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Orel Hershiser's streak was a different ballgame

Orel Hershiser's streak was a different ballgame
In 1988, Dodgers pitcher Orel Hershiser led the league in wins (23), innings (267), complete games (15) and shutouts (8) while posting a 2.26 ERA. He also finished the season with a record 59 consecutive scoreless innings pitched. (Tom Gannam / Associated Press)

When Zack Greinke left the Dodgers on Thursday in the middle of his potentially historic scoreless-inning streak to be with wife Emily for the birth of their first child, you'll never guess who smiled at the memories.

Orel Hershiser, whose record 59-inning scoreless streak is being threatened by Greinke's 43 2/3-inning streak, also witnessed a birth during his legendary run in 1988.

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Been there, pitched through that.

On Sept. 14, 1988, at Dodger Stadium, Hershiser threw a six-hit shutout in a 1-0 victory over the Atlanta Braves.

One day later, labor was induced on then-wife Jamie and son Jordan was born.

Four days later, Hershiser threw a four-hit shutout in a 1-0 victory over the Houston Astros.

"I'm thrilled for Zack and his family, he is doing what he needs to do," said Hershiser, now a club broadcaster. "When I played, it was just a different time."

Even though Hershiser has been reluctant to offer comparisons, his was also a very different streak.

While what Greinke has accomplished has been amazing, Hershiser was simply astonishing, blazing a trail of greatness for which mere numbers do not do justice. Greinke might catch him, but it's hard to imagine anyone ever matching him.

"I have never thrown a ball as hard as Zack Greinke," Hershiser protested Thursday in a phone call from New York, where Greinke had been scheduled to face the Mets on Friday before he appropriately rushed off to daddy duty. "I've never thrown a ball in my whole career as good as Greinke and Kershaw are throwing. I'm not even in that realm. These guys are on a different level."

But for one month in 1988, Hershiser existed on an even higher plane, one that could not be equaled by Kershaw's 41-inning scoreless streak attempt last season, and one that will not even be equaled if Greinke passes him in the next couple of weeks.

"I'm cheering for this, I want this to happen, I've had my day," Hershiser said. "I want Zack and the next Dodger championship team to have their day."

Yes, but perhaps it's worth pausing to remember the day of the Bulldog.

Hershiser's streak included five consecutive shutouts in the middle of a pennant race, capped by 10 scoreless innings in his final start of the season. For comparison's sake, Greinke has not completed any of the six games during his mid-summer streak, and has pitched as many as eight innings only twice.

"That's all about game management, I'm sure Zack would complete games if they needed him to complete games, he's doing what they ask," said Hershiser. "For me, Tommy [Lasorda] would always say, 'If you were playing poker, would you get up from table and let somebody else play your chips? Then why are you letting the bullpen come into your games?'"

When Hershiser tied record-holder Don Drysdale after nine innings of a scoreless tie in San Diego on Sept. 28, he told Lasorda that he was coming out of the game.

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''We had already clinched the division, the game meant nothing, and how cool would it be for two Dodgers to share the record?" Hershiser recalled. ''I thought the situation was perfect, I wanted to be linked with Big D forever."

When Lasorda heard Hershiser make this argument in the dugout, he simply shook his head and walked away as if he'd been talking to a crazy man.

"You're going out there!" he shouted to Hershiser, who sheepishly grabbed his glove and jogged into history.

And who was in the dugout waiting for Hershiser after the record-setting inning, with the score still 0-0? It was Drysdale, who had come down from his usual spot in the team's broadcast booth to hug him and conduct the first in-game, postgame radio interview in Dodgers history. The game, incidentally, was not shown on television in Los Angeles because it was so late in the season and all the broadcast dates had been used.

Hershiser's streak amazingly extended into the postseason, where eight scoreless innings in the playoff opener against the Mets gave him 67 consecutive scoreless innings.

"We just had a really good team, it wasn't about me, I was always just part of the whole," Hershiser said.

Eleven days after setting the record, one day after his second playoff start lasted seven innings in cold weather, Hershiser made his biggest three pitches of the season out of the bullpen.

It was after 1 a.m. in New York, in the 12th inning of a rain-delayed Game 4 against the Mets. The Dodgers had run out of relievers, so Hershiser volunteered to stretch out his battered arm and face a batter. He entered the game with bases loaded and two out, threw three pitches, retired Kevin McReynolds on a fly ball to center that was caught at the knees by a charging John Shelby, and earned the save that probably saved the season.

"What had happened to me during the streak just kept happening the rest of the season," Hershiser said. "Guys would continually make great plays behind me. My record was as much of a team record as an individual record."

Hershiser ended the season with three consecutive complete-game victories, one against the Mets in Game 7 and two against the Oakland Athletics in the World Series, the final one ending with catcher Rick Dempsey lifting Hershiser into a championship celebration. It turns out, the streak was only the beginning.

"I don't get up in the morning and go, 'This is going to be a good day because I have the streak,"' Hershiser said. "I have this great job in a city I love, with a team we won a world championship with, for a fan base that still greets me every day with smile and applause. Why would I be the only person in my world who would be disappointed to see Zack break my record? I want it to happen."

Even though their streaks are very different, there is one way they are exactly the same. They are both working with struggling offenses, which Hershiser said leads to the sort of batter-to-batter focus that can result in strings of zeros.

"When you're getting one or two runs a game, you can't pitch around people, every out is huge, the focus is finer," Hershiser said. ''If you're winning 5-0, you're just trying to get out of the inning, end the game, allowing a run or two doesn't worry you so much."

Greinke hasn't sought pitching advice from Hershiser, not like Hershiser used to lean on Drysdale for help. But Hershiser understands that with all the video and statistical information today, veterans don't need much mentoring.

Still, if there was one piece of wisdom Hershiser would like to pass along, it can be found in the location of the silver cup given to him by the Dodgers in honor of the record streak. He keeps it on a glass top that he put on an antique funeral cart with other awards, including his World Series MVP trophy, as a sober reminder.

"That moment was great, I'll remember it forever, but I've happily moved on to other things, and that part of my life is dead," Hershiser said. "Enjoy it, cherish it, but know that it doesn't last forever."

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