After an eight-year run of success that included a World Series title in 1980 and a National League pennant in 1983, the Phillies had slipped to .500 and then below over the last couple seasons. In 1986, the Phils started the season looking like the downward trend was going to continue. But they turned it around, played some nice baseball and even though a behemoth in their own division kept them from real contention, the 1986 Philadelphia Phillies ended up a winning team who would have made the playoffs by the more lenient standards of the modern era.
Mike Schmidt was the key to the lineup for the Phillies and the Hall of Fame third baseman won the last of his three MVP awards in 1986. Schmidt’s 37 home runs, 119 RBIs and .547 slugging percentage all led the National League. His on-base percentage was a sparkling .390. It was a magnificent performance by any standard, and even more so considering Schmidt was now 36-years-old.
On the other side of the infield was Von Hayes. The first baseman posted a stat line of .379 on-base percentage/.480 slugging percentage. He scored 107 runs and drove in 98 more. Gary Redus played left field and finished with a .343 OBP. The Phillie lineup was not deep—Juan Samuel was still coming into his own at second base. The same went for young center fielder Milt Thompson. But the combination of Schmidt and Hayes was enough for Philadelphia to finish second in the National League in runs scored.
The pitching staff underwent a makeover in the offseason. The Phils traded John Denny, who had won the Cy Young Award in 1983, but was on the downside of his career. It proved a good move. Denny continued his decline in Cincinnati. In return Philadelphia got both Redus, along with relief pitcher Tom Hume, and Hume finished with a 2.77 ERA in 1986.
But that deal paled in comparison to the theft the Philly front office pulled off against Atlanta. The Phils gave up two players, the best of whom was a respectable catcher in Ozzie Virgil. In return, they not only got Thompson back to play center, but added Steve Bedrosian for the bullpen. In 1986, Bedrosian saved 29 games with a 3.39 ERA. In 1987, he won the Cy Young Award. Yes, that deal worked out pretty well.
Bedrosian and Hume were part of a bullpen that included 39-year-old Kent Tekulve. Once the closer for a championship team in Pittsburgh, Tekulve was still effective in the setup role, working 110 innings with a 2.54 ERA. Don Carman was another valuable arm, going back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen and finishing with a 3.22 ERA.
It’s good the bullpen was deep and reliable, because the starting pitching was not. Kevin Gross was a workhorse at the top, making 36 starts and logging over 240 innings. But his 4.02 ERA was too high for a staff ace. No one else made more than thirty starts. Bruce Ruffin did good part-time work, going 9-4 with a 2.46 ERA in his twenty starts. Shane Rawley was respectable. But there was no depth or consistency.
Maybe the problems with the Phillies’ rotation can be underscored by this—the legendary Steve Carlton, a future Hall of Famer and ace of this franchise’s best teams in recent years, made 16 starts and ended with a 6.18 ERA. On June 24, the Phils had to part ways with the great lefthander. That departure was the most notable thing about the 1986 Phils’ starting rotation. The staff ERA ended up seventh in the 12-team National League.
The alignment of Major League Baseball prior to 1994 was that each league had just two divisions, an East and a West. Only the first-place team would advance to the postseason. If you were in a division that had a heavyweight you were out of luck. And in 1986, everyone in the NL East outside of Queens, New York was out of luck.
The Mets were a heavy favorite in the preseason and they validated that confidence. Philadelphia lost four of six to New York in the early going. Late in the spring, they were swept by Montreal and then went 2-7 on a West Coast road trip. By the time Memorial Day arrived, the Phillies were 15-24, in last place and 12 ½ games behind the Mets.
It was the early summer that things started to turn upward. When the same three West Coast teams—the Giants, Dodgers and Padres—made return trips East, the Phils got some payback. They went 8-1. Later in June, they went to St. Louis—who had won the NL East the year before—and took three straight. By the All-Star break, Philadelphia was 42-43. They were stuck 17 ½ games behind New York, but a winning season was now a possibility.
The Phils were slow out of the break and went 5-8 in a stretch of games against the Cardinals and Cubs. The mighty Mets came rolling into to the old Vet on August 11 for a three-game set. New York took the first game and then hit a leadoff home run off Gross to start the second game. But that proved to be another turning point.
Gross threw a complete-game, the bats got him three runs in the third and Philadelphia won 3-1. The following night, a two-run blast from Schmidt staked Ruffin to an early lead, the starter went eight strong innings and the Phils took the series with an 8-4 win. Then they ripped off 13 wins in their next 18 games.
On the final weekend of August, Philadelphia hosted San Francisco. The Giants had been out front in the NL West for a chunk of the summer, but were starting to fade. These were two teams going in the opposite direction and that’s what this series showed.
In Friday night’s opener, Hayes and catcher John Russell had three-hit nights to key a 6-4 win. Hayes, along with Schmidt, each homered on Saturday to lead the way to a 5-3 win. Schmidt homered one more time in the Sunday finale. Gross pitched six innings, left with a 4-3 lead and let Tekulve and Bedrosian tidy up the sweep.
The Phillies continued to play well in September. They won five of the six games against the Mets. And they gave the great Philadelphia fans some excitement in the final two games of the season. A Saturday night affair with the Expos went 14 innings. Three straight singles should have won it for the Phils, except that Schmidt was thrown out at the plate. No problem—Russell singled in the game-winner. Then Philadelphia won the finale 2-1 in extra innings, scoring the winning run on a passed ball.
It was a fitting and fun way to end the season. The Phillies finished 86-75. The fact the Mets won 108 kept that under the radar. But Schmidt’s individual season did not go unnoticed. And the Phils’ record was the third-best in the National League. By the standards of today, they would have been a hot team going into the playoffs as a wild-card. By the standards of 1986, they were simply a good baseball team that deserves recognition.
Major league baseball came to Texas in 1972 when the Washington Senators relocated and changed their name to the Rangers. Success took a lot longer. Coming into 1986, this franchise had yet to win the AL West. There were only two seasons (1974 & 1977) that had been playoff-caliber by the more lenient standards of today. Set against this backdrop, the 1986 Texas Rangers were a noteworthy success in franchise history.
Texas made two big trades prior to the 1986 season and both paid off. They got a young starting pitcher in Ed Correa and a good shortstop in Scott Fletcher from the Chicago White Sox at low cost. Correa became a rotation regular at the age of 20. Fletcher batted over .300.
An even better deal came at the expense of the Montreal Expos (today’s Washington Nationals). The Rangers gave up a couple no-names and got Pete Incaviglia back in return. Incaviglia hit 30 home runs in 1986 and began a good run as one of baseball’s respected power hitters.
Power was the key to the Ranger offense. In addition to Incaviglia, first baseman Pete O’Brien hit 23 homers. Larry Parrish, the veteran DH, went deep 28 times. Ruben Sierra, a young outfielder with a bright future started getting playing time and posted a .476 slugging percentage. The sparkplug of the lineup was Oddibe McDowell. The center fielder stole 33 bags and scored 105 runs. Gary Ward played left field and finished with a .372 on-base percentage.
Overall, a lack of depth and a weakness at taking walks prevented this offense from being great. But the power hitters kept Texas in the middle of the American League, at seventh in runs scored.
Pitching was about the same, ranking eighth in the AL for staff ERA. The strength was reliability. The top five starters—veteran knuckleballer Charlie Hough, Correa, Jose Guzman, 22-year-old flamethrower Bobby Witt and Mike Mason—combined to make 144 starts.
None of them were standouts—Hough’s 17 wins and 3.79 ERA was the best of the group—but the consistency made life easier on a pretty decent bullpen. Greg Harris saved 20 games and worked 111 innings to lead up the relief corps. Jeff Russell, Dale Mohoric, Mickey Mahler and a young Mitch Williams rounded out the pen.
Texas played .500 baseball for the first couple months of the season. There was no streak longer than three games, either winning or losing. But there were a couple of series that suggested this team could be interesting.
The Rangers went to Toronto in late April, where the Blue Jays had just come within one game of the World Series the previous October. Texas lost Monday night’s opener, coughing up a 6-3 lead in the eighth inning and losing 7-6. But they turned it around the next two nights. The power unloaded on Tuesday. Incaviglia, Ward, O’Brien and third baseman Steve Buechele all homered in a 10-1 rout. On Wednesday afternoon’s getaway finale, Parrish homered and drove in five runs to key a 9-8 win.
In early May, Texas played two series against the New York Yankees, who were off to the hottest start in the American League. The Rangers won two of three in the Bronx and then welcomed the Yanks down to Arlington a week later. Again, they dropped the opener, losing 4-3 in spite of two Parrish homers. But again, they bounced back and won the series. Fletcher and McDowell scored two runs apiece in a 6-3 win. In the finale, a 13-hit attack was led by another Parrish long ball and a 9-1 win.
By Memorial Day, the Texas record was only 21-21. But in the AL West, that was good enough for first place by a ½ game.
Prior to 1994, the leagues had just two divisions, an East and a West. Only the first-place finisher could go to the playoffs. That meant the Rangers not only shared a division with current AL West members in the Angels, A’s and Mariners (the Astros were in the National League until 2013), but also the Royals, White Sox and Twins. For a 21-21 record to be good enough to lead up a group of seven teams underscores how imbalanced the American League was, at least in the early going.
Texas’ play began to heat up along with the summer weather. They beat Chicago six straight times, won four consecutive games against Seattle and then went 5-2 in seven games against Oakland. There was only one fly in the ointment—the California Angels. In six games against the Angels, the Rangers lost all six times and scored just ten runs in the process.
Even so, by the All-Star break, Texas stood at 47-41. They were in second place and only 1 ½ games back of California. There was reason for the sports fans of the Lone Star to stay interested in baseball as the calendar shifted toward to the opening of NFL training camps.
But the Rangers stumbled badly out of the break, losing all seven games on a road trip to Detroit and New York. The Angels didn’t take full advantage, so Texas stayed within 3 ½ games of the lead. They recovered by winning 14 of 20 against AL East opponents and chipped back to within 1 ½ games. A mid-August weekend in Toronto went poorly. After losing the first two games by a combined score of 20-2, the Rangers blew a 5-0 lead in the Sunday finale and lost in 11 innings.
So it wasn’t a particularly great late summer. But the Rangers still had a record of 69-62. Their AL West deficit to the Angels was still a manageable 5 ½ games. And Texas and California would still play seven games head-to-head over the final two weekends of the season. The opportunity was there.
But the opportunity was not taken advantage of. The Rangers went to Fenway Park, where the Red Sox were surging and breaking open the AL East race. Texas lost three straight. A week later, the Rangers lost series to mediocre teams in the Twins and Mariners.
By the time the first series with California started, Texas was nine games back and the race was virtually over. When they lost the first head-to-head game, the Angels clinched the AL West. Even though the Rangers won five of the remaining six, it meant nothing in the pennant race.
It was a disappointing second half of the season and a particularly disappointing first two weeks of September. The positive is that Texas did finish the season with an 87-75 record. Only five teams in the majors won 90 more games. The Rangers were part of a group of five others that was sitting on 86-87 wins. By the standards of today, this would have been just enough to get in the playoffs. And by the standards of Texas Rangers baseball prior to the realignment of 1994, that was a success.
The 1986 Toronto Blue Jays were facing an unexpected transition. They had won the AL East in 1985 for the first playoff appearance in franchise history. But a heartbreaking ALCS loss was followed by an offseason of change. Bobby Cox, the manager who led them into prominence, departed to become the general manager at Atlanta. Toronto turned to Jimy Williams. While the Blue Jays were still a good team in ’86, it ended up being a season that had all the hallmarks of a hangover year.
The outfield was widely regarded as the best in baseball. Even allowing for an off-year from Lloyd Moseby in center, the stars at the corner spots still had huge years. George Bell hit 31 homers and drove in 108 runs. Jesse Barfield bashed 40 home runs and drove in 108 runs of his own. Bell and Barfield finished 4-5 in the final MVP voting.
Bell and Barfield carried an offense that saw a number of players having years that, while respectable, showed signs of slippage. First baseman Willie Upshaw had a .341 OBP and stole 23 bases, but saw his power disappear. Damaso Garcia at second had long been a good hitter for average, but his lack of patience at the plate become more apparent when the hits stopped coming.
Rance Mulliniks played third. Like Upshaw, his .340 OBP was good enough, but slugging percentage fell off dramatically. The same went for 38-year-old DH Cliff Johnson, whose .355 OBP couldn’t mask lower power numbers. Tony Fernandez stole 25 bases, but the shortstop didn’t have a great year with the bat.
Ernie Whitt, the veteran catcher who had been with this franchise through their building years, delivered some power to the alleys with a .448 slugging percentage. But all told, more players underperformed than not.
All of which makes it an even bigger tribute to Bell and Barfield that the Blue Jays still finished second in the American League in runs scored.
But the pitching staff suffered from a similar problems—individual seasons that weren’t bad, but not quite good enough—without having a similar solution. Jimmy Key and Jim Clancy each won 14 games with ERAs in the high 3s. Tom Henke saved 25 games in the bullpen, but the 3.35 ERA was a little high.
Doyle Alexander and Joe Johnson did part-time duty in the rotation, and ended with ERAs of 4.46 and 3.89 respectively. John Cerutti clocked in at 4.15 in a mix of starting and relief work.
The man who would normally have taken this staff and lifted it to a higher level was having a bad year. Dave Stieb was usually the staff ace. Not in 1986, when his ERA jumped to 4.74 and he finished 7-12.
Jim Acker was the only pitcher who had a big year for the ’86 Jays. The middle reliever worked 157 innings and posted a 1.72 ERA. He appeared on a couple of Cy Young ballots. A great season to be sure, but had anyone told Jimy Williams that Acker would be his best pitcher, the rookie skipper would have known that some rocky sledding was ahead. Toronto ended up seventh in the 14-team American League for staff ERA.
The Blue Jays played poorly in the season’s first two months. An ALCS rematch with the Kansas City Royals ended up with four losses in six games. Five games with the eventual AL West champ California Angels ended with three more defeats. The results against weaker fare were no better. By Memorial Day, Toronto was 20-24, in last place and staring at a nine-game deficit in the AL East.
That situation was even more precarious in 1986 than it would be today. The format of the time had each league split into just two divisions, an East and a West. And there were no wild-cards—you either won your division or you went home. Thus, the Blue Jays were in a seven-team division, as the Indians, Tigers and Brewers (an AL team prior to 1998) were stacked in with the Red Sox, Yankees, Orioles and Jays.
Boston was out in front of the pack. After Toronto took an early June series from Detroit to get back on their feet, the Jays hosted the Red Sox for a three-game series. This was the chance to start making a move.
Stieb delivered a vintage performance on Monday night, winning 5-1 behind three hits from Fernandez. Toronto then came out on Tuesday and jumped ahead 3-0.
But the Jays missed repeated opportunities and went just 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position (RISP). The Red Sox eventually tied it up and finally beat Toronto 4-3 in ten innings. A similar lack of opportunistic hitting plagued the Jays in the Wednesday night finale, although admittedly facing Roger Clemens was the bigger problem. Toronto went 1-for-9 with RISP, wasting a good outing from Alexander in a 2-1 loss.
The Blue Jays got back on their feet though. Over the next 17 games, all against AL East opponents, Toronto went 12-5. They moved up to fourth place. Even though the deficit was still 9 ½ games, another series with Boston was at hand.
A four-game set in Fenway Park opened up on the final day of June. Behind another three-hit game from Fernandez, the Blue Jays had leads of 6-3 in the fifth and 9-5 in the sixth. But as those scores indicate, Clancy was far from comfortable on the mound. Dennis Lamp eventually came on in relief, but couldn’t hold the lead. The Red Sox pulled even and eventually won 10-9 in extra innings.
Alexander pitched on Tuesday night and this time Boston was all over him. The Jays were staring at a 7-1 hole by the third inning. Behind another big night from Fernandez, three more hits, they made it respectable. But the final still ended up with a 9-7 loss.
This series was already a disappointment and was shaping up to be a complete disaster as Clemens took the mound on Wednesday night. Clemens, in his first breakout year in the major leagues, had a 14-0 record coming in and was the talk of baseball. Toronto trailed 2-1 in the eighth.
Finally, someone got to The Rocket. Mulliniks doubled and Bell tied up the game with a single. He eventually came around on a sac fly. The Blue Jays handed the eventual Cy Young and MVP winner his first loss of the season and had survived. They won the finale 8-5 with Mulliniks and Barfield each homering twice.
But losing four of the seven June games with the Red Sox was a missed chance. The Blue Jay record was up to 47-43 by the All-Star break, but they were still 10 ½ games off the pace.
Toronto took three out of four in California out of the break and that triggered a strong late summer. Playing a schedule heavy on the AL West, the Blue Jays went 26-15. By Labor Day, they were up to second place and had closed to within 3 ½ games of the Red Sox. The Boston fan base, not known for being cool under pressure prior to 2004, was in a panic. And Toronto would get six games against the division leader down the stretch.
It all added up to drama. But that’s not what happened. Toronto split six games with weak teams in the White Sox and Indians. The Jays hosted a competitive Yankee team and lost three straight. Meanwhile, the Red Sox got hot again. By the time the head-to-head games began, the Blue Jays were ten games back and all but finished.
The final record ended up 86-76. Toronto finished fourth in the AL East and sixth overall in the American League. Was it a playoff season by the more lenient standards of today? Not by those rankings, although you could look at the Jays’ record being tied for ninth overall and say they were at least playoff-caliber.
That’s an interesting discussion for history. In the moment, Toronto had taken a decided step back. But by 1987, they would be in one of baseball’s great pennant races. Even though that ended in heartbreak, the Blue Jays still won four AL East titles over the next seven years. And in 1992 and 1993, they broke through and won it all. The hangover of ’86 was only temporary.
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.
*It was the year of the legendary Penn State-Miami college football national championship game and the Bill Buckner error that haunted Red Sox Nation for 18 years. Either of these events is on the short list in the discussion for most dramatic sports moment of the modern era. To have both of them in the same year puts 1986 sports right at the forefront of greatness. But there was more…
*The baseball postseason was already shaping up as one of MLB’s best ever, even before the Buckner play. The ALCS matchup of the Red Sox and Angels, along with the NLCS battle between the Mets and Astros were each filled with drama and plot twists.
*John Elway delivered The Drive for which he is most remembered, the 98-yard march in the closing minutes of the AFC Championship Game at Cleveland to tie a game the Broncos eventually won in overtime. Think about this—this is a Hall of Fame quarterback authoring his signature moment and it was, at best, the third-most dramatic event in the year of 1986 sports.
*The college football season had plenty of action outside of Penn State and Miami. It was the time of Switzer and The Boz at Oklahoma, of Jim Harbaugh quarterbacking Michigan and guaranteeing a win at Ohio State.
*How about college basketball? The NCAA championship game was a nailbiter between Louisville and Duke. It’s noteworthy in that it was the first appearance on the national stage for Mike Krzyzewski and the last one for Denny Crum, who heretofore had been considered “Mr. March.” Monday night in Dallas represented two ships passing in the night.
*The NBA and NHL didn’t have incredible drama, but they did have two proud franchises winning championships. The Boston Celtics were perhaps the greatest champion of all time as they demolished the league. And the Montreal Canadiens briefly interrupted Wayne Gretzky’s domination of the NHL to capture a Stanley Cup.
TheSportsNotebook has preserved all the great memories of 1986 sports through the following content offerings…
*The season-long narrative of the 1986 college football season. This download starts from the beginning and the championship hopes of Penn State, Miami and Oklahoma and goes through the entire year. You’ll look back on not just the national championship push, but the key games in conference races week-in and week-out and every major bowl game. Download the story of the 1986 college football season today.
*A compilation of articles that tell the story of the 1986 MLB season from the eyes of its best teams. We look at the four division winners—Mets, Red Sox, Angels and Astros on their paths through the regular season. Then it’s time to go game-by-game into the postseason, all the historic moments and including the little ones that time forgot. Download the 1986 MLB season today.
*The 1986 NFL season is shared through a compilation of articles that tell the story of nine different playoff teams—from the Super Bowl champion New York Giants to Elway’s Broncos, to Marty Schottenheimer’s Browns to a lot more. We also look at the Dallas Cowboys in the year that the excellence of head coach Tom Landry finally ended after two decades of playoff teams. Download the 1986 NFL season today.
You can also read individual articles on…
*The Road To The 1986 Final Four—see how Louisville, Duke, Kansas and surprising LSU made their way to Dallas.
*The season-long narratives of the Celtics and the Canadiens, starting from the early days of October and November and going game-by-game through their postseason runs.
The year of 1986 sports was one that created moments that defined a generation. Read about all of them and a lot more at TheSportsNotebook.com
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.