They rarely do things easily, these over-achieving Dodgers. The National League pennant still is within reach, but it will take a seventh game against the New York Mets, who aren’t known to go quietly.
That much was obvious Tuesday night, as the Mets’ 5-1 victory over the Dodgers in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series was a startling reality check for a Dodger team seemingly still savoring two emotional triumphs on the other coast.
Winning the pennant in 6 games, perhaps, would not have been consistent with the Dodgers’ well-cultivated underdog mentality.
A 5-hitter by pitcher David Cone and a productive Met offense put the Dodgers back in their preferred position, as ace Orel Hershiser is scheduled to face Met right-hander Ron Darling in the decisive game at 5 tonight at Dodger Stadium.
Maybe the Dodgers’ sluggish play in Game 6, silencing the unusually vocal 55,885 fans at Dodger Stadium, is all the incentive the Dodgers need to pull off this upset of the Mets tonight. That was the prevailing opinion in the somber Dodger clubhouse.
“It’s been this way all year long for us,” Manager Tom Lasorda said. “We play better when it’s been like this. All we have to do is go out and play our best game tomorrow. We’ll be there, I guarantee you. We’ve got Bulldog (Hershiser) going.”
That seems as much a certainty as Lasorda testing positive for oregano. But, even with Hershiser pitching, the Dodgers will need to do more than just show up to overcome the Mets.
Tuesday’s showing was the Dodgers’ worst of the series. They let the Mets take control early, failed to seize upon Cone’s poor start and never threatened again.
Meanwhile, Dodger pitcher Tim Leary was knocked around for 4 runs in 4-plus innings, a 2-run home run by Kevin McReynolds becoming his undoing. The bullpen kept the Dodgers reasonably close, but the offense was almost nonexistent.
Cone’s brief journalism career over, he set out to do something about his pitching reputation after being hit hard and often in a Game 2 loss. The Dodgers just couldn’t muster the rage they did the last time Cone pitched, the same day he criticized Hershiser and Jay Howell in a New York tabloid.
After a shaky first inning, in which many in the crowd took their best shots at the Met pitcher, Cone tamed Dodger hitters. He gave up only a run in the fifth inning to become the first pitcher in this playoff to throw a complete game.
It was a complete loss for the Dodgers. Typifying their futile to attempt to wrap up the playoffs in 6 games was the ineffective play of Kirk Gibson, a force in Games 4 and 5 but a detriment Tuesday night.
Gibson, who aggravated his left hamstring injury in the ninth inning of the Dodgers’ win Monday, showed the ill effects of a cortisone injection. He popped up 4 times, including a first-inning sacrifice bunt attempt that helped Cone escape a jam.
“I’m surprised he was even in the lineup,” Met Manager Davey Johnson said of Gibson. “He couldn’t even get on the bus (Monday) night.”
A lot of things had changed since Game 5 Monday. It seemed as if Kenny G’s unconventional rendition of the national anthem on the saxophone would last longer than the Dodgers in this one.
The Mets got to Leary, still struggling with the control that made him the Dodgers’ best pitcher for more than half the season, for an unearned run in the first.
At that point, a 1-0 deficit didn’t seem to be a death sentence for the Dodgers. But the missed opportunity in the bottom of the first hurt.
Cone, taunted by the fans during pregame introductions and throughout the early part of the game, began as shakily as in Game 2. He walked Steve Sax on 4 pitches. He allowed Sax to take second on a wild pitch, then walked Mickey Hatcher on 5 pitches. Up came Gibson, and Dodger expectations were heightened.
But Gibson, normally a good bunter, squared around and then sent Cone’s pitch skyward. The strategy was curious; the result disastrous. Cone caught the ball himself and proceeded to get Mike Marshall to fly to left field and John Shelby to strike out.
“Gibson bunting probably turned the game around,” Cone said. “I made a mistake, though. I should have let it drop. After I caught it, (Gibson) said, ‘You should have let it drop.’ And I probably should have.”
After that first-inning failure, the Dodgers did a slow dissolve.
“It was just a terrible first inning,” Gibson said. “First, we gave them a run. Then, the guy (Cone) started out poorly and we can’t even score off him. Quite frankly, we were lucky to still be in the game.”
Added Mike Marshall: “Everybody talks about what a great series it’s been. This was our bad game. The Mets’ bad game may have been (Monday’s 7-4 loss). So, maybe that is out of the way, and we can go back to playing the way we had.”
That might not be enough if the Mets’ offensive revival continues tonight.
The Mets benefitted from a lineup change that shifted the balance of power to the bottom of the order, as Gregg Jefferies was dropped from the second spot to sixth and Wally Backman promoted to the second position. It resulted in 11 hits and 5 runs off Leary and 3 Dodger relievers, including a 4-for-4 showing for McReynolds.
McReynolds, a frigid 3 for 20 going into Tuesday’s game, singled and homered off Leary, singled off Ricky Horton and doubled off Jesse Orosco. His 4 hits tied McReynolds with 8 other players for a playoff record for most hits in a game. The last player to do that was St. Louis’ Tito Landrum against the Dodgers in the 1985 playoffs.
“I think tonight you saw the way the Mets play baseball even though we could have scored a few more runs early in the game,” McReynolds said. “And, I think the whole country saw the real David Cone tonight. He’s just an outstanding pitcher with some of the nastiest stuff I’ve ever seen.”
Afterward, Cone seemingly expended as much energy trying muffle the questions concerning his days as a columnist as he did in disposing of the Dodgers. On this night, the first task was tougher.
“I had nothing to prove,” Cone said. “I had a great season and contributed to my team. I wanted to contribute again tonight to make it to Game 7.”
If the Mets were looking for early omens about a reversal, they got it in the first inning when they actually scored a run after so many aborted threats in earlier games.
It was the first time in the series the Mets had scored first. In fact, the Dodgers had scored a combined 18 runs in the 6 games before the Mets had scored their first run in the games.
“We really thought it was important for us to make things happen from the start tonight,” Backman said. “Maybe that was a sign of things to come. It was at least, tonight.”
A bigger Met inning, however, was averted when Leary worked his way out of a bases-loaded jam.
Len Dykstra, who had 2 hits and scored 2 runs, began the Met rally by smashing a hard grounder to Hatcher, who bobbled the ball and then fell to the turf, drawing an error. Backman then made Johnson’s lineup change look good by delivering a hit-and-run single to left field that moved Dykstra to third.
Leary, however, struck out Keith Hernandez and then wisely pitched around Darryl Strawberry. With the bases loaded after Strawberry’s walk, McReynolds brought the run home with a fly to right. Another walk to Jefferies loaded the bases once more, but Leary struck out Gary Carter on 3 pitches.
The Mets, threatening against Leary in each of the first four innings, made it 2-0 in the third. This time, it was an earned run, but Leary wasn’t helped much by infield once again. Strawberry led off with a single to center, bringing up McReynolds. The Met left fielder lined to Griffin, who appeared to slightly mistimed his leap at shortstop. So, the Mets had another threat, and this time they followed through.
Jefferies’ fly ball advanced Strawberry to third.
An out later, Kevin Elster doubled beyond the reach of a diving Shelby to easily score Strawberry. Elster, replacing Howard Johnson, was the other lineup change Davey Johnson made for this game.
“I was battling my way through for 4 innings,” Leary said. “I felt I made it all right to the fifth, but I’m mad at myself for that home run.”
Leary put a strain on the Dodger bullpen even though he still was in the game. In each of the first 4 innings, both right-hander Brian Holton and the left-handed Horton threw almost as many pitches in the bullpen as Leary did on the mound.
Only Holton was throwing when McReynolds chased Leary with a 2-run home run over the 370-foot fence for a 4-0 Met lead.
McReynolds’ home run, his second of the series, should not have come as a surprise to those who had seen Leary pitch late in the season. In Leary’s final 40 innings pitched during the regular season, he allowed 7 home runs. In the 188 innings before that, he had allowed 6 home runs.
If that wasn’t ammunition enough to fuel the theory that Leary is suffering from a tired arm, consider that he allowed 3 walks in less than 5 innings Tuesday. It was unusual from a pitcher who finished the season with a 180-to-56 strikeouts to walks ratio.
“It was still 2-0 before that home run, and I thought I was doing all right,” Leary said. “But that 2-run home run killed us, because we aren’t the type of team that usually hits home runs. I mean, we have, but not all the time.
“I felt strong. I don’t think my arm’s tired. Maybe in the fifth, I struggled a little.”
Holton also seemed a candidate for a tired arm, having pitched in 3 straight games. But he retired the Mets in order after replacing Leary in the fifth, and even jump-started the Dodger offense against Cone with 2 out in the bottom of the inning.
Rarely is Holton, a middle reliever, afforded the chance to hit. He was 0 for 10 this season. But he lofted a single into left field that didn’t appear to faze Cone. Cone then walked Sax for the second time on 4 pitches, and Hatcher singled under Backman’s glove and into right field to score Holton.
But that cut the Mets’ lead only to 4-1, Gibson popping up to end the threat. And, in the sixth, Holton gave up a 1-out double to Dykstra. He was replaced by Horton, who yielded a broken-bat single to Hernandez to increase the Mets’ lead to 5-1.
Even though he gave up consecutive singles in the ninth, prompting the only action in the Met bullpen all night, Cone did what the Mets asked of him, which was to force a Game 7.
“We’ve been in this situation before, as we know we have to come out loose,” Backman said. “You are naturally going to be a little nervous, but you can’t let that determine your game. We need to get out quick again tomorrow. If we let them lead again, and Hershiser is on, then we dig ourselves a tough hole to come out of.”