Basking in the warmth and security of a pennant Wednesday night, the newly crowned National League champion Dodgers finally could say what they had been suppressing throughout the National League championship series--that the New York Mets are, by far, the better team.
Yet, the Dodgers did not consider the Mets unbeatable. They did not think that they had no chance, that they would just politely defer to the Mets’ regular-season dominance, as most everyone on both coasts had assumed.
This distinction between talent and desire, between expectation and actuality, was never more evident than in Game 7 Wednesday night.
The Dodgers surprised the Mets and most of the baseball world with a 6-0 victory behind Orel Hershiser’s 5-hit complete game to win the pennant and advance to the World Series for the first time since 1981. It was the Dodgers’ 18th pennant, the most of any National League team.
Game 1 of the World Series against the Oakland Athletics, will be Saturday at Dodger Stadium, with the Dodgers no doubt wearing a heavy underdog tag again in a rematch of the 1974 World Series. The A’s will start Dave Stewart in the opener, and the Dodgers most likely will go with rookie Tim Belcher.
Even though several A’s already have said they would rather face the Mets, the Dodgers vowed once again not to somehow twist it to their advantage.
The only genuflecting any Dodger did in this series was when Hershiser briefly knelt in prayer near the mound after striking out Howard Johnson to end it. He was then swarmed by his teammates and some in the Dodger Stadium crowd of 55,693 to begin a celebration that figured to last all night.
Call it a surprise party.
And so, in the organized chaos of the jubilant Dodger clubhouse, players could finally admit that they, too, were as aware as anyone that the Mets were a better, more talented team, and that extraordinary measures would be needed to lead the Dodgers to a title.
“The Mets have a better team, talent-wise,” right fielder Mike Marshall said. “But for these 7 games, we were the better team. And the reason was that, whenever we went on the field and strapped on the spikes, we believed we could win.”
So, how did the Dodgers do it?
“We just did it,” reliever Jay Howell said. “We knew the Mets were better than us, so we had to play our best and find a way. You just look for something. You look hard. You rally around guys like Kirk Gibson and Orel and the rest of us follow.”
Maybe, as Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda proclaimed, the Dodgers are imbued with some other-worldly force that has enabled them to defy the experts and win their second pennant in the 1980s.
From listening to Lasorda in the postgame victory glow, this was The Little Team That Could, the one that pulled off an upset for the ages--or, at least, of the season.
In reality, the Dodgers are a team strong on starting pitching, heavy on the intangibles, in possession of enough offense and, at least in this series, more defensively sound than the Mets.
“We’re just a bunch of little guys, trying to do the best we could,” Lasorda said. “Nobody expected us to do this. But just look around. Look what we did. We beat the Mets. We beat the best team in the National League. We did it because we told ourselves we could.”
The Dodgers needed more than just desire and determination to knock off the Mets, who had won 10 of the 11 regular-season meetings. In their 4 playoff victories over the Mets, they received the pitching, defense and unexpected offense that was needed.
Wednesday night was no different. Hershiser, starting for the third time in 9 days, showed no signs of fatigue in shutting out the Mets to secure the playoffs’ most valuable player award. And, offensively, the Dodgers took advantage of the Mets’ self-destructive second inning when 2 errors and another nonplay resulted in 5 runs and an early exit for loser Ron Darling.
This was the Dodgers’ most decisive victory of the series, atypical of their earlier struggles that got them to this point.
The Dodgers seemingly had won Game 1, before a ninth-inning Met comeback sent them reeling. But they bounced back to win Game 2, channeling their energy at making Met pitcher David Cone choke on his derisive comments. They lost Game 3 and Howell, in the infamous pine-tar incident, yet won Game 4 in a dramatic 12th-inning comeback.
And finally, the Dodgers won 2 of the last 3 games in the series to show the Mets that 100 regular-season victories sometimes doesn’t mean at all much in October.
The Dodgers’ next challenge, which Lasorda compared to David vs. Goliath II, is meeting the A’s in the World Series. Gibson, who left Game 7 after 3 innings after aggravating his left hamstring for the third time in 2 weeks, does not figure to be at full strength. And, Hershiser has thrown more pitches in the last 2 weeks than anyone had a right to expect.
But the Dodgers proclaimed again Wednesday that they savor the underdog role.
“Don Baylor (of the A’s) said he wanted to play the best team, the Mets, but now they’ll be playing the team that beat the Mets,” Lasorda said.
Said second baseman Steve Sax, who went 3 for 5 with 2 runs batted in and 2 runs scored Wednesday night: “I like this situation. I really do. I like to be the underdog. Then, the expectation of winning is on the other club. It gives you the sense . . . that you have nothing to lose and only something to gain.”
None of the Dodger veterans, the few who have played on all four NL West championship teams in the 1980s, were so bold as to say that the ’88 Dodgers should be considered the most talented.
Here, however, is where intangibles, such as the addition of Gibson’s fiery attitude and hot bat, Hershiser’s indomitable will to pitch a shutout even if he has to do it without rest, and the attitude that they must work together or fall apart.
“This is the best team I’ve ever been on,” Marshall said. “That’s because we want to win as badly as any team I’ve seen. We even wanted to win spring training games.
“There are 4 or 5 of us left from that original team (in 1981), and we’ve taken a lot of heat the last 2 (losing) seasons. This is very satisfying. I can’t tell you how much. I think the difference this season was that we made the moves we had to make. We got Kirk Gibson, we improved our bullpen and (pitchers) like Timmy Belcher and Orel have been outstanding.”
It almost seemed as if Hershiser, who in the last month broke Don Drysdale’s 20-year record by pitching 59 consecutive scoreless innings, surprised himself Wednesday night by pitching a shutout.
Making his third start--and fourth appearance--in 9 days, the Dodger right-hander was in control after a shaky first inning. With his complete game Wednesday night, Hershiser set a league championship series record for most innings pitched, 24. The previous high was 22, held by Boston’s Roger Clemens in the 1986 American League playoffs.
Having started games 1 and 3, earning a save in Game 4 and warming up in the bullpen in Game 5, Hershiser showed little signs of tiring.
“You really pump yourself up, especially when no one expects us to be here,” Hershiser said. “But between the lines, there’s a lot of pressure. I really didn’t feel tired. I didn’t even think about it.
“Once I got the runs, I could pace myself. I don’t think anyone in the world expected me to pitch a shutout tonight.”
Not so. Dodger pitching coach Ron Perranoski, by now a believer in anything Hershiser attempts, said he thought a complete game was achievable.
“There are no adjectives to explain what Orel has done,” Perranoski said. “They say he can play hockey. Maybe he can skate with (Wayne Gretzky), too.
“I knew the elements against him tonight, so we watched him carefully. But, as the game went on, he got stronger. We got him the runs, and he took it from there.”
Hershiser stopped a Met threat in the first inning, then the Dodgers turned around and scored a run against Darling, which proved to be merely a prelude to his second-inning collapse.
The Dodgers jumped on Darling almost from the first pitch. Sax led off by singling tocenter, and he almost scored from first base on Mickey Hatcher’s double down the left-field line.
In fact, if Sax had been more observant, he would have seen third base coach Joe Amalfitano waving him home after Met left fielder Kevin McReynolds fell trying to field the ball. But the Dodgers took a 1-0 lead, anyway, as Gibson sent a warning-track fly ball to center to easily score Sax and move Hatcher to third.
“That’s what we wanted to do, score early,” Sax said. “That’s what we had said earlier. If these guys get control of the game, forget it.”
The same can be said for Hershiser. But, on this night, he didn’t particularly have a strong first inning, but he managed to escape without giving up a run. A single by Wally Backman and a walk to Keith Hernandez with 1 out gave the Mets runners on first and second with the middle of their order coming up.
Hershiser, however, got Darryl Strawberry to ground into what appeared an inning-ending double play. But Strawberry managed to beat shortstop Alfredo Griffin’s throw, which pulled Hatcher off first base. McReynolds hit a soft liner to Hamilton at third base for the third out, and Hershiser settled down after that.
“I was terrible in the first inning,” Hershiser said. “Mechanically, I was throwing the ball terrible, and I couldn’t make an adjustment.”
All it took was a trip to the Dodger video room, adjacent to the clubhouse. While the Dodgers were hitting in the bottom of the first, Hershiser hit the rewind button and played back the tape of his shaky first inning.
Whatever irregularities he may have detected were straightened out quickly. Darling, however, did not have the benefit of going to the videotape to solve his numerous problems.
Darling took the mound in the second inning looking no more in control than he had in the first. Consecutive singles by Mike Scioscia and Jeff Hamilton brought up Griffin in a unting situation.
Griffin, as expected, squared to bunt. But, just as Gibson did in Game 6, he popped up the bunt instead of laying it down. Only this time, it worked to the Dodgers’ advantage. Hernandez was late breaking from first base and did not pursue the ball, and Darling did not have a play. The single loaded the bases for Hershiser, not a bad hitting pitcher.
Hershiser made contact, which is all any Dodger really needed to do with the shabby way the Met infield was playing. Gregg Jefferies fielded Hershiser’s 2-hopper in a bad spot--the middle of his glove. The ball fell out of Jefferies’ glove, allowing Scioscia to score from third. By the time Jefferies recovered, it was too late to throw out Hershiser at first.
Darling seemed as shaken by that error as he was at the nonplay on Griffin’s bunt. It showed when Sax lined a single to center, scoring Hamilton and Griffin for a 4-0 lead.
Exit Darling, who lasted a mere 35 pitches. Enter Dwight Gooden, making the first relief appearance of his career.
Gooden forced Hatcher to ground to second for the long-sought first out, but Hershiser advanced to third and Sax to second. After Gibson was intentionally walked to load the bases and set up a potential double play, Gooden got Marshall to provide seemingly the perfect double-play ball.
But then, the Mets’ infield struck again. Backman fielded Marshall’s grounder cleanly, but his backhand flip to Kevin Elster covering second sailed high and wide of the base, Hershiser scoring the Dodgers’ fifth run. The lead swelled to 6-0 a batter later when John Shelby’s deep fly ball to left scored Sax.
The Mets seemed stunned as they finally left the field after their prolonged agony. Dodgers players, meanwhile, received a standing ovation from the crowd.
“Last night (Tuesday), after we beat them, I thought for sure we’d win tonight,” Gooden said. “But the Dodgers played a very aggressive game. You’ve got to give them that.”
Staked to a 6-run lead with their best pitcher on the mound, the crowd’s anticipation of a Dodger victory built with every inning.
After his first-inning trouble, Hershiser did not allow a runner beyond first base heading into the late innings. His strongest inning was the sixth, when he struck out Hernandez and Strawberry, drawing yet another ovation.
As Hershiser worked his way through the Mets’ order in the late innings, the crowd responded accordingly. By the ninth inning, when Hershiser had 2 strikes on Johnson, the roar was at its peak. Hershiser answered, striking out Johnson to end the game.
“I had no doubt we’d win this game,” Hatcher said. “It seems whenever there is a big game, we come through. And with Orel pitching, like I said, I didn’t think we’d lose.”