A smile had frozen on Tom Lasorda’s face. His eyes bleary from lack of sleep and his face flushed from exertion, the Dodger manager could not stop grinning.
Lasorda’s Dodgers, the team that seemingly had no chance for upward mobility during the playoffs, had just beaten the New York Mets, again, Monday and stood a victory away from the National League pennant and the World Series.
This time, they used strong pitching by starter Tim Belcher, quality relief work by Brian Holton and an offense highlighted by Kirk Gibson’s 3-run homer for a 7-4 victory in Game 5 of the playoffs before 55,069 at Shea Stadium.
“It’s a dream team,” Lasorda said. “They always seem to come up with the big hit and the big game when you need it. It’s tough to watch all this on 2 hours’ sleep. The average man would be in an oxygen tent now, being read his last rites.”
Unfathomable as it might have seemed a week ago, given the Mets regular-season domination and seemingly superior talent, the Dodgers now need to win only one of the next two games at Dodger Stadium to eliminate the Mets and meet the Oakland Athletics in the World Series.
Not even the news that Gibson had aggravated the injury to his left hamstring in the ninth inning could spoil the Dodgers’ mood. Dr. Frank Jobe said he administered a cortisone injection to Gibson’s hamstring and that his condition could not be determined until today.
The Dodgers could not be in much better shape after five playoff games. Tim Leary will make his first playoff start tonight at 5:08 against the Mets’ David Cone. And, should the Mets force a seventh game, Dodger ace Orel Hershiser will be the starter.
Monday’s win, the Dodgers’ most decisive of the playoffs, epitomized the Dodger season.
Among the contributors were Holton, who had been a generic middle reliever all season but was transformed into a short-relief specialist after Jay Howell’s suspension; catcher Rick Dempsey, who had 2 doubles and drove in the Dodgers’ first 2 runs off Met starter Sid Fernandez; and Gibson, whose zest for accumulating runs led to his injury.
With the Dodgers holding a 6-4 lead in the ninth inning, Gibson took it upon himself to steal second in an attempt to give Holton another run with which to work in the bottom of the inning. When Gibson popped to his feet after the successful steal, he grabbed the back of his leg and limped off as the crowd cheered.
“That’s Kirk,” Lasorda said. “That’s the only way he knows how to play.” That appears to be the only way the rest of the Dodgers know how to play now, too.
Their turnaround has been dizzying. In Game 4 Sunday, they were 3 outs away from falling behind, 3 games to 1 in the series, before staging an extraordinary comeback to win in 12 innings. Now, the Dodgers have the Mets on the precipice of elimination.
If Dodger confidence took root in Sunday night’s comeback, it sprouted here Monday.
They greeted the left-handed Fernandez, who had given them problems during the regular season, with a 3-run rally in the fourth inning. In all 5 games, the Dodgers have scored first, surprising considering their problems scoring in recent weeks.
After Fernandez gave up a single to Mike Marshall and a walk to John Shelby, Dempsey delivered a double that landed mere inches inside the foul line in medium left field. The ball rolled to the restraining wall, scoring Marshall from second and Shelby from first.
The stunner, however, was delivered by Alfredo Griffin, who had had only 2 hits in 15 times at bat in the series. He doubled to center field, giving the Dodgers a 3-0 lead.
New York had come back from 3-run deficits before in the series, but the Dodger offense was not finished dismantling Fernandez, whom they had traded to the Mets in 1983.
After giving up consecutive singles by Steve Sax and Mickey Hatcher at the start of the fifth inning, Fernandez faced Gibson, who had struck out and harmlessly flied out in his previous at-bats.
But Gibson, whose dramatic 12th-inning home run had been the difference only 13 hours before in Game 4, hit an equally prodigious 3-run homer to right field for a 6-0 lead.
As with the after-hours home run, the Dodger slugger celebrated his broad-daylight blast in true Gibson fashion. His home-run trot was sedate but then he stomped on home plate, body-slammed with Sax and nearly tore Marshall’s right arm from its socket with a high five.
“I felt like trying to jack one, so I naturally took one stupid swing and fouled the ball off my foot,” Gibson said. “I know it’s the same old story. When you swing for a home run, you usually look like a fool. When you concentrate and try to hit the ball hard some place, a lot of good things happen.”
Good things were happening for Belcher, too. The Dodgers provided 6 runs for him in his victory in Game 2, and he had the luxury of a 6-0 lead in the middle innings of Monday’s game.
Turned out, though, he needed Gibson’s homer.
In the bottom of the fifth, Met center fielder Len Dykstra hit a 3-run homer to right field, slashing the Dodger lead to 6-3 and prompting Lasorda to phone the bullpen and start Holton and Ricky Horton warming up.
“If Gibby doesn’t hit that home run, I’m the goat after Dykstra hits that home run off me,” Belcher said. “After I gave up that 3-run home run, I knew I had to bear down. The next inning (the sixth), I had to face the meat of their lineup. I really spent myself that inning.”
With a bunch of throbbing arms in the depleted bullpen, and Howell not available, the Dodgers really needed 7 strong innings from Belcher.
They got them.
By the eighth inning, though, Belcher had visibly tired and Gregg Jefferies’ single scored Dykstra, who had led off with a double to right.
Lasorda first went with the left-handed Horton against left-handed hitting Keith Hernandez and Darryl Strawberry. Horton struck out Hernandez, but allowed a single to Strawberry that moved Jefferies to second.
With Kevin McReynolds coming up and representing the lead run, Lasorda switched to Holton, who had bailed John Tudor out of a sixth-inning jam in Game 4.
This time, Holton got McReynolds to hit a slow grounder between Griffin at shortstop and Jeff Hamilton at third. As Jefferies sprinted toward third, the ball glanced off his left foot. McReynolds was credited with an infield single, but Jefferies was called out.
So, with Strawberry on second and McReynolds on first, Holton faced Carter, who had 4 runs batted in in the first 4 games. But Carter hit Holton’s 3-2 slow curveball to Gibson in left field and the Dodgers’ 6-4 lead remained intact.
“It was one of those freak things,” Jefferies said of being hit by the ball. “I ran. I jumped, and the ball hit me. I saw it, I was watching it. I couldn’t stop. We (Jefferies and Griffin) would’ve collided. It must have hit something--dirt or a lip (in the turf). The ball caught my spike.”
That rally over, Holton, mixing in a few fastballs with his slow curve, retired the side in the ninth to earn the save.
Ordinarily a set-up man for Howell and Alejandro Pena, Holton normally is not used in the late innings. He had 1 save in as many opportunities this season.
But with Howell suspended and Pena needing a day of rest after pitching 3 hitless innings on Sunday night, Lasorda went with Holton. “Today was by far my No. 1 thrill in baseball,” Holton said. “That was No. 2, yesterday. The way I approached it was just to feel it was the same as the fifth and sixth innings.”
Even Holton, who had the lowest earned-run average of any Dodger pitcher during the season, admitted that he would not have been used had Howell been available.
“Jay’s back (tonight), and I’m back where I was,” said Holton, smiling. “I don’t mind.”
He was a good enough stand-in on this day, though. Had Holton failed, the only other right-handed pitcher at Lasorda’s disposal was Hershiser, who earned the save in Sunday night’s win.
It was somewhat surprising that Hershiser was warming up in the eighth inning. After all, he threw 110 pitches on Saturday, 3 on Sunday in earning the save and is scheduled to start a possible Game 7.
But, apparently without checking with Lasorda, Hershiser hustled to the bullpen and started tossing.
Holton said that after the game Hershiser thanked him.
Hershiser, however, said he will be available in the bullpen tonight.
Lasorda, though, ruled out such a possibility.
“He’s crazy, just crazy,” Lasorda said of Hershiser. “No way he pitches (tonight). I’ll tell Jaime (Hershiser’s wife) not to let him out of the house.”
Hershiser, half joking, suggested that there may not be a Game 7, that the Dodgers may finish off the Mets tonight. He quickly added, though, that he has only “guarded optimism,” and he and other Dodgers warned that the Mets have a knack of bouncing back from adversity.
But then, so do the Dodgers.
“I don’t know why we win, but we do,” Gibson said. “All I know is that that’s what we’re here for. We don’t try to figure it out.”