Many thought the 1988 New York Mets should have won the pennant, and there’s plenty of reason to believe it. For one, they finished the season with the National League’s best record at 100-60, fifteen games above the Pittsburgh Pirates in the East. For another, they held a 10-1 regular season record against the NL West-winning Los Angeles Dodgers, who entered the National League Championship Series as massive underdogs. But mostly, the swagger of the 1986 team that diminished in a disappointing 1987 season had returned in ‘88, giving Mets fans legitimate hope that their team could win two titles in three years.
Instead, the Mets and Dodgers played an all-time classic series marred by trash-talk, comeback victories, suspensions, and a big Kirk Gibson home run that wasn’t that Kirk Gibson home run, and the Dodgers emerged victorious. In the end, a team that had only won one game against the Mets in the regular season took four of seven to advance to the World Series. And the Mets, heavy favorites to advance to their fourth World Series appearance, dropped their first NLCS in franchise history. So what happened?
Dodgers Game 1 starter Orel Hershiser entered Game 1 pitching a record 59 consecutive scoreless innings, and he continued that streak against the Mets, pitching the first eight innings without giving up a run.
Mets starter Dwight Gooden came into the game with less fanfare, but arguably pitched better than his counterpart, giving up four hits on two runs in seven innings pitched, striking out ten Dodgers batters. But after giving up a run in the first, he exited the game after the seventh inning with a deficit.
Hershiser took the mound in the top of the ninth inning with a 2-0 lead and 67 consecutive scoreless innings pitched looking to lock up a Game 1 victory. But after giving up a single to Gregg Jefferies and an RBI double to Darryl Strawberry two batters later, Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda yanked Hershiser and inserted reliever Jay Howell to close the game.
Howell then walked Kevin McReynolds to put the winning run on first base, but got the second out of the inning on a Howard Johnson strikeout with Gary Carter the last hope for the Mets. Down 0-2 in the count and only one strike away from a loss, Carter hit a curveball out of the strike zone into center field. Dodgers center fielder John Shelby, who was playing deep according to ABC play-by-play announcer Al Michaels, dove for the ball and got it in his glove but lost it when he collided with the ground. Strawberry, who the LA Times called “a Dodger wanna-be” in their coverage of the game the following day, scored the tying run.
Shelby picked up the ball and double-pumped as McReynolds rounded third base. Dodgers catcher Mike Scioscia drifted up the third-base line to receive the Shelby throw, and McReynolds bowled over him to score the go-ahead run. Mets reliever Randy Myers entered in the bottom of the ninth and shut the Dodgers down 1-2-3, stealing a victory for the Mets in Game 1.
Mets Game 2 starter David Cone stirred up controversy in a ghost-written article in the New York Daily News where he referred to Howell as a “high school pitcher.” “I’ll tell you a secret,” he wrote about Game 1, “As soon as we got Orel out of the game, we knew we’d beat the Dodgers.”
The Dodgers quite literally turned the article into bulletin-board material and used it to beat up on Cone and the Mets in Game 2. Cone, who went 20-3 that year in his first full season in the majors, gave up five runs and five hits in just two innings of work, exiting his first playoff start in shame. Keith Hernandez’s three-RBI performance wasn’t enough, and the Mets dropped Game 2 to the Dodgers 6-3 in Los Angeles.
‘’This is my first - and I’m announcing today - my last attempt at tabloid journalism,’’ Cone said in the Daily News the following day. He then apologized to Howell and his Mets teammates, saying he got too emotional on the mound. “I’d like to think I wasn’t affected in the game,” he told the New York Times the following day. “I had good stuff. But I know I was upset.’’
Cone was the story in Game 2, and not for the reason he wanted to. But he would redeem himself later in the series.
Rain pushed back Game 3 in New York by one day, allowing the Dodgers to start Hershiser on three-days rest. The Mets sent out Ron Darling, who after the game called it the “worst day I ever played baseball” due to the rain-logged field conditions. It wouldn’t have been terribly surprising if every other player felt the same way: It was 43 degrees and drizzling at first pitch.
Darling slipped up in the second inning walking the first two batters he faced, and an exceedingly rare error by Hernandez from a Scioscia bunt allowed those runners to score. Errors and slip-ups on the muddy base-paths mired the entire game, and the Mets found themselves down 3-1 in the bottom of the sixth inning. A Gibson error gave Hernandez an opening to advance to third, but Hernandez slipped in the mud and was tagged out trying to crawl back to second base. After a Strawberry single, Dodgers third-baseman Jeff Hamilton bobbled a routine ground ball from McReynolds allowing him to reach base. Carter then drove in Strawberry with a single in the next at-bat and Wally Backman followed with an RBI single of his own, scoring McReynolds and tying the game at 3-3. But the craziness had just begun.
After the Dodgers took a 4-3 lead in the top of the eighth, the Dodgers sent Howell to the mound in the bottom of the eighth to close the door on the Mets. With McReynolds up to bat, Mets manager Davey Johnson approached home plate umpire Joe West and asked him to inspect Howell’s glove for a foreign substance. West then summoned crew chief Harry Wendelstedt to perform the inspection. And in one of the wildest postseason ejections ever, Wendelstedt found pine tar on Howell’s glove and promptly threw him out of the game, to the disbelief of Lasorda and the Dodgers.
Wendelstedt then presented the glove to NL president and future MLB commissioner Bart Giamatti, who inspected the glove himself and confirmed Wendelstedt’s ruling. Giamatti would later suspend Howell for three games following the incident, though Howell would only serve two games upon appeal and eventually pitched in Game 6.
But the damage was done for the Dodgers. With Howell thrown out of the game, the Mets pounced for five runs in the eighth and took an 8-4 lead heading into the final inning. With an extra days rest, and only two innings pitched his previous outing, Cone redeemed himself by closing the game with a 1-2-3 ninth inning.
After the game, Howell told reporters that because of the cold temperatures, he thought the glove would be thrown out but he would remain in the game. “I’ve used it in cold-weather situations when the rosin bag doesn’t work,” he said. “I know a lot of pitchers who use pine tar, because when the weather’s cold like it is today (43 degrees and raining), rosin makes the ball slick.” But during the incident, ABC color commentator Tim McCarver reported that Johnson and the Mets suspected Howell had been using pine tar during Game 1 in Los Angeles. Temperatures in Los Angeles at the time were warm and dry, arising suspicion that Howell was using pine tar to gain a competitive advantage and not to keep a grip on a cold ball.
Whatever the case may be, the ejection marked the turning point for the Mets in Game 3 and gave them a 2-1 series edge heading into Game 4.
Game 3 got all the headlines with the rain delay and the ejection, but Game 4 had an even wilder finish that turned the series for the Dodgers.
After giving up a two-run single in the first, Gooden settled down and pitched a gem, striking out eight batters and giving up only four hits in his first eight innings. The offense came through as well, with Strawberry and McReynolds hitting back-to-back home runs in the fourth inning to retake the lead for the Mets. Carter added an RBI triple in the sixth as Gooden cruised through the Dodgers lineup. And then Gooden began the ninth inning.
With a 4-2 lead and facing the bottom half of the lineup, Gooden gave up a leadoff walk to Shelby. And on the very next pitch, Gooden gave up a game-tying two-run home run to Scioscia that stunned the Shea Stadium crowd to silence. Scioscia had only hit three home runs that year, and picked an opportune time to hit his fourth.
“Scioscia’s home run was, I think, more important to our club than Gibson’s home run in the World Series,” said Lasorda in a 2015 interview with MLB.com. It didn’t win the game, but it deflated the Mets entirely as the game headed into extra innings.
In the top of the 12th, Kirk Gibson hit a go-ahead solo home run for the Dodgers to put them up 5-4. It was Gibson’s shining moment of the postseason so far, though he would top it six days later.
In the bottom of the 12th, Mackey Sasser and Lee Mazzilli hit back-to-back singles against Dodgers reliever Tim Leary to put the go-ahead runner on base. After former Mets pitcher Jesse Orosco came in with one out, walked Hernandez, and began Strawberry’s at-bat with a ball, Lasorda reportedly visited the mound and asked Orosco “What the f—- is wrong with you?” Orosco then got Strawberry to fly out, and Lasorda called for a reliever.
But the Dodgers were out of relievers, and the only pitcher left in the bullpen was Hershiser, who pitched seven innings the previous day. Lasorda called on Hershiser anyway, and the Dodgers ace got McReynolds to pop up to center for the final out of the game.
“It was a seven-game series, but the Mets lost the series in Game 4,” said Howie Rose, longtime Mets radio play-by-play man, in a 2015 interview. After seeing a potential 3-1 series lead drop to 2-2, the Mets returned to Shea Stadium the following morning with their momentum erased.
Since both teams had to be back in Los Angeles by Tuesday night, Game 5 took place the following morning in New York at 12:20 PM, less than twelve hours after Game 4 ended. This was not enough time for the Mets to recover from their crushing loss the night before.
Mets starter Sid Fernandez gave up three runs in the third inning, and then was pulled in the fourth after giving up a three-run home run to Gibson, another shining moment he would top five days later. A Lenny Dykstra three-run home run in the bottom of the inning cut the deficit in half, but the Mets only managed one more run off Dodgers starter Tim Belcher in his seven innings of work.
Gibson singled in the top of the ninth inning and stole second base off Mets reliever Roger McDowell. But though there was no throw to second, Gibson slid late and injured his leg, knocking him out of the game and hampering him for the rest of the playoffs. He ended up starting both Games 6 and 7 in the NLCS, but his injured legs forced him to see only one pinch-hit plate appearance in the World Series. You know how that went.
Gibson’s replacement Jose Gonzalez would score an insurance run off a Mike Marshall triple, and Brian Holton closed out a 7-4 Game 5 victory in the bottom of the ninth. The Mets headed back to Los Angeles the following day on the verge of their first-ever NLCS loss.
Cone had already somewhat redeemed his Game 2 shellacking by earning the save in Game 3, but he fully redeemed himself with his Game 6 start. Cone took the mound at Dodger Stadium once again, but this time pitched a complete game, giving up only one run on five hits and striking out six.
In fact, all the Mets starters played a complete game, with not a single bench player or relief pitcher used the entire evening. McReynolds did most of the damage for the Mets offense, hitting an RBI sacrifice fly in the first inning and a two-run home run in the fifth, going 4-4 and adding a stolen base. Mets shortstop Kevin Elster added an RBI double in the third, and Hernandez knocked the final blow with an RBI single in the sixth. Cone cruised the rest of the way, and the Mets took Game 6 5-1.
In just his second season with the Mets, Cone led the team with 5.7 bWAR, and in Game 6 he put together a performance fitting of his tremendous season. Cone went on to finish third in the NL Cy Young race in his first full season, a tremendous accomplishment, but he would eventually lose to Hershiser and his magical scoreless inning streak. And would you like to guess who was starting Game 7 for the Dodgers?
It’s easy to imagine a reality where the Mets win the 1988 NL pennant if Orel Hershiser is anything less than his 1988 world-beating self. The Mets had the more talented roster and more recent history of success, not to mention two starters who could go round-for-round with the Dodgers ace. But despite the hiccups and poor decisions and underwhelming offense, the Mets lost the 1988 NLCS because of one overwhelming fact: The Dodgers got to pitch Hershiser, and the Mets had to face him.
Hershiser pitched a complete game shutout in Game 7 of the 1988 NLCS. That’s all you really need to know about Game 7. He pitched nine innings, gave up five hits, struck out five batters, and gave up zero runs.
Darling started the game for the Mets and did not see the same success. He limited the damage in the first inning to a Gibson RBI sac fly, but gave up two straight singles to start the second inning. A Scioscia bunt that Hernandez misplayed then loaded the bases, and a Jeffries error on a Hershiser ground ball allowed the Dodgers to tie the game.
Darling was pulled after giving up an RBI single to Steve Sax on the very next at-bat, and the Mets tried to stop the bleeding by inserting Gooden in long relief. But a Backman throwing error allowed Hershiser to score, and a Shelby sac fly brought in Sax for their sixth run. The Dodgers sent eleven batters to the plate in the second inning and scored five runs on only four singles, one of which a dubious misplay on the Scioscia bunt. The game, and the series, was essentially over.
Gooden, Terry Leach, and Rick Aguilera held the Dodgers scoreless the rest of the way, but it didn’t matter so long as Hershiser was on the mound. The closest the Mets came to scoring was on a Jefferies double in the seventh and a Dykstra double in the eighth—both reached third but neither touched home plate. Hershiser struck out Johnson to end the game and send the Dodgers to the World Series.
The Mets and the Dodgers diverged from that point. The Dodgers went on to shock baseball once again by winning the 1988 World Series over the favored Oakland Athletics in five games, with Hershiser winning MVP honors once again with wins in Games 2 and 5.
The Mets finished second in the NL East in 1989 and 1990, putting up good fights but missing the playoffs. The Mets fired Davey Johnson early in the 1990 season and followed up with six consecutive losing seasons. The luster of the mid-80s was gone, replaced by a period of losing and organizational dysfunction. 1988 was the last gasp of a potential dynasty, stopped only by Hershiser and his remarkable postseason performance.