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NATIONAL LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES : Notebook : Dodgers Leave It to the Bulldog

Times Sports Editor

Tonight’s Game 7 may not be a match made in heaven, but it’s close. At the very least, it ranks as a lofty confrontation.

Ron Darling, right-handed pitcher for the New York Mets, will go against Orel Hershiser, right-handed pitcher for the Dodgers. At stake is the National League championship, a shot at the vaunted Oakland A’s in the World Series, and, much more important, the civic bragging rights of this country’s two most egotistical sports cities.

Tom Lasorda, manager of the Dodgers and a man for all metaphors, said Tuesday night, after the Mets had tied this best-of-seven affair at 3 each said, “Well, here it is, with the whole ball of wax riding on the Bulldog.”

The Bulldog, of course, is Hershiser, whose tall and slim physique makes his image diametrically opposed to his nickname. But if he doesn’t look the part, he certainly performs it.

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Hershiser had a 23-8 record this season and is a candidate (shoo-in?) for the NL Cy Young Award. Some even think he’ll get strong support for most valuable player, even though it more likely will go to his teammate Kirk Gibson.

In this series with the Mets, he has started twice, gone 8 and 7 innings in strong showings each time despite getting no decision, and earned a save in the dramatic Game 4. He came out of the bullpen when the Dodgers were out of pitchers. Many starters of his caliber would have been resting in a Jacuzzi somewhere.

Darling had a 17-9 record this year, and though he may not have been involved in as many dramatics in this series as Hershiser, he, too, has the backing of his teammates as the player they want on the mound in Game 7.

“This is real poetic justice,” said David Cone, Tuesday night’s winner for the Mets. “You get a seventh game and two great pitchers like Darling and Hershiser going. Can’t ask for much more than that.”

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Both Hershiser and Darling have been involved in seventh-game situations before, but only Darling has been in one like this.

That was in the 1986 World Series against the Boston Red Sox. Darling started the game but left after the third inning with Boston leading, 3-0, in a game that the Mets ended up winning, 8-5. That game was played one day after a rain delay had postponed the Series.

“That time, I was really excited to pitch,” Darling said. “Then, we had the rain delay and it took a lot of the emotion out of it for me.

“But that isn’t going to happen this time. After all, it never rains in Southern California, does it?”

Hershiser’s big seventh game wasn’t really a Game 7. It was the second game of a double-elimination amateur tournament back in 1978, when he was playing for Johnstown, Pa., in a national amateur tournament, the year before he turned pro and started in Clinton, Iowa, in the minor leagues. Hershiser, like Darling in his big seventh game, left early, with the score tied, 2-2. But his team won the game and the winning pitcher turned out to be the starting pitcher from the previous day’s game. Shades of Game 4 in New York?

Both Darling and Hershiser have philosophies about pitching in a Game 7.

Said Darling: “It isn’t a normal game at all. Every pitch, every play, every batter--you have to concentrate. You can’t make a mistake.”

Said Hershiser: “You pitch a seventh game like every inning is the ninth inning. You aren’t worried about exposing something too early or setting somebody up. You are exposing everything and showing everything on every pitch.”

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Tonight will be Hershiser’s third start in 9 days. He has also relieved once and been in the bullpen once, meaning he has thrown hard 5 times in 9 days. Quite a departure from his normal routine.

“I throw between starts, but not in the bullpen,” he said. “I throw in the outfield. On a flat surface like that, I can teach myself mechanics better. Like my sinker. If I can get it to sink from a flat surface, then it will really sink coming off the mound.”

Darling’s record this season breaks down to 14-1 at home and 3-8 on the road. He has a 7-3 career record against the Dodgers and a 2.78 earned-run average.

Kevin McReynolds, the Mets’ hitting star Tuesday night, has quietly built a rather amazing base-stealing streak. He stole another one in Tuesday night’s game, giving him 23 in 23 attempts this season (21 in the regular season), and he now has a streak of 33 without being caught that extends back to June 2, 1987.

“Those pitchers just don’t expect a fat white boy like me to be out there stealing on them,” McReynolds said. “I just kind of keep sneaking up on them.”

The Mets’ bags were packed and they were ready to go right after Tuesday night’s game, had they lost. That’s right. They had checked out of the hotel and their luggage was set to be put on a plane for New York City. Asked if that was kind of a negative psychological move, Manager Davey Johnson said, “If anybody lets checking out of a hotel change the way he feels about playing a game, then he’s really got a problem.”

Pregame quote of the day: Gary Carter, Met catcher, on his team’s predicament going into the game: “Tonight, we have our backs facing the wall.”

The Dodgers started the game on a bad note, so to speak. They were upset with saxophonist Kenny G’s long, over-styled rendition of the national anthem. Not only did it take a couple of minutes, but at times it didn’t sound like the national anthem.

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The chief saxophone critic was, appropriately, Steve Sax.

“I can’t believe it, I could have . . . better than he played it,” said Sax, who, while walking back to the dugout after the anthem, actually shook his fist at Kenny G, who was standing in center field. “It was the worst I’ve ever heard, the absolute worst. It was terrible . . . terrible.”

Sax shouted across the clubhouse to Kirk Gibson, asking for his opinion.

“Some things are better left unsaid,” Gibson said.

Concluded Mike Marshall: “It was a disgrace to America.”

Times staff writers Ross New-han and Bill Plaschke contributed to this story.


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