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Mets playoffs: Relive the Mets' NLCS appearances in 1969, 1973, 1986, and 1988

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Before the Wild Card Era, the Mets played in four League Championship Series, winning three. Here are their stories.

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The Mets are in the middle of their eighth National League Championship Series. They are 4-3 all-time in this round.  Before the Wild Card, there were two National League divisions and the winners thereof faced off in the Championship Series. As with the League Division Series now, the NLCS used to be a best-of-five series. The Mets won two of those, in 1969 and 1973. The format then changed to a best-of-seven series, and the Mets split two of those, winning in 1986 and losing in 1988. All told, the Amazins were 3-1 in League Championship Series matchups before the Wild Card Era.

1969: (3-0): New York Mets (100-62) over Atlanta Braves (93-69)

The Miracle Mets of 1969 just kept on rolling in red-hot fashion with this sweep of the Braves in the first-ever NLCS. Despite New York’s normally excellent starting pitching, this series was a slugfest, with scores of 9-5, 11-6, and 7-4. The games featured a total of 11 home runs. Despite losing, Hank Aaron of the Braves homered once in each game.

Game 1 featured a matchup of Tom Seaver and knuckleballer Phil Niekro in Atlanta. Of the nine runs the Mets scored, only four were earned. Trailing 5-4 after seven innings, the Mets staged a five-run rally in the eighth to win the game. New York took advantage of two crucial Atlanta errors in the inning. The go-ahead run scored when Orlando Cepeda made a wild throw home on Ed Kranepool’s ground ball to first with runners on first and third and one out. Three more unearned runs scored later when center fielder Tony Gonzalez misplayed J.C. Martin’s two-out pinch-hit single with the bases loaded, allowing all three runners to score.

Game 2 was another wild game. The Mets jumped out to an 8-0 lead through three and a half innings, just to see the Braves close to within 9-6 after five. Ron Taylor gave up one hit in 1.1 innings in relief of Jerry Koosman to earn the win. Tug McGraw slammed the door shut, pitching a scoreless last three innings. Tommie Agee, Ken Boswell, and Cleon Jones all homered for New York.

Back at Shea on Monday afternoon, October 6, the Mets wrapped up the series in Game 3. A critical juncture occurred in the top of the third. With the Mets already trailing 2-0 thanks to Aaron’s two-run homer in the first, the Braves put runners on second and third with nobody out. Mets’ manager Gil Hodges summoned Nolan Ryan out of the bullpen in relief of Gary Gentry. Ryan proceeded to strike out Rico Carty for the first out. After an intentional walk to Cepeda, Ryan struck out Clete Boyer looking, and retired Bob Didier on a fly ball to left to escape the jam.

The Mets took a 3-2 lead on Boswell’s two-run shot in the fourth, but Cepeda answered with a two-run dinger of his own in the fifth off Ryan to put the Braves back in front. New York reclaimed the lead for good in the bottom of the fifth when Wayne Garrett hit a two-run homer off of Pat Jarvis. Boswell and Agee added RBI singles later to pad the lead, while Ryan finished the game, pitching seven innings of relief. Tony Gonzalez grounded out to third for the final out, and Mets fans stormed the field. New York advanced to its first World Series to face the Baltimore Orioles.

1973 (3-2): New York Mets (82-79) over Cincinnati Reds (99-63)

The Mets were huge underdogs to the Big Red Machine, the defending NL champions, but found a way to prevail anyway. The teams split the first two games in Cincinnati. The Reds won Game 1, 2-1, on Johnny Bench’s walk-off homer in the ninth off of Tom Seaver. The next day, the Mets drew even with a 5-0 win on the strength of Jon Matlack’s two-hitter.

The series really heated up when it moved to Shea Stadium for the final three games, played on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday afternoons. All the runs in Game 3 were scored by the fourth inning as the Mets won easily 9-2. With that final 9-2 score already settled in the top of the fifth, Pete Rose slid hard into shortstop Bud Harrelson at second base on an inning-ending double play. A fight ensued, but there were no ejections. Mets fans threw all kinds of debris on the field in protest, and manager Yogi Berra and other players had to plead with the fans to restore order and avoid a forfeit. They were successful, and Jerry Koosman pitched a complete game victory.

Game 4 went to extra innings. The Reds prevailed in the 12th, 2-1, when Rose homered against Harry Parker to set up a deciding Game 5 the next day. The game was tied 2-2 in the middle of the fifth inning, but the Mets took the lead for good when they scored four times in the bottom of the inning. Cleon Jones doubled in the go-ahead run, and Willie Mays, Don Hahn, and Harrelson also drove in runs during the rally.

With the Mets leading 7-2 in the ninth, the Reds loaded the bases against Seaver with one out, but Tug McGraw came out of the bullpen to retire Joe Morgan on a pop fly to short and Dan Driessen on a grounder to first for the clinching save. Once again, the joyous fans stormed the field, as the Amazins advanced to the World Series to face the defending world champion Oakland A’s.

1986 (4-2): New York Mets (108-54) over Houston Astros (96-66)

By the mid-80s, the NLCS had expanded to the best-of-seven games. According to Wikipedia, "The Mets were to have home field advantage for this series, as the Dodgers (the 1985 NL West Champions) had it the previous year, however, a regular season game between the Chicago Bears and Houston Oilers made the Astrodome unavailable for October 12. Consequently, Games 1, 2, 6, and 7, were scheduled for the Astrodome to avoid conflicts."

Game 1 was a battle of aces between Dwight Gooden and Mike Scott, who had a nearly unhittable split-fingered fastball that the Mets suspected was a result of Scott's scuffing up the ball illegally. Houston cleanup hitter Glenn Davis accounted for the only run of the game with a home run off of Doc in the bottom of the second. The Mets evened the series with a 5-1 win the next night, as Bob Ojeda easily defeated Nolan Ryan.

The scene shifted to Shea Stadium for the next three games. Game 3 on a Saturday afternoon was a classic contest. The Astros jumped out to a 4-0 lead against Ron Darling, but the Mets rallied to tie with four runs in the sixth. Darryl Strawberry tied the game with a three-run homer to right off Bob Knepper.

Houston reclaimed the lead, 5-4, in the seventh, helped by a Ray Knight throwing error. The score stayed that way until the bottom of the ninth. Dave Smith came in the game to try to get the save for the Astros. Wally Backman led off the inning with a bunt single, and moved to second on a passed ball. After Danny Heep flied out, Lenny Dykstra delivered a walk-off home run to give the Mets a two-games-to-one lead in the series.

Scott dominated the Mets again the next night, 3-1, to even the series 2-2. After a rainout Monday, Game 5 on Tuesday afternoon pitted Gooden vs. Ryan in a great battle. The Mets got a big break in the second when umpire Fred Brocklander called Craig Reynolds out at first on an inning-ending double play when replays appeared to show he was safe. The Astros took a 1-0 lead in the top of the fifth, but Strawberry homered in the bottom of the inning to tie the game at 1-1.

Gooden pitched ten innings, but the score remained deadlocked until the bottom of the 12th. Backman singled with one out, and would have been subsequently picked off first, but he advanced to second on pitcher Charlie Kerfeld’s wild throw. Keith Hernandez was intentionally walked to bring up Gary Carter, who was 1-for-21 in the series, but The Kid delivered the game-winning single to send the Mets back to Houston with a series lead.

Game 6 in the Astrodome on Wednesday afternoon October 15 was an all-time great game that some consider to be the greatest postseason game ever played. The Mets prevailed 7-6 in 16 tense innings to win the NL pennant. With Scott poised to pitch a potential Game 7 the next night, the Astros took a quick 3-0 lead against Ojeda in the first, and Knepper shut down the Mets until the ninth. However, the Amazins rallied to tie the game in that inning.

The Mets took a 4-3 lead on a Backman single in the 14th, but the Astros’ Billy Hatcher tied the game in the bottom of the inning with a home run off the left field foul pole against Jesse Orosco. New York responded with three runs in the top of the 16th, but the resilient Astros countered with two runs of their own in the bottom of the inning. The game came down to Houston’s Kevin Bass against Orosco, still on the mound, with runners on first and second with two outs. Orosco struck out Bass swinging, and the Mets were headed to their third World Series, this time against the Boston Red Sox.

1988 (4-3): Los Angeles Dodgers (94-67) over New York Mets (100-60)

This was the Mets’ first taste of NLCS defeat. They had defeated the Dodgers 10 of 11 times in the regular season, but Orel Hershiser just pitched too well to be beaten while leading L.A. on its way to the world championship.

Despite losing, this series did have a handful of good moments for the Mets. New York rallied for three in the ninth to pull out a 3-2 victory in Game 1 at Dodger Stadium. Gary Carter’s bloop hit just out of the reach of John Shelby in center field was the game-winner.

The Dodgers beat 20-game winner David Cone by a 6-3 score in Game 2 after Cone had provided LA with bulletin board material with comments made in a ghostwritten newspaper column.

Game 3 was on a cold and soggy Saturday afternoon at Shea Stadium. The Mets scored five runs in the eighth to win 8-4, but this game will forever be remembered as the game that Dodgers’ reliever Jay Howell was caught cheating with pine tar in his glove. Howell was subsequently ejected from the game and suspended for his actions.

Meanwhile, Cone earned a measure of redemption by pitching the ninth inning in relief to seal the win and give the Mets a 2-1 series lead.

Game 4 on Sunday night October 9 was the turning point of the series. It is remembered as the game that killed the Mets’ potential 80s dynasty. Leading 4-2 in the ninth, Dwight Gooden gave up a devastating game-tying homer to Mike Scioscia, a man who seldom hit home runs. Kirk Gibson hit a dinger in the 12th off Roger McDowell to give L.A. a 5-4 lead.

However, the Mets made a last stand in the bottom of the inning. With the bases loaded and one out, Jesse Orosco, who by this time was a Dodger, got Darryl Strawberry to pop up to second for the second out. Then, Hershiser came in the game in relief despite starting the day before. Hershiser got Kevin McReynolds to fly out to center field, as Shelby ran in to make the catch for the last out.

Los Angeles won easily in Game 5, 7-4. Then, back at Dodger Stadium for Game 6, Cone evened the series for the Mets with a 5-1 complete game victory.

However, the Dodgers won the decisive Game 7 easily the next night, 6-0, as Ron Darling was hit hard early, and the Mets really had no chance against Hershiser, who pitched a five-hit gem. Howard Johnson struck out for the last out, and it would take the Mets 11 years to return to the NLCS.