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 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.