The record stood for 20 years, 58 2/3 scoreless innings, a tribute to Don Drysdale’s pitching dominance during the summer of 1968.
To break it would require a level of pitching consistency rarely achieved--six shutouts and then some. Orel Hershiser, ace of the Los Angeles Dodgers, figured old Double D’s mark was safe, especially from him.
“I never thought I would break the record,” Hershiser said. “I thought nobody would break the record. But now I think somebody can break it, because I’m nobody special.”
He was wrong there. Orel Hershiser was more than special in September, 1988. He bordered on the unhittable, throwing 59 consecutive scoreless innings--67 if you include the playoffs--to punctuate the Dodgers’ rush to the National League West title.
The achievement was voted Performance of the Decade in a poll of sports writers and broadcasters conducted by the Associated Press, receiving 156 votes to far outdistance the four gold medals won by Carl Lewis in the 1984 Olympic Games, which had 77 votes.
Then came Wayne Gretzky breaking hockey’s 200-point barrier (76); Roger Clemens’ record 20-strikeout game (30); Steffi Graf’s tennis Grand Slam (29); Jose Canseco’s 40 homer-40 steal season (26); Eric Dickerson’s 2,105-yard season (15); Dan Marino’s 200 career touchdowns (14); U.S. Olympic Miracle on Ice (12); Matt Biondi’s seven Olympic medals (7); Butch Reynolds’ 400-meter record (6); Woody Stephens’ five straight Belmont winners (5); Greg LeMond’s Tour de France victories (2); Greg Louganis’ 1988 Olympics (2); Jack Nicklaus’ last nine holes at the 1986 Masters.
Hershiser’s streak started innocently enough with four shutout innings in a 4-2 victory over the Montreal Expos on Aug. 30, 1988. Five days later, at Atlanta, he blanked the Braves 3-0.
Now the Dodgers returned home and the right-hander extended the streak by shutting out Cincinnati 5-0 and Atlanta 1-0. Back on the road, Hershiser won a second straight 1-0 decision, this time over Houston, pushing the string to 40 innings. He was still 18 shutout innings--two full games--away from Drysdale. And then, he got a break.
Pitching in San Francisco on Sept. 23, he got into a third-inning jam. The Giants had runners at first and third with one out when Ernest Riles hit a ground ball. The Dodgers went for the double play but Alfredo Griffin’s relay throw got away and Jose Uribe came across the plate. On the mound, Hershiser accepted the apparent end of the streak.
“I saw the run score and said to myself, ‘Well, it’s 1-0 and the streak is gone. Let’s go after the next batter.’ ” Hershiser said. “I was on the mound rubbing up the ball when I looked back and saw Paul Runge’s thumb up in the air.”
Runge, the second-base umpire, had called Brett Butler out for interference, allowing the double play and preserving the streak.
“I just ran into the dugout as fast as I could,” Hershiser said. “I didn’t want him to change his mind.”
Ironically, Drysdale got a similar break during his streak and it also happened against the Giants. San Francisco catcher Dick Dietz was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded in the ninth inning of Drysdale’s fifth shutout, apparently forcing a run home. But umpire Harry Wendelstedt ruled that Dietz had made no effort to avoid the pitch, erasing the run and keeping the streak intact at 47 innings.
Drysdale, a Dodger broadcaster, got to watch Hershiser’s streak up close and marveled at the pitcher’s consistency. “Orel’s been in complete control,” Drysdale said after the second 1-0 game. “He’s in such a groove. He’s worked so hard. You just like to see him do well.”
When the streak reached 58 innings on Sept. 30 at San Diego--Drysdale’s mark had been amended by baseball’s record keepers to eliminate the fraction--Hershiser asked Dodger Manager Tommy Lasorda to lift him from the game. “I did it out of respect for Don,” he said. “I think he’s a much better pitcher than I am. He’s a Hall of Famer. I thought it would be a lot better if we were both sitting up there on top.”
Lasorda refused. Hershiser went back to work for one more inning, recorded three more outs and claimed the record that ranks as the Performance of the Decade.