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Dodgers’ West Title Quest Stalls After Mets Make the East Official : Erratic New York Clinches It With 3-1 Win Over Phillies

Times Staff Writer

The 1988 season has been a three-act production for the New York Mets.

First, they put a stranglehold on the National League’s Eastern Division with a 30-11 roll through May 22.

Then, during a three-month stretch in which they questioned their own intensity, were ripped by the media and provided the Pittsburgh Pirates with false hope, they went 41-41 through Aug. 21.

Since then?

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The sound of popping champagne corks told part of the story Thursday night.

The Mets made it official, clinching the division title with a 3-1 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies, New York’s eighth consecutive victory in a spectacular run for the money.

The Mets, who have won 13 of their last 14 games, are 23-5 in this final act.

Dave Johnson, who has managed the Mets to five consecutive seasons of 90 or more victories, smiled and said:

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“The way we’ve played the last month is as good as I’ve seen here. I’m talking about pitching, hitting and defense. It’s hard when you’re expected to win and play as poorly as we did for three months, but to be playing like a good club should in September is very satisfying.”

The Mets’ latest victory can be credited to pitching, as was the case with most of the 93 that came before. Ron Darling allowed only 6 hits in improving to 16-9. He is 12-1 at Shea Stadium, where he will start Game 3 of the National League playoffs. The Mets lead the majors with a team earned-run average of 2.84, and their ERA in the last 29 games is 1.84.

“Our pitching has been the best I’ve seen,” Johnson said.

Ever?

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“I can’t say ever, but in a long time,” he said.

Most of the 45,274 fans were on their feet as Darling retired the Phillies in order in the ninth. Banners reading, “Bring on the Dodgers,” and, “California Here We Come,” were paraded through the packed stands. Security forces ringed the warning track, preserving the field for the important games to come.

The Mets won 10 of 11 regular-season games from the Dodgers, their likely playoff opponents. Will that matter when they meet again?

“Everybody looks for an angle in the playoffs. It’s human nature,” Johnson said. “But you can throw all of that out. Sure, we’d rather play a team we’ve had success against, but it doesn’t mean a damn if you don’t win the first game.”

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His first baseman concurred.

“It means nothing,” Keith Hernandez said of the 10-1 mark. “Unfortunately for us hitters, there are going to be a series of great pitching matchups like we had with Houston in ’86. It will be important for us to go in and win the first game.

“Hopefully, we can maintain our momentum. The season will be a disappointment if we don’t win the World Series. All of this will go down the toilet if we don’t win the playoffs.”

The Mets restored a measure of pride by winning the division, and Hernandez pointed to a three-game series in Los Angeles in late August as a turning point.

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“We had a great start (to the season), played horrible in the middle when the press was rightfully on our back, then went on that trip where we lost 2 of 3 in San Francisco, 2 more in San Diego, and went into L.A. to face (John) Tudor, (Ramon) Martinez and (Orel) Hershiser--and came out having won all three,” he said.

“We have a veteran club that rose to the occasion. I think we all knew it would, but that sweep in L.A. may have restored some confidence.”

Similarly, Hernandez said, the Aug. 28 arrival of Gregg Jefferies provided the veteran team with a fresh spark. Jefferies, 21, is batting .366 and is likely to play third base in the playoffs, with Howard Johnson moving to shortstop.

“People have called me the spark, the motivator, but I don’t think of myself that way,” Jefferies said amid the champagne spray of the clubhouse. “I’ve just wanted to help the club in any way I can. I don’t know how much I’ve contributed, but I can tell you this is a great feeling.”

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The most satisfying yet, Darryl Strawberry said, citing how the Mets had to grind it out.

“The way we’ve played down the stretch, we can hold our heads high,” he said. “You don’t win a pennant in midseason. For all our critics, we’re still No. 1.”

The Mets weren’t No. 1 last year. Hernandez, wiping the champagne from his face, said, “We’d have won last year, too, if it hadn’t been for the injuries to our pitching staff. It’s nice to get it back.”


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