball we’ve all seen countless times, the one that skipped through the legs of Buckner and gave the Mets a stunning 6-5 win.
Buckner has to be defended on three different counts—the game was already tied when he made the error. It was also a deep groundball and with bad heels, Buckner did not run well and there’s a good chance Wilson beats the ball out. Knight would have to stay on third and keep the game going, but it’s far from a guarantee this even ends the inning. And there was still a Game 7 to play.
It was a Game 7 that was delayed by rain, and McNamara used the extra day to get Hurst on the mound. Hurst had already been voted Series MVP once, when the preparations were being made for the Boston celebration. He could really seal the deal by winning his third game on Monday night.
Darling was making his own third start, as the Series would end with the same pitching matchup that it began. It wouldn’t be quite the pitcher’s duel this time around.
Any thought of the Red Sox just rolling over after the events of late Saturday night were dispelled in the second inning. Evans and Gedman hit back-to-back home runs to start the frame. Henderson walked and with one out Hurst bunted him out, and then Boggs knocked in the run with a single.
It was 3-0, although a fatalist Red Sox fan might recall that in 1975 Boston also led the seventh game 3-zip and that was also against a 108-win team, Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine.
Hurst continued his extraordinary pitching through five innings, allowing just one hit and Darling also settled in. New York came back in the sixth.
Mazzilli and Wilson each singled with one out and Teufel worked a walk. Hernandez delivered a two-run single to center and with runners on the corners, a productive groundball from Carter tied the game 3-3. Hurst would leave after the sixth, turning it over to Schiraldi, a circumstance that no one in Boston could possibly feel good about.
Knight greeted Schiraldi with a home run to start the seventh. Dykstra singled, moved up on a wild pitch and scored on a base hit by Santana. McDowell, now in the game for Darling, stayed in to bat for himself with the 5-3 lead and bunted up Santana. McNamara made a pitching change, going to the lefthanded Joe Sambito. After an intentional walk to Wilson and a real walk to Backman, Hernandez hit a sac fly to make it 6-3.
Now the Mets were in command, and the Red Sox were the ones that refused to go quietly. In the top of the eighth, Buckner and Rice singled and each scored on a double from Evans. There was nobody out, the score was 6-5 and the tying run was on second. Jesse Orosco, the lefthanded option out of the pen came on for McDowell. Gedman hit a line drive, but it resulted in an out. Henderson, out of miracles, struck out. Baylor grounded out.
The Mets were three outs away, but insurance wasn’t going to hurt. Nipper was now in the game and Strawberry took his revenge for the Game 5 taunts, homering to right. Knight singled and eventually scored on a single from Orosco, who helped seal his own save.
The drama was finally over. At 8-5, Orosco took care of business in the ninth, striking out Barrett to end it.
Knight would be named Series MVP, going 9-for-23 for the series and the Game 7 home run that put his team ahead to stay. Carter was 8-for-29, had the two-homer game in the must-win Game 4 and finished with 9 RBI—no one else on the Mets had more than five. Kudos also to Darling, who pitched 17 2/3 innings in his three starts and only gave up four runs.
On the Red Sox side, Hurst would still have been a reasonable pick in defeat, going 2-0 and giving up just five runs in 23 innings pitched. Henderson went 10-for-25 and had what looked to be the Series-clinching home run in Game 6. Evans was 8-for-26 and also drove in nine runs—and like the Mets, no one else had more than five.
Given all that, I find the Knight selection to be shaky. If I had a 1-2-3 ballot, it would go Carter-Hurst-Knight.
One thing we can say for certain—the 1986 World Series had plenty of heroes. It’s time to focus there rather than the unfair goats horns that have hung on one man.
The New York Mets came into the 1986 NLCS as a 108-win team and the clear favorite to win the World Series. The Houston Astros were a turnaround story under rookie manager Hal Lanier. It turned into an incredibly tense, taut National League Championship Series that had the Mets giving thanks for their survival.
Houston had one advantage working for them right out of the gate—with homefield determined by a rotation system rather than merit, the NLCS would open in the Astrodome. And the Astros had the hottest pitcher in baseball, eventual Cy Young winner Mike Scott, who had recently thrown a division-clinching no-hitter.
New York countered with their own ace, Dwight Gooden, just a year removed from one of the great pitching seasons in modern history and still a 17-game winner with a sub-3.00 ERA in 1986. Game 1 had the makings of a pitchers’ duel and it proved exactly that.
Houston’s power-hitting first baseman Glen Davis homered to lead off the second inning. The Astros later got a double from Kevin Bass and loaded the bases with one out. Scott came to the plate and struck out, so the inning ended 1-0, and Gooden immediately settled into a brilliant night of pitching. But the damage was done.
It was still 1-0 in the eighth when the Mets got their first rally going. Danny Heep and Lenny Dykstra singled and there were two aboard with one out. Scott promptly struck out Wally Backman and Keith Hernandez. In the ninth, Darryl Strawberry singled and stole second with one out. A base hit could tie it, but Scott induced a harmless groundball from Mookie Wilson and struck out Ray Knight. Houston had drawn first blood.
Bob Ojeda, who had the best ERA for a starter in what was a great Mets’ rotation, took the ball for Game 2. The Astros countered with the veteran fireballer Nolan Ryan. Houston again got something going in the bottom of the second, getting runners on the corners with one out. Ojeda got Alan Ashby to hit a comebacker and got the out at the plate, escaping the jam.
In the fourth, the Mets finally got on the board. With one out, Backman and Hernandez singled, and Gary Carter doubled. The score was 1-0 and there were runners on second and third. Strawberry added a second run with a sac fly. One inning later New York broke it open. Light-hitting shortstop Rafael Santana singled with one out and Dykstra did the same with two outs. Backman’s two-out single scored a run and Hernandez cleared the bases with a double.
The 5-0 lead was plenty for Ojeda. He escaped a first and second with none out jam in the sixth. The Astros got a run in the seventh, but Ojeda finished the game scattering ten hits and winning 5-1. New York had a road win and three home games ahead of them starting Saturday afternoon in Shea Stadium.
Ron Darling, the current TV analyst for the Mets and for Turner Broadcasting’s postseason package, was an excellent young pitcher in 1986 and he started Game 3 against Astro veteran lefty Bob Knepper. It was Houston that got to Darling in the early going.
Billy Hatcher singled with one out in the first and stole second. He ultimately scored on a bloop hit by Denny Walling, who moved up to second on a wild pitch and later scored on a single by Jose Cruz. One inning later, second baseman Billy Doran made Darling pay for a walk by hitting a two-run homer. It was 4-0 and Knepper cruised through the first five innings with no problems.
New York pushed back in the bottom of the sixth. Kevin Mitchell and Hernandez singled, and an error by shortstop Craig Reynolds brought in their first run. Strawberry then pulled a home run down the rightfield line and it was tied 4-4.
Darling, still in the game, gave the lead back, with some “help” from his defense. After a walk to Doran, a sacrifice bunt attempt resulted in a throwing error by third baseman Ray Knight. Doran made it to third and scored on a groundball out. In the ninth inning, the Astro closer Dave Smith was on, looking to nail down the win—and with Scott scheduled to pitch Game 4 on short rest, the Mets looked in serious trouble.
Backman started the inning with a single. With one out, Dykstra came to the plate. In one of the most famous hits in Mets history, he did the same thing Strawberry had done earlier—homered down the rightfield line. New York might still have to deal with Scott on Sunday night, but with a 6-5 win they were ahead in the series.
Houston took advantage of having their ace on the mound and staked him to an early lead. Davis started the second with a single off Sid Fernandez, and Ashby homered for a 2-0 lead. In the top of the fifth, Dickie Thon hit a solo blast. Not until the eighth did the Mets finally score against Scott for the first time in the series and even that took some ultra-aggressive baserunning.
Mookie Wilson led off with a single and on a groundball out from Ray Knight, took off for third and made it. A sac fly scored the run. At 3-1, a leadoff single in the ninth by Dykstra gave New York three cracks at tying the game with one swing. None of it mattered and Scott had another complete-game win.
The rains came on Monday and Game 5 was pushed back to Tuesday afternoon. Ryan and Gooden was the pitching matchup. Houston threatened early with singles from Bass and Cruz in the second inning, setting up runners on the corners with no outs. Gooden reared back and struck out Ashby, then got a double play ball from Reynolds.
In the fifth, Houston got on the board. Ashby doubled down the rightfield line and a Reynolds single moved him to third. A sac bunt attempt by Ryan didn’t work, but Doran’s ensuing groundball out was able to score the game’s first run.
After the way the Astros had to gut out that run, what happened next seems almost unfair. Strawberry wiped out with a single swing of the bat, a solo blast that tied it.
The two flamethrowers, Ryan the veteran and Gooden the young arm, went toe-to-toe in a masterpiece. Ryan completed nine innings, while Gooden went ten. No one threatened and the game stretched to the twelfth inning.
Charlie Kerfeld was in the game for Houston now and had been outstanding all year as his team’s #2 reliever. It took a soft rally, but New York got him. Backman legged out an infield hit, and then took second on an errant pickoff throw. Carter slapped a groundball back through the box and Backman raced home with the winning run.
The rainout on Monday meant no travel day, so the teams went to Houston and got back at it in a late afternoon start on Wednesday. Game 7 of the Red Sox-Angels ALCS battle was in prime-time, but this one had the feel of a seventh game itself. Scott was waiting in the wings for Houston if they could extend the series and New York players were freely admitting they had no idea how to handle his split-finger fastball. There was a strong sense that this game was really the one that would settle the National League pennant and Game 6 proved to be worthy of those stakes.
It took a while for this game to become a classic. The Astros got to Ojeda quickly. Doran started the home half of the first with a single, Phil Garner doubled him home with one out and a Davis base hit scored Garner. After a walk, Cruz singled and the Astros had a 3-zip lead. Both pitchers settled down and began cruising. It reached the top of the ninth, still 3-0 and Houston fans smelling a Game 7.
New York played with the desperation that believed it was also on the brink. Dykstra began the ninth with a triple and scored on a single from Wilson. Knepper got Kevin Mitchell to ground out, but a Hernandez double made it 3-2 and put the tying run in scoring position. Smith was summoned to try and close it out.
Walks to Carter and Strawberry loaded the bases and when Knight lifted a fly ball to rightfield, it was deep enough to score the tying run.
The bullpens took over and the tension grow. Larry Anderson pitched three innings of one-hit ball for Houston. Roger McDowell ultimately gave New York five innings of one-hit baseball himself. Through 13 innings, Game 6 was still tied 3-3.
In the top of the fourteenth, Carter singled to right off Aurelio Lopez and Strawberry drew a walk. Even though Knight’s sac bunt failed, Backman’s single to right brought in the run and an unnecessary throw home moved the runners to second and third. Lopez got Howard Johnson to pop out and kept the score 4-3, something that would prove critical when Hatcher homered down the leftfield line against the Mets’ best reliever, Jesse Orosco. It was 4-4 and the game would go on.
Lopez was still on for the top of the sixteenth. Strawberry doubled and Knight drove him in with a single, taking second on yet another undisciplined throw home. Two wild pitches brought Knight in. Backman walked, was bunted up and scored on a Dykstra single. It was 7-4 and surely this game was finally over?
Not so fast. Houston came roaring back. With one out, pinch-hitter Davey Lopes worked a walk off of Orosco. Doran and Hatcher each singled. The lead was cut to 7-5 and there were runners on first and second. Walling hit a groundball to first and while the Mets weren’t able to turn a double play, Hernandez cut down Hatcher at second base and kept him from scoring positon. Which proved vital when Davis singled to center. It was a 7-6 game, but had the fast Hatcher had been at second, he would have surely tied the game again.
Bass came to the plate and the count ran full. Orosco finally got the third strike and an extraordinary Game 6 had come to an end. The Mets were going to the World Series for the first time since their championship season of 1969.
Given the impact Scott had on the series—two complete games, giving up only eight hits and one run combined and a presence that completely loomed over the games he wasn’t pitching in, it was appropriate that he win the NLCS MVP, and that’s what happened.
On the New York side, Dykstra was the best choice, having gone 7-for-23 with a memorable game-winning home run. Strawberry was only 5-for-22, but the magnitude of his hits gave him an outsized impact. Orosco was the winning pitcher in three games, even though he gave up three runs in eight innings of work.
The Mets weren’t done pushing themselves to the brink. They would lose the first two games of the World Series at home to the Boston Red Soxbefore rallying to win the next two. Pushed to the brink in Game 6 they mounted another epic comeback, this one culminating in a legendary error by Boston’s Bill Buckner. And in Game 7, New York rallied from an early three-run deficit to ultimately win the World Series. The drama of the 1986 NLCS was just the beginning of an October ride that would push the respiratory faculties of Mets fans to the brink.
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.
After making the postseason in 1980 and 1981, the Astros had slipped into mediocrity. Over the next four years they ranged between 77-85 and 85-77, the very definition of being predictably average. The 1986 Houston Astros had a new manager in Hal Lanier and a new result as they won the NL West.
This was a team built on pitching, especially in the days when the vast expanse of the Astrodome was what they called home. Mike Scott had an amazing year. The 31-year-old went to the mound 37 times, a great display of workmanship in of itself. And with a split-fingered fastball that was nearly impossible to hit, Scott posted a 2.22 ERA, won 18 games and took home the Cy Young Award.
Bob Knepper, a 38-year-old lefty, still had gas in the tank, as he made 38 starts and won 17 games with a 3.14 ERA. Nolan Ryan took the ball thirty times and the 39-year-old finished with a 3.34 ERA.
With Scott at the top, and quality vets in Knepper and Ryan, the Astros had the foundation for a good pitching staff. And some terrific moves by the front office, starting in the offseason and continuing through the summer of 1986, made it even better.
Houston parted ways with their great knuckleballer Joe Niekro, sending him to the Yankees in exchange for 25-year-old Jim DeShaies. While Niekro faded in the Bronx, DeShaies went 12-5 with a 3.25 ERA. In late May and early June, the Astros strengthened the bullpen with Larry Anderson and Aurelio Lopez, who combined to work over 140 innings. And on August 15, the rotation was made even better with the pickup of Danny Darwin, who made eight starts for the Astros and had a 2.32 ERA.
We haven’t even gotten to the back end of the bullpen, where Dave Smith saved 33 games with a 2.73 ERA. And 22-year-old Charlie Kerfeld worked over 90 innings, won 11 games and posted a 2.59 ERA. It all added up to the second-best ERA in the National League and only the fact that the New York Mets staff was turning in a historically great season kept Houston from being the best.
The offense was limited by the Astrodome dimensions and Houston rarely had great power teams in those years. But they had a terrific first baseman in Glenn Davis, who hit 31 home runs, drove in 101 runs and anchored a lineup otherwise keyed by contact hitters and base stealers.
Rightfielder Kevin Bass posted a stat line of .357 on-base percentage/.486 slugging percentage and also stole 22 bases. Third baseman Denny Walling’s stat line was .367/.479. Billy Hatcher, acquired in the offseason in another good deal where the club gave up Jerry Mumphrey, stole 38 bases. Second baseman Billy Doran had a solid .368 OBP and swiped 42 bases.
The everyday lineup was rounded with veterans who were past-prime, ranging from catcher Alan Ashby to utility infielder Phil Garner. The Astros only ranked eighth in the National League in runs scored, but with their pitching, it was enough to win.
Houston got off to a strong 13-6 start against their NL West rivals (prior to the expansion of 1993 and the realignment of 1994, the Astros, Braves and Redswere in the West along with the Dodgers, Giants, Padres). They played .500 ball in May and by Memorial Day were sitting at 23-18, tied with San Francisco for the division lead and every team except Cincinnati within 2 ½ games.
Mediocre baseball in June followed, and the lowlight was losing four straight in San Francisco where the Astros could only muster six runs in four games. It wasted a good run of pitching, as Houston only gave up twelve runs in that series. Even so, the Astros were only a game back of the Giants at the All-Star break. The Padres were three games out and the defending NL West champion Dodgers were now in last place, eight games out. It was right after the All-Star break that a magical week shifted the divisional tide decisively toward Houston.
It didn’t start the way. They lost 13-2 to the Mets on the Thursday that opened the second half, before Knepper stopped the bleeding with a 3-0 shutout. Then the Astros won five straight games in walkoff fashion.
On Saturday, leading the Mets 4-0 in the ninth, Houston coughed up four runs. Light-hitting Craig Reynolds bailed them out with two-out solo home run in the ninth. On Sunday, trailing New York 5-4 in the eighth, the Astros scored four times to take the lead. Then they gave up three in the ninth. The game went to the 15th inning, still tied 8-8. Doran singled, was bunted up and scored the game-winner.
It wasn’t the last time the Astros and Mets would play amazing, back-and-forth baseball. And the Houston Walkoff Run was just getting started.
They hosted the Montreal Expos and led 5-3 in the seventh, before giving up three runs and ultimately trailing 7-6 in the ninth. Montreal’s excellent closer, Jeff Reardon, was on the mound. Hatcher started the inning with a single and stole second. Walling drew a walk and Davis tied it up with a single. Jose Cruz won the game with a walkoff single,
The next night, after nine innings of scoreless baseball, Davis led off the bottom of the tenth with a home run. In the finale, the Astros led a 3-0 lead in the eighth slip away and the game went to the 11th inning tied 3-3. Shortstop Dickie Thon drew a leadoff walk, was bunted up and scored on a base hit by veteran backup Davey Lopes.
Houston’s bullpen hadn’t exactly been inspiring in this stretch, but the fortitude spoke volumes. It set the stage for a strong run through late summer and on Labor Day, the Astros were in command of the race plus-seven on the now-hot Reds and eight games ahead of the Giants.
And the team kept their foot on the gas to open September, winning seven of eight and extending the lead to ten games. The Reds wouldn’t go quietly and trimmed the lead back to seven, in time for a three-game set in Cincinnati starting on September 16. If the Astros even won one game, they would likely put it away and winning the series would all but seal it.
Houston did one better. They held a 3-1 lead in the opener and then broke it open in the seventh with three straight singles that started a three-run rally. Anderson turned in 3 2/3 innings of shutout relief and the final was 6-1. An almost identical script played out on Wednesday night. Leading 2-1 in the eighth, the Astros scored four times, with Cruz’s three-run shot being the killer blow. Darwin threw a complete-game five-hitter.
And the coup de grace came on Thursday. Houston jumped Cincy starter Tom Browning quickly with three runs in the first, an RBI double from Davis getting it rolling. Matt Keough gave Lanier six serviceable innings and Lopez came on to throw three innings of one-hit shutout ball in relief. The final was 5-3 and the NL West race was all but over.
There was still the matter of formally clinching and even though the race was anticlimactic, the clinching moment was anything but. Scott took the mound at home against San Francisco and any doubt about who would win the Cy Young Award was wiped away. He threw a no-hitter. Walling homered in the fifth, Cruz added a key two-out RBI single in the seventh and the 2-0 win gave the city two reasons to celebrate.
Houston went on to play one of the great NLCS battles of all time against New York. Scott was dominant, winning Games 1 & 4 and being in the Mets’ heads so thoroughly, that New York freely admitted they wanted no part of a third showdown in a Game 7. The Astros almost forced it, but let a late lead slip in Game 6 and ultimately losing a 16-inning marathon that gave the pennant to the Mets.
The crushing ending meant the end of what was a short run for these Astros. The age of the pitching staff meant that this wasn’t a rising young team, and they didn’t get back to the playoffs until a new cast of players, led by Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell and Lance Berkman got them there in 1997. But the 1986 Houston Astros were fun while they lasted.
Gene Mauch and the California Angels parted ways after a heartbreaking loss in the 1982 American League Championship Series. The Angels promptly fell apart and by 1985 Mauch was back in the fold. He put the Angels back into contention that year and even though the 1986 California Angels again suffered October heartbreak, they first dethroned the defending World Series champions and won the AL West.
The Angels said goodbye to a legend before the season began—Hall of Fame first baseman Rod Carew, one of the great contact hitters and great gentleman of the game stepped down. What no one knew was the rookie Wally Joyner was ready for prime time and Joyner finished with 22 home runs and 100 RBI.
Other offseason changes involved strengthening the bullpen. California signed Donnie Moore and he would assume the closer’s role, with 21 saves and a 2.97 ERA. They also made minor moves for Gary Lucas and Terry Forster, each of whom contributed to what was a deep pen in 1986, with Doug Corbett and young Chuck Finley also helping out.
The ace of the staff though, was 25-year-old power righthander Mike Witt. He made 34 starts, finished with a 2.84 ERA, an 18-10 record and finished third in the Cy Young voting. Kirk McCaskill, also 25-years-old, wasn’t far behind, with 33 starts, a 17-10 record and 3.36 ERA. At the other end of the age spectrum, 41-year-old Don Sutton, with a spot already reserved for him in Cooperstown, went to the post 34 times, won 15 games and finished with a 3.74 ERA.
Even though the back end of the rotation was a liability, veteran lefty John Candelaria was still able to make sixteen starts and finish with a 2.55 ERA. And the depth of the bullpen was able to compensate.
So was the offense, which finished sixth in the American League in runs scored, but was the most prolific in its own Western Division. They did it with patience rather than power. The Angels might have been in the middle of the pack for home runs and near the bottom in doubles, but they drew walks better than any AL team.
Brian Downing, the veteran leftfielder, drew 95 walks. He also had some pop, hitting 20 home runs. Doug DeCinces, the 35-year-old third baseman was the other steady power hitter, with 26 home runs. But with the great Reggie Jackson in decline, hitting only 18 home runs at age 40, the Angels had to be resourceful.
And they were, starting with Reggie himself, who still had an excellent .379 on-base percentage. Speedy centerfielder Gary Pettis stole 50 bases. Ruppert Jones only hit .229, but he used his ability to get walks to turn that into a .339 OBP. Bobby Grich and Rick Burleson, veteran middle infielders that came off the bench, each finished with OBP’s over .350. Dick Schofield, the kid shortstop who got more of the playing time, was a sterling defender.
California was still slow out of the gate, but the weakness of the AL West was a big help. They were able to start 12-7 against divisional foes, and then took two of three from defending AL East champ Toronto, but in the ensuing twenty-one games against AL East teams, the Angels won only seven.
By the time Memorial Day arrived they were 21-22, though only a half-game behind Texasand five AL West rivals were stacked within 2 ½ games of each other. One of those teams was the Kansas City Royals, who had won this division six times the previous ten years, including catching the Angels down the stretch in 1985 and ultimately winning the World Series. If California fans were paranoid about a blue-and-white car in the rearview mirror, you couldn’t blame them.
The early part of June got worse, and after getting crushed 10-2 by the Royals to open a home series, the Angels were 4 ½ games out. They split a pair of 6-5 games over the weekend to stop the bleeding. The first-place Rangers came to town for a three-game set starting on June 16 and the AL West race would not be the same when it was over.
McCaskill took the mound on Monday night to face veteran knuckleballer Charlie Hough. McCaskill was brilliant, but trailing 1-0 in the ninth, it looked like California would waste his outing. Then they got a break. Texas leftfielder Gary Ward made an error on a line drive off the bat of Jack Howell and Howell ended up on third. Joyner’s base hit tied the game and a passed ball put him in scoring position.
After DeCinces struck out and Reggie was intentionally walked, George Hendrick, a power righthanded bat off the bench was at the plate. Hough struck him out, but the knuckler danced away. Joyner, running hard all the way, scored from second on the strikeout and California had an improbable 2-1 win.
The Angels kept the momentum and the pitching going. Witt scattered nine hits in a complete-game shutout on Tuesday, while DeCinces three-run blast in the fifth was the offensive key in a 4-0 win. In the finale, California attacked quickly, with three singles and two walks in the first inning and Rob Wilfong delivering a clutch two-out/two-run single. Sutton made it three straight complete games with a three-hitter. The final was 5-1.
After taking two of three in Kansas City, California made a return trip to Texas. This time it was the offense’s turn to unload and they did just that, with 25 runs in three games, sweeping another series. The Angels led the division by a game on June 25, and even though a sluggish 4-5 stretch briefly knocked them back to second, they responded by sweeping a series in Milwaukee and reclaiming first place on July 7. They would never relinquish it.
That’s what we know today. In the moment, the AL West race was still hot, with California up 1 ½ games on Texas at the All-Star break. And even though Kansas City was flailing at 40-48, 8 ½ games out, no one was going to write them off. And the Angels had to open the second half against AL East teams.
It didn’t go well, with six losses in ten games, but the Rangers were even worse and California expanded their lead to three games. A ten-game road trip against division rivals produced .500 ball and knocked the lead back down to a game and a half.
The decisive push began with a ten-game homestand against weak teams in Seattle, Minnesota and Oakland. The Angels won eight times. Then they beat Detroit four straight, with the last game capped off by an astonishing eight-run rally in the ninth inning. Even more unlikely was that the diminutive Schofield won it with a two-out grand slam off Tiger closer Willie Hernandez, just two years removed from a Cy Young Award.
The 13-12 win came on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend and the Angels were in control with a 5 ½ game lead on Texas and Kansas City having finally fallen by the wayside for good.
Baseball fans could look at the schedule and see that the Angels and Rangers would play seven times in the final ten games. California made sure those games would be largely irrelevant. They swept Kansas City, including an 18-3 shellacking and the lead went soaring to ten games by the time the head-to-head matchups began on the second-to-last Friday of the year. The Angels only needed one more win to clinch.
They didn’t waste team. After trailing 2-0 in the sixth inning, the offense exploded for four runs in the sixth and four more in the seventh. Downing homered twice and drove in five runs. The final was 8-3 and the champagne could flow in Anaheim.
California went on to the ALCS to face Boston. After taking three of the first four games and then leading 5-2 in the ninth inning of Game 5, one of the game’s great collapses occurred. A pair of two-run homers gave the Red Sox the lead. The Angels quickly tied it up and had the bases loaded with one out and the chance to win the pennant anyway. The missed that chance, lost the game and lost the final two in Fenway.
It was a devastating defeat, but shouldn’t take away from what the 1986 California Angels did, in winning 92 games and pulling away from the AL West in September.
After chasing the NL West title to the final weekend in 1982, the San Francisco Giants slid off the map for the next three years and bottomed out with a 100-loss campaign in 1985. The organization reached out to Roger Craig, one of the game’s highly regarded pitching coaches and one who had been part of the 1984 Detroit Tigers staff that won it all. Craig showed immediate improvement in the Bay Area and the 1986 San Francisco Giants got on trajectory that would eventually produce some October baseball.
Craig got the most of a veteran staff that had appeared to be washed up. Mike Krukow, at the age of 34, came up with a 20-win season. Mike LaCoss, 30-years-old, logged over 200 innings and posted a 3.57 ERA. And Vida Blue, a mainstay of the great Oakland A’s teams from 1971-75, but now 36-years-old, got at least a sip of the Fountain of Youth, with 10 wins and a 3.27 ERA.
The vets were augmented by 25-year-old Kelly Downs, who made 14 starts and finished with a 2.75 ERA. Scott Garrelts was as versatile as they come, with 18 starts, 35 relief appearances and finished with thirteen wins, ten saves and a 3.11 ERA. Jeff Robinson worked over 100 innings out of the bullpen with a 3.36 ERA. Greg Minton finished with an ERA of 3.93
Mark Davis, who would one day win a Cy Young Award in San Diego, and Juan Berenguer, filled out the bullpen with sub-3.00 ERAs. All this depth and consistency produced the third-best staff ERA in the National League.
San Francisco could also hit and the fourth-best offense in the NL was keyed by an ability to get on base. Bob Brenly, the catcher, future manager of the World Series champion 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks and Fox-TV analyst, was the prototype. Even though Brenly hit just .246, he drew 74 walks and finished with a solid on-base percentage of .350.
Third baseman Chris Brown had a .376 OBP, though he did it the old-fashioned way, with hits rather than walks. Dan Gladden posted a .357 OBP in centerfield. Chili Davis was at .375 in right. A 22-year-old phenom at first base by the name of Will Clark broke in with a .343 on-base percentage. Utility man Mike Aldrete was the best of a bench that was as deep as the pitching staff, at .353.
The power wasn’t there—Candy Maldonado was the only player with real pop, as he slugged .477 and hit 18 home runs. Clark, and left fielder Jeffrey Leonard did not have the muscle that would later display. But it was enough for the Giants to score runs.
San Francisco took four of six from their archrival and defending NL West champ, Los Angeles in the early going and the Giants won ten of their first fifteen games. By Memorial Day, they were 24-19 and part of an NL West logjam where five of the six teams were packed within 2 ½ games.
Craig’s pitching staff made their first big statement in a four-game series with Houston, an NL West rival prior to the realignment of 1994. San Francisco allowed just six runs in the four games, highlighted by Krukow’s complete-game 4-2 win. The Giants concluded the home sweep with a game and a half lead in the division. By the All-Star break they were 48-40, up a game on the Astros and three on the Padres. The Dodgers had slipped to 40-48 and would suffer a bad year in 1986.
A 13-game road trip started the second half and nine losses, capped by losing three straight in Dodger Stadium spelled the end of the first-place run. The Giants went 12-16 in the month of August and by the time Labor Day arrived, they were at .500, eight games back and watching the Reds move past them into second place and the Astros pulling away from everyone.
But San Francisco didn’t give back the progress they were making by mailing it in down the stretch. On September 11, Downs beat the Reds 2-1 and got the Giants to 71-70. They were over .500 for good. San Francisco had to live through the embarrassment of watching Houston’s Mike Scott throw a no-hitter at them on September 25 that clinched the NL West for the Astros. But San Francisco kept competing and on October 3, the final Friday of the season, Downs had another strong game, this one against Los Angeles. The lineup peppered 16 hits in an 8-2 win.
The “8-2” final was appropriate because it was win #82 and clinched a winning season for a team that had been awful just a year earlier. It was the mark of progress and by 1987 there would be an even bigger mark—the Giants would win the NL West and in 1989, they would go one step further and claim the National League pennant.
The 1986 New York Yankees continued a pattern of close-but-not-quite. After the glory years of 1976-81 when they won two World Series and four American League pennants, the Yankees spent the early and middle part of the decade with high expectations, mostly winning teams, but no playoff appearances.
New York was coming off a 1985 season where they won 97 games, but finished second to the Toronto Blue Jays and the result Billy Martin was fired…yet again. Enter Lou Piniella and enter an offseason of activity.
The Yankees traded for veteran knuckleballer Joe Niekro in January and gave up a decent young starter in Jim DeShaies, who helped Houston win the NL West. Niekro made 25 starts in the Bronx and finished with a 4.87 ERA.
New York made nice with their historic rivals in Boston long enough to cut a deal where they swapped designated hitters, Don Baylor going to Fenway and Mike Easler coming to Yankee Stadium. It was a trade that worked out pretty well each way. With Baylor batting right-handed and Easler from the left side of the plate, each were better suited to their new venues. It was a smaller scale of the grand idea where Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams should have swapped places.
In any case, Easler finished with a nice stat line of .362 on-base percentage/.449 slugging, but Baylor also hit well in Boston and it was Baylor who helped the Red Sox win a pennant.
No player summarized the chaotic state of New York better than poor Ron Hassey, a serviceable major league catcher with some pop from the left side of the plate. He was traded to the White Sox in December. The Yanks got him back in February. Even though Hassey was productive, with a .381/.466 stat line, he was traded back to Chicago in July.
New York was willing to put up with poor production from Butch Wynegar at catcher in exchange for acquiring Wayne Tolleson to solve a season-long problem at shortstop and to hope that Ron Kittle, the Rookie of the Year with the White Sox in 1983 could rediscover his form. Kittle did hit twelve home runs in the final two months of the season, but for the most part this was another deal that didn’t work out.
Even with the moves that were either flops or washes, the Yankees could still hit. No one was better than first baseman Don Mattingly, who followed up his MVP season of 1985 with a .394/.573 stat line, 31 home runs and 113 RBI. Leftfielder Dan Pasqua posted numbers of .399/.525, while the great Rickey Henderson patrolled centerfield and was at .358/.469. Henderson, one of the most complete players in the game’s history, also hit 28 home runs, stole 87 bases, scored 130 runs and drove in 74 more.
Dave Winfield was in right and popped 24 home runs while clearing the 100-RBI mark. Veteran second baseman Willie Randolph, a holdover from the glory years, finished with a .393 OBP. Mike Pagliarulo showed pop at third base, with 28 home runs and 71 RBI.
New York finished fourth in the American League in runs scored and given that they were in the top three in every major offensive category (1st in OBP, 1st in slugging, 2nd in batting average, 2nd in walks, 3rd in home runs, 3rd in doubles), it probably should have been higher.
And they needed all the runs they could get, because it was pitching that ultimately held this team back. Dennis Rasmussen had a good year, going 18-6 with a 3.88 ERA. Ron Guidry, now 35-years-old, finished with a 3.98 ERA in 30 starts. Bob Tewksbury, at age 25, had the best ERA in the rotation, at 3.31. But Tewksbury only made twenty starts, none of this pitchers were really aces and the depth wasn’t very good. Niekro was washed up and 23-year-old Doug Drabek wasn’t quite there yet.
Dave Righetti was excellent at the end of the bullpen, with 46 saves (really good in the current era and off-the-charts in 1986) and a 2.45 ERA. But no one else was effective in relief. The Yankees best hope each night was to bash enough runs to get the ball to Righetti.
There were no problems early on. Guidry won on Opening Day, beating the defending World Series champion Kansas City Royals 4-2. The Yankees won five of six games against the champs and started 10-4. By Memorial Day, they were rolling at 28-15. The only problem is that the Red Sox were also rolling, a half-game up. The Yanks and Sox were the second and third-best teams in baseball, behind only the Mets as MLB took a decided turn to the big markets of the Northeast.
The first part of summer wasn’t as kind. New York was swept three straight by Baltimore and Toronto, and most ignominiously by Boston, who steamrolled through the Bronx. The sweep was marked by a 10-1 loss where Guidry was rocked while the Yankees couldn’t touch Boston’s rising young star named Roger Clemens.
After the rough June, New York was able to win eight of thirteen going into the All-Star break. They were 50-39 and still had the third-best record in baseball, but were now staring at a seven-game deficit against Boston.
The latter part of summer saw little change, as the Yankees got to Labor Day at 70-61 and still within striking distance at 6 ½ games out, though Toronto had passed them for second place. In either case, New York would control their destiny in September, playing the Red Sox and Blue Jays thirteen times in the latter part of the month.
If I told you the Yankees would go 11-2 in those key thirteen games, we would assume this was yet another Bronx stretch drive for the books. That’s exactly what happened, but New York played so poorly in the first part of September, that they were 10 ½ games back by the time the schedule stretch began. A four-game sweep in Fenway to conclude the season was completely meaningless.
The final record of 90-72 and the ultimate second-place finish was a disappointment, but the bigger problem was that the September fade was the sign of things to come. 1986 was the last time in the decade the Yankees won 90 games. They continued to decline before bottoming out in 1990 with a 95-loss season.
The 1986 Cincinnati Reds began the season with a lot of hope. The previous September, player-manager Pete Rose had broken Ty Cobbs’ career record for hits and the team played well down the stretch to take a surprising second-place finish. In ways both good and bad, the 1986 MLB season was a rerun. The Reds continued to show promise, but again started slow and their second-place finish didn’t have them in serious contention much of the year.
Pitching was the problem. The team was ninth in the league in ERA and no one was able to step up as an ace. It wasn’t for lack of trying. The Reds made significant deals to bring in Bill Gullickson from Montreal and John Denny, the 1983 NL Cy Young Award winner, from Philadelphia. Gullickson pitched pretty well, winning 15 games with a 3.38 ERA. Denny was adequate, winning 11 and posting an ERA of 4.20. But there was no staff ace and the bullpen wasn’t deep.
Tom Browning joined Gullickson and Denny in the “pretty good” camp, with an ERA of 3.81 and getting 14 wins. The rest of the rotation was a problem. Mario Soto had been one of the NL’s top pitchers in the early part of the decade, including a runner-up finish to Denny in the Cy Young voting of 1983. But Soto, renowned for his great changeup, lost it in 1986, finishing with a 4.71 ERA and his career ended a couple years later.
Rose had a reliable closer in John Franco and 24-year-old Ron Robinson was incredibly versatile out of the pen, with his 14 saves and 10 wins being key to holding the staff together. Ted Power did a mix of starting and relieving and finished with a 3.70 ERA.
If the pitching was held back by a lack of star power at the top, the same could not be said of an offense that was the key to Cincinnati’s ultimate second-place finish.
The brightest star in both Cincy and one of the best young players in all of baseball was 24-year-old leftfielder of Eric Davis, and he could do it all. “Eric The Red” finished with a stat line of .378 on-base percentage/.523 slugging percentage. He hit 27 home runs and stole 80 bases. And he essentially carried the Reds’ offense to be the third-most productive in the National League.
Davis got help from the other end of the career spectrum. Dave Parker was 35-years-old and he still hit 31 home runs and drove in 116 runs. Another key veteran was third baseman Buddy Bell, who finished with a .362/.445 stat line at age 34.
Further help came from centerfielder Eddie Milner who slugged .446. Rose was also breaking in two young shortstops and trying decide which way to go between Kurt Stillwell and Barry Larkin. Stillwell got most of the at-bats in 1986, but Larkin would eventually win the job. Good call—he made the Hall of Fame while Stillwell was traded to Kansas City and not heard from again. 1986 was a learning year for both.
Rose also sought to wake up the echoes of the Big Red Machine’s glory days by re-signing old teammate Tony Perez, now 44-years-old. Rose also played himself in 72 games, at the age of 45. Neither had anything left in the tank.
The Reds started the season 4-3, but then lost three straight to the Astros. It started a 3-16 stretch when Cincinnati lost six of seven to Houston and five of six to the New York Mets, the two teams that would ultimately end up in the National League Championship Series. The Reds fell as many as ten games back and when Memorial Day rolled around they were 16-23 and in last place, though having crawled back to within six of the lead.
After losing three straight in Los Angeles, with Franco coming on twice in tie games and losing both, Cincinnati was again in a double-digit hole in the NL West (the Reds, along with the Astros were in the West prior to the realignment of 1994).
The week before the All-Star break finally brought some really good results. The Reds went to Shea Stadium in New York and unloaded on the great Mets’ pitching staff, scoring 23 runs and sweeping a three-game series. Pitching took over when the road trip continued in Montreal. Gullickson and Denny had strong outings, Cincy took three of four and by the break they were sniffing the .500 mark, having reached 41-44 and only 5 ½ games back.
In late July, the Reds were 47-49 and 6 ½ games back. A road trip to the West Coast all but destroyed realistic hopes of an NL West title. They lost seven of nine and dropped 9 ½ games out. The team surged in August, going 17-8, and was over .500 by Labor Day at 66-64. They were up to second place. But the odds of catching Houston were still very long, with a seven-game deficit.
On September 8, the Reds had one last shot at a miracle push. They would go to Houston for two games and then host a return visit from the Astros for a three-game set. It would take at least four wins to even keep the race interesting and maybe even a sweep. But there was still a puncher’s chance.
It didn’t take long for hopes to be squelched. The offense mustered only three hits off Nolan Ryan in a 3-1 loss. The following night, with Browning was in a scoreless duel with soon-to-be NL Cy Young winner Mike Scott. In the sixth inning, Browning was touched for four runs, the game got away and ended 9-2. To add insult to injury, the Astros also swept the return trip in Cincinnati as the potent Reds’ offense could only score five runs in the three games.
Once again, when the pressure was off, Cincinnati was able to get a nice little run, winning twelve of their final sixteen games. The final 86-76 record was heartening, given the team was still just two years removed from being one of the National League’s worst. But the pattern of playing their way out of the race before rushing in to finish second was a pattern that would continue for two more years until the Rose era finally came crashing down.
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.
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.