After coming up just short of the division title in 1984 and 1985 with 90 and 98 wins, respectively, the 1986 Mets left little doubt, finishing the regular season 108-54, 21.5 games clear of anyone else in the National League East. New York entered the third NLCS in franchise history as prohibitive favorites to roll through the playoffs en route to the second world championship in franchise history. Of course, the National League West champion Astros—led by a impressive starting rotation featuring Mike Scott, Nolan Ryan, and Bob Knepper—won their division comfortably as well, and hoped to ride their arms to an upset victory.
In a matchup featuring the previous season’s Cy Young Award winner in Dwight Gooden against the presumptive (and eventual) 1986 winner in Scott, the expected pitchers’ duel materialized. Gooden blinked early, surrendering a home run in the bottom of the second to Astros’ slugger Glenn Davis. That run loomed large on the scoreboard as Scott dominated the powerful Mets’ offense, surrendering only five singles while striking out 14, as the Mets never advanced a runner past second base in the game. Questions of whether Scott could dominate the whole series—and whether or not he would be doing so by throwing scuffed baseballs—would linger over the entire series for the Mets and their fans.
Mets starter Bob Ojeda would match zeroes with Ryan over the first three innings of Game 2, before the Mets offense would finally break out in the top of the fourth. After Wally Backman and Keith Hernandez singled, Gary Carter would double in a run, and Darryl Strawberry would add a sacrifice fly to stake the Mets to a 2-0 lead.
Backman and Hernandez were in the middle of another rally the very next inning, as Hernandez’s two-run triple would be the key blow as the Mets extended their lead to 5-0, knocking the future hall of famer out of the game after five. Ojeda would make that hold up as he scattered ten hits but was rarely threatened over his complete game victory. The latter innings would mark a rare low-stress period for the team in the series, as the Mets would only hold the lead at the conclusion of three of the 46 innings of baseball that would follow—fortunately for them, those being the final inning of three of the next four games.
The series shifted to a raucous Shea Stadium (the LCS alternated home field advantage by division regardless of record at the time), but the Astros quieted the crowd early by jumping out to a 4-0 lead early, plating a pair of runs in each of the first two innings off of Mets’ starter Ron Darling. The score would remain there until the sixth, when the Mets would rally against Astros starter Knepper. Kevin Mitchell and Hernandez started the frame with singles, then the team scored its first run when Houston shortstop Craig Reynolds booted a potential double play grounder. The error proved even costlier when Strawberry followed with a three-run blast to tie the game.
The Astros would inch right back ahead in the top of the seventh off of Rick Aguilera thanks in large part to a Ray Knight error. It would remain 5-4 into the bottom of the ninth, when Backman would lead off against Dave Smith with a drag bunt, diving to the far edge of the baseline to avoid first baseman Davis’s tag. Backman advanced to second on a passed ball, but Danny Heep failed to advance him to third. This proved moot when the next batter, Lenny Dykstra, lofted a Smith forkball into the right-field bleachers, giving the Mets a stunning 6-5 victory and sending Shea into a delirium. Dykstra’s home run was the first walk-off home run in postseason history hit with his team trailing.
The Astros would turn to Scott on three days’ rest to try to even the series back up, and on a chilly night at Shea, Houston’s ace would again silence the Mets’ bats. Once Sid Fernandez surrendered a two-out, two-run home run on a 3-2 pitch to Astros catcher Alan Ashby in the top of the second, the result a foregone conclusion. The Mets wouldn’t record their first hit—a ground ball single by Ray Knight—until there were two outs in the bottom of the fifth, by which time a Dickie Thon home run had extended the Astros lead to 3-0.
Scott would only strike out five this time, and the Mets would finally scratch out a run against him in the bottom of the eighth when Mookie Wilson made a dash from first-to-third on a Knight groundout, then scored on a Danny Heep sacrifice fly, but Scott’s three-hit complete game victory did little to quell fears that—though the series was tied at 2 games apiece—it was the Mets that had no more room for error with the Houston ace looming for a potential Game 7.
Game 5 featured another tense, exciting pitchers’ duel—this one pitting young fireballer Gooden against the veteran strikeout artist Ryan. The game remained scoreless through four, as Gooden got out of a first-and-third, none out situation in the second with a strikeout and a double play. Meanwhile, Ryan had his vintage no-hit stuff, retiring the first 12 Mets in order, seven via strikeout.
The Astros broke through in the top of the fifth, as Gooden almost pulled a similar escape as in the second, but Bill Doran beat out a potential double play to push across a run for the Astros. Strawberry answered back immediately, leading off the bottom of the frame with a line drive just inside the foul pole and over the right field wall to tie the game back up at 1. It would remain there until the bottom of the 12th, when Backman reached on a single and advanced to second on an errant Kerfeld pickoff. This prompted an intentional walk of Hernandez to bring up the struggling Carter (1 for 21 in the series to that point). The strategy would not work, as the catcher ground a single through the middle to bring home the streaking Backman and give the Mets a 3-2 series lead.
It involved 16 innings and 4 hours, 42 minutes of baseball. It prompted a book called The Greatest Game Ever Played, which people didn’t criticize for its hyperbole, And somehow, it isn’t necessarily the 1986 Mets playoff game people initially think of when they hear the phrase “Game 6”...
The Astros jumped on Ojeda for three runs in the bottom of the first inning on RBI hits from Phil Garner, Davis, and Jose Cruz. While Ojeda settled down and got through five innings, keeping the score 3-0, Knepper was simply brilliant for the Astros. The lefty surrendered only two hits and a walk through the first eight innings. Knepper and the Astros took the field to start the top of the ninth with a win expectancy of 97%, and a Game 7 featuring Ron Darling and Mike Scott on the horizon.
However, Dykstra led off the ninth with a triple beyond the reach of Billy Hatcher, and Wilson would follow with an RBI single. A one-out Hernandez double would cut the Houston lead to one and chase Knepper, and Smith would surrender a game-tying sacrifice fly to Knight. The game would remain knotted into the fourteenth inning, as Roger McDowell would hurl five scoreless innings in relief. The Mets finally scored in the top of the fourteenth on a Backman RBI single, bringing in Jesse Orosco to close it out. However, Hatcher would do his best Carlton Fisk impression, coaxing a tying home run into the foul pole netting to tie the game.
The Mets would break through for three in the top of the sixteenth, seemingly salting the series away. But the Astros would not go quietly against a tiring Orosco, rallying for two runs on a walk and three singles to cut the lead to 7-6 and bring the dangerous Kevin Bass to the plate. Orosco would strike out Bass on a steady diet of sliders, sending his glove to the heavens and the Mets and their fans into a delirious, relief-filled celebration, as the Mets had won their third National League pennant, moving on to a World Series matchup against the Boston Red Sox.