In about the time it takes to sing a hymn, sign a contract, or burst a bubble, the Cincinnati Reds proved Wednesday night what Orel Hershiser has been saying now for weeks: 1988 is over.
One inning into Hershiser's 1989 regular-season debut, the Reds had a run on the Riverfront Stadium scoreboard on Todd Benzinger's run-scoring single to end the phenomenal stretch of 59 consecutive zeroes that the Dodger pitcher had posted in his record-setting streak at the end of last season.
Eight innings later, Cincinnati reliever John Franco struck out Kirk Gibson to put the finishing touches on the Reds' 4-3 victory and Hershiser's first loss since last Aug. 24, a period spanning a dozen starts--including three in the league playoffs and two in the World Series, plus one dramatic postseason relief appearance against the New York Mets.
"I'm sure Orel knew that sometime or other this year, he'd get scored upon," said Franco, who has yet to give up a run to the Dodgers while ringing up saves in the first two games of the new season.
Hershiser accelerated that inevitability with two throwing errors, one on a botched pickoff play in the first inning, the other on a bunt in the fourth. He then was unable to survive one last flawed inning--the seventh, when left fielder Gibson dropped Chris Sabo's fly ball for a two-base error, catcher Mike Scioscia missed an outside pitch for a passed ball, and Eric Davis delivered Sabo with a sacrifice fly for what proved to be the deciding run.
The 20,964 fans who sat in the Cincinnati chill may have come expecting perfection--not only from Hershiser, but also from his mound opponent, Tom Browning, the Reds' left-hander who set down all 27 batters he faced the last time he pitched against the Dodgers. Instead, they saw a game decided by the caprices--walks, errors, bad hops and good--that normally govern a pitcher's life but somehow spared Hershiser for two magical months.
"A very strange game," Hershiser said afterward. "So many different things happened, and they all happened in one game."
Hershiser didn't need to consult Red Manager Pete Rose to know that the odds of prolonging his streak were not in his favor.
"You have to be ready for the moment," Hershiser said, alluding to the streak that in his mind ended during the playoffs last season. "And you have to have the ability to go through with it. But with the probabilities of baseball, you can only go so far.
"Don (Drysdale) told me that you don't realize what you've done until after you retire. That's when you think about how easy it is to score a run, and what a feat (the streak) was."
During the streak, Hershiser said, Barry Larkin's leadoff groundball would have been hit directly at Dodger shortstop Alfredo Griffin. "Instead, he hit a chopper that went over my head into center field," Hershiser said.
When Hershiser tried to pick Larkin off first base, his throw hit the Red player near the armpit as he dived back into the bag, giving Larkin free passage to second base. Hershiser struck out the next two batters, Chris Sabo and Eric Davis, then walked Kal Daniels on four pitches--a prudent decision, inasmuch as Daniels came into the game with a .500 average and four home runs off Hershiser.
"I didn't have to read that," Hershiser said. "I knew that."
He knew little, however, about Benzinger, the first baseman the Reds acquired from the Boston Red Sox last winter in a trade for Nick Esasky. So little, in fact, that Hershiser referred to Benzinger by the wrong first name, Tom instead of Todd. By any name, Benzinger's hard grounder through the right side was a base hit, Larkin crossed the plate easily and the crowd rose to give the newcomer a standing ovation.
"Oh, that'll be headlines tomorrow: 'Hershiser didn't even know the name of the guy who got the RBI to break his streak,' " the pitcher said with a grin.
For the first time since his 2-1 loss to the New York Mets last Aug. 24, Hershiser found himself behind in a game, a heartening development for Browning.
"After we scored the run, I was really pumped up," he said. "I reared back and tried to throw the ball past guys."
Instead, Browning found himself throwing the ball anywhere but over the plate, walking three batters, including Willie Randolph with the bases loaded, for the Dodgers' first run in the second. It could have gotten even uglier for Browning, but left fielder Daniels made a diving catch of Griffin's bid for extra bases to end the inning.
Singles by Davis, Benzinger and Paul O'Neill in the third made it 2-1. In the fourth, after Ron Oester's leadoff double, Hershiser botched Browning's bunt, first looking to third, then throwing wildly past Randolph at first, allowing Oester to score, making it 3-1.
"I didn't get my feet under me," Hershiser said, "and my throw tailed up the line.
In the fifth, Hershiser, who singled off Sabo's glove in his first at-bat, beat out a bunt and eventually scored on Gibson's sacrifice fly.
Browning departed after the sixth, and the Reds' bullpen was given a two-run lead to protect when Gibson, drifting back to the warning track near the left-field corner, had Sabo's ball bounce off his glove.
"There was no excuse," Gibson said. "You saw it."
A highly unusual move by Rose short-circuited the Dodgers' bid to tie in the eighth. The Dodgers had runners on first and second after Gibson walked and Mariano Duncan--who replaced an injured Mike Marshall in right--singled. Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda sent Mike Davis to hit for Jeff Hamilton, but after Red reliever Rob Dibble went ahead 0 and 2 on Davis, Rose summoned Franco from the bullpen.
"I wanted to keep Mickey Hatcher out of the game as long as I could--he's a pinch-hitter deluxe," Rose said.
But after Davis whistled a slider by Dibble just foul, Rose went with the left-handed Franco, figuring correctly that Lasorda would counter with Hatcher, but at a great disadvantage.
Hatcher brought home a run with a sacrifice fly, making it 4-3.
"He still got the job done," an admiring Rose said.
But Franco got out of the inning when another Dodger pinch-hitter, Rick Dempsey, lined out to shortstop. In the ninth, Franco walked Griffin with two out but struck out Gibson with a cut fastball, a pitch that he said hadn't been shown to Gibson before this season.
"The last two games we've basically given them away," Gibson said. "We're not trying to, it just happened. Last year is over. I know it appears at this point the breaks aren't rolling our way, but we'll just keep pushing on."
A year ago, Hershiser won his first six decisions and didn't lose until May 12. Now, the man who signed the richest contract in the history of the game--for three years, $7.9 million--finds himself 0-1.
"I pitched well enough to win," said Hershiser, who allowed two earned runs on seven hits in seven innings. "We're not going to win all our games. And I'm not going to win all my games.
"Every year I pitch, it gets harder."
Dodger right fielder Mike Marshall left the game in the seventh inning after hurting his left knee on a takeout slide into Red second baseman Ron Oester the inning before. Marshall, who was examined by Red physician Dr. Warren Harding III, said he may have hyperextended the knee slightly but would not know the extent of the injury until he was re-examined today. Oester was able to complete the double play despite Marshall's hard slide. "He's the best," Marshall said. "He's a great player." . . . Some Red players took exception to the slide, apparently believing that Marshall had gone out of his way to hit Oester, but the second baseman disagreed, praising Marshall for a hard-nosed play. Oester missed almost a full season after his knee was blown out by the Mets' Mookie Wilson in 1987. . . . Eddie Murray went hitless in four trips and is still looking for his first hit as a Dodger after eight at-bats. . . . Tim Leary will pitch for the Dodgers against Rick Mahler this afternoon in the conclusion of the series. . . . Ray Searage pitched one inning of scoreless relief in his debut as a Dodger.