MLB.com Columnist

Lyle Spencer

Oral history of epic Mets-Dodgers 1988 NLCS

Key members of each team look back at one of MLB's best postseason series

Oral history of epic Mets-Dodgers 1988 NLCS

The 1988 National League Championship Series had everything an inspired script writer on Broadway or in Hollywood could have produced.

It was New York vs. Los Angeles, a clash of titans and cultures. Stars, enough to fill an All-Star squad, aligned on both sides. Managers Davey Johnson and Tommy Lasorda were household names, Johnson's Mets having won a World Series in 1986, Lasorda's Dodgers in '81.

Game Date Matchup
Gm 1 Oct. 9 NYM 3, LAD 1
Gm 2 Oct. 10 LAD 5, NYM 2
Gm 3 Oct. 12 NYM 13, LAD 7
Gm 4 Oct. 13 LAD 3, NYM 1
Gm 5 Oct. 15 NYM 3, LAD 2

Despite all these compelling elements, something was missing: a sense of drama regarding the final scene. On paper and in newspapers, coast to coast, it was a viewed as a mismatch, a foregone conclusion.

The Dodgers had the game's hottest pitcher in Orel Hershiser and combative Kirk Gibson driving the offense and clubhouse. But the Mets had riches everywhere: power and speed in a menacing lineup; power pitching in a deep rotation with an imposing bullpen.

A columnist -- yours truly, writing for the New York Post -- did a position-by-position analysis and forecasted a Mets sweep. Colleagues across the land noted how New York had taken 10 of 11 regular-season meetings, outscoring the Dodgers by 49-18, and finished with 100 wins -- six more than Los Angeles.

With the scales firmly tipped in New York's favor, how stunning it was to watch the Dodgers prevail in seven games. It was a tribute to competitive spirit and will, how a team with a sense of togetherness and purpose can band together to subdue a collection of stars.

That script, it turned out, did have everything. It stands as one of the greatest postseason series in Major League history -- even if Mets diehards might have a hard time buying that notion.

Prominent figures from both great teams, notably Hershiser, Lasorda, Mike Scioscia, Keith Hernandez and Ron Darling, recently met with MLB.com to call up memories of the epic series.

Mike Scioscia (Dodgers catcher): We felt like we didn't have anything to lose. One thing about that club was that we weren't intimidated, and [we] played free and relaxed. We weren't worried about making a mistake. As far as star power, we didn't have a lot. But as far as a team, we had a great team from one through 25. Everyone knew their role. All of us could do what the situation called for.

Ron Darling (Mets starting pitcher): I've tried to block it out until this moment right here. What I remember is during the regular season, we owned them. We played extremely well against the ballclub. Kirk Gibson, the MVP of the league, didn't hit us at all, all summer long. But what I remember that season is Orel got hot -- historically hot -- and their lineup -- which was a makeshift lineup because of all the injuries -- caught fire. It might have been the greatest collection of a motley group that there's ever been, and they did a fantastic job.

Game 1: Mets 3, Dodgers 2
Hershiser rang up eight scoreless innings in front of the home crowd and took a 2-0 lead into the ninth before the Mets finally stirred. Gregg Jefferies' leadoff single through the hole to left got it started. He advanced on a groundout and scored on Darryl Strawberry's two-strike double to right center.

Lasorda summoned Jay Howell to protect the one-run lead, and it didn't happen. One strike away from a win, Howell's 0-2 pitch to Gary Carter was punched to center beyond the grasp of John Shelby for a two-run double. Kevin McReynolds, who had walked, scored the decisive run. Randy Myers retired the Dodgers in order, and the Mets had a dramatic 3-2 victory.

Keith Hernandez (Mets first baseman): I remember Gary's hit, distinctly. It was a soft line drive up the middle, wasn't hit hard, but it won the game for us. We want to win one on the road and get that first one, and we did. So I felt real good about that -- plus, beating Hershiser.

Orel Hershiser (Dodgers starting pitcher): When Tommy came to the mound to take me out, I go, "Tommy, don't take me out, I'm fine, I'm fine." He goes "Bulldog, you're tired," and I go, "Tommy I'm fine, I just look tired because it's the first run I've given up in 67 innings." He goes, "Bulldog, get off the mound." And they end up coming back.

Carter's go-ahead single

Scioscia: McReynolds scored the go-ahead run and knocked me into, I guess, San Bernardino County from L.A. County. The start of that series wasn't as scripted, but we felt really good about our team.

Game 2: Dodgers 6, Mets 3
David Cone, coming off a breakout season, had consented to deliver a postseason column with a New York Daily News staff writer. Caught in the emotion of the Game 1 finish, Cone's ghostwritten column created a rousing reaction in the Dodgers' clubhouse before Game 2. Lasorda, the master motivator, seized on Cone's printed reaction to Howell's curveballs in key situations, and the troops were aroused. [Here's MLB.com's Paul Hagen, then of the Philadelphia Daily News, reporting on Cone's column].

Jumping on the Mets' starter with five runs in two innings, the Dodgers evened the series with a 6-3 decision behind Tim Belcher, with Mike Marshall and Mickey Hatcher each driving in two runs.

Scioscia: We came in [the clubhouse] before Game 2 and everyone had a copy of David Cone's comments talking about Jay Howell, our closer, as being a high school pitcher because all he was doing was throwing breaking balls and not challenging guys with a fastball. We took it to heart.

Tommy Lasorda (Dodgers manager): I couldn't believe the players, how mad they were at the way [Cone] had conducted himself with the newspaper and really criticized our club very, very much. And they wouldn't let up on him. We beat them in that second game, luckily, and then we went to the big three in New York.

Pena closes out Game 2

Hernandez: David was pretty stupid to do it; I'm sure he'll admit that. And he was a wreck. Their bench was riding him hard, Lasorda and the bench. I just had a bad feeling about that game. I wish I'd gone in and talked to him, but I don't think I could have had any effect on him. He got his butt kicked.

Darling: I was not aware of any of that when David arrived at the ballpark. Having found out about that and seeing David kind of blow up the way he did that night, it became pretty easy to connect the dots and realize that he was kind of spooked by all the negative attention.

Game 3: Mets 8, Dodgers 4
The scene shifted to Shea Stadium, and the story of the game was the brutal weather in Flushing Bay.

Just as in Game 1, the Mets rallied late to prevail, 8-4, with five eighth-inning runs against the Dodgers' bullpen after Hershiser exited with a one-run lead. Howell was ejected when pine tar was found on his glove and would be handed a three-game suspension -- subsequently reduced to one game.

Hershiser: Game 3 was just about weather and how cold it was and how bad it was. I pitched seven innings, got a no-decision. Jay Howell is suspended for the pine tar incident, because it was so cold we were trying to figure out any way to hold the ball. I remember Kirk Gibson pulling his hamstrings and making unbelievable catches in left field to save me in some incidents in Game 3.

Howell ejected from game

Tim Teufel (Mets second baseman): We handled St.Louis' bullpen pretty good all year. They were the team to beat in our division besides us. They had the guys that throw gas down there and we were handling them very well. So we were figuring, "Oh, yeah, we can handle the Dodgers' bullpen as well." We got some guys on base with key hits, and here we are with five runs. It wasn't like it was uncharted waters for us.

Darling: There was no reason to play the game other than certain games like that in the postseason they just play because they have to play them. I didn't pitch particularly poorly considering the way it was. I just remember it was the worst conditions -- I made almost 400 starts in the Major Leagues -- that I ever pitched in.

GAME 4: Dodgers 5, Mets 4
If Game 3 was forgettable even for the winners, Game 4 was epic -- the pivotal point of the series. Dwight Gooden was in form, on his game, and he carried a 4-2 lead into the ninth inning. John Shelby, who had a career .281 OBP and was not the most selective of hitters, worked a full-count walk leading off. Scioscia, who had homered three times in 452 regular-season plate appearances, stepped into the batter's box and changed everything with one swing.

The throng at Shea Stadium gasped as Scioscia's drive found the right-field bullpen to bring the Dodgers even.

The game went to 12 innings before Gibson homered to right-center off sinkerball specialist Roger McDowell. The Mets loaded the bases in the bottom half, but ex-Mets closer Jesse Orosco retired Strawberry on an infield popup -- and here came that man Hershiser out of the bullpen to close it out.

Scioscia: I remember getting up to home plate and checking the right side. The perennial Gold Glover Keith Hernandez was holding John Shelby on, but was cheating a bit. The Mets always played at double-play depth. I thought I had a really big hole if I could get it by Keith. It so happens that I got a pitch from Doc that was middle-in and ended up hitting it out of the park. It was pure luck. What's eerie about it is that it was at Shea Stadium, 50,000 people, but it got so quiet that I could hear my spikes on the dirt like I was the only one out there. It was surreal [how] the place got that quiet.

Scioscia's game-tying home run

Lasorda: Scioscia's home run was, I think, more important to our club than Gibson's home run in the World Series. [If] Scioscia doesn't hit that home run, we may not have even been in the World Series ... and every time he hit a home run, it was a big one.

Scioscia: Gibson hit the homer in extras, he killed it, and we take the lead. Jesse Orosco comes in ... and winds up walking [Hernandez to load the bases] and going 3-0 on Darryl Strawberry. Lasorda came out and told him, "There is no way you can walk this guy and let them tie the game on this." So, Jesse throws a fastball for a strike and Strawberry hits the highest pop fly I've ever seen. Had he connected, it would have gone over the scoreboard and into the tennis center. Tommy comes out to the mound, and I'm thinking, "We don't have any pitchers left." Out comes Orel Hershiser.

Lasorda: When [Hershiser] took that walk from that bullpen from left field, I made 10 promises to God of things that I'll do.

Darling: Orel came in and relieved, and I ended up being on third base as a pinch-runner, so the guys that pitched the day before ended up in the game the next day. [That wouldn't happen] in this day of pitch limits and innings limits and all that kind of stuff. ... In those days, it was kind of, "Get out there and go." It didn't matter.

Hershiser: I come in relief only because, when Gibby hits the home run, I run directly into the locker room. I don't even stay out for the handshakes with Gibby; I got all my game stuff on. Ran down into the bullpen and told [bullpen coach] Mark Cresse that Tommy sent me down there -- which was a lie -- and get me hot. He did, and as the inning progressed I told Cresse to call down there and tell him I'm ready. And Tommy tells the story of 'Bulldog, where is he?' `He's down here.' "How's he throwing?" 'He's throwing great.' "Well, keep him hot." And Tommy kept me hot until he brought me in with bases loaded and two outs to face Kevin McReynolds. And McReynolds hits the same popup that Carter hit to beat Jay Howell in Game 1 -- and this time Tommy is jockeying [Shelby] with his voice and everybody's jockeying for [him] to catch it, and he does.

John Shelby makes running catch

Ricky Horton (Dodgers reliever): I got the sense after that one that we could beat those guys. I had pitched [two scoreless] innings; that was a moment where I felt like I was really part of the team. Hershiser was leading the team from the mound, Kirk Gibson was leading the team from the heart, and Tommy was leading the team from emotion. You had just a thing that was working there.

Scioscia: It was one of the best games I've ever been part of.

Game 5: Dodgers 7, Mets 4
A quick turnaround for Game 5 -- a matinee -- played into the Dodgers' hands. Still riding the emotions of the dramatic Game 4 finish, they carried a 6-0 lead into the bottom of the fifth behind Tim Belcher, knocking out Sid Fernandez with Gibson's three-run homer in the fifth.

Singles by Steve Sax and Hatcher preceded Gibson's blast. Hatcher was the irrepressible leader of the "Stunt Men," an eclectic band of salty veterans who provided spice and energy off the bench for Hollywood's team.

The Mets once again rallied back with Lenny Dykstra -- Mookie Wilson's platoon partner in center field -- hitting a three-run homer off Belcher in the fifth. But the Dodgers held on for a 7-4 victory that sent them home needing one win to advance to their first World Series in seven years. The implausible was starting to look very possible.

Mickey Hatcher (Dodgers outfielder): It all started in Spring Training, with the Stunt Men. It was an older group of guys that got together and said, 'Hey, we're going to go out here and be the best at what we can do. We're going to do everything we can to help this team win -- whatever Tommy wants us to do. We're going to be the best bunters, the best hit-and-runners, the best guys on defense. We're going to go out there and take ground balls at every position. We're going to let these guys know if they need a day off, Tommy can use us.

Darling: We were told that entire summer to pitch [Gibson] up and in, with hard stuff. And that series, for whatever reason, we got away from that a couple times, and it really cost us.

Gibson's homer pads lead

Hernandez: I was very wary of the Dodgers [as the series opened]. And our team, which had been so cohesive and tight and together, was really starting to pull apart. We had a lot of guys that wanted more playing time, and the team just wasn't as together as it had been in the past. So we were kind of ripe for the picking.

Game 5 wasn't all good news for the Dodgers. Gibson aggravated a left hamstring injury while stealing a base in the ninth inning. It was the same injury that would keep him out the starting lineup in Game 1 of the World Series and indirectly set up his legendary pinch-hit, walk-off homer off Dennis Eckersley.

Game 6: Mets 5, Dodgers 1
Back in the land of palm trees and sunshine, Cone redeemed himself. With McReynolds (four hits, including a two-run homer) and Dykstra (double, single, two runs scored) driving the offense, Cone delivered a 5-1 victory with a five-hit complete-game effort. His big test came in the second inning, when he walked the first two hitters but quelled the disturbance. The only Dodgers run was driven home by Hatcher.

There would be a Game 7, and it would match Hershiser against Darling. To the victor would go the spoils: a date with Oakland's notorious "Bash Brothers" in the Fall Classic.

Darling: The only concern we really had was if David Cone could rebound from the tough Game 2 start. He ended up in a lot of hot water [in the second inning], pitched out of it and then pitched a fantastic game. And I really thought that that was it, and we were going to be able to get it done.

Hernandez: If that article [after Game 1] wasn't written, Coney probably would have done the same thing in Game 2.

Scioscia: If you cracked the door against them, they could bust it wide open. We knew that from '86.

Teufel: Now you're talking must-wins. Game 6, we came out firing. We won that handily and are feeling pretty good about that. And then we've got Game 7, and ... we're still the favorites. And there's a lot of pressure on you as favorites.

Game 7: Dodgers 6, Mets 0
So, the stage was set for the final act. Dodger Stadium would be rocking. The Dodgers were asking princely Orel for one more magic act. The Mets' choices were Gooden on two days of rest or Darling on three days of rest. Johnson opted for Darling, and he was no match for Hershiser.

The Mets left two runners stranded in the first inning, and Gibson's sacrifice fly after Sax's single and Hatcher's double in the bottom of the frame gave Hershiser all the offense he would need. The Dodgers went ahead and gave him five more runs in the second, chasing Darling. Scioscia started the inning with a single and was walked intentionally later. The Mets' defense unraveled with a pair of errors.

No late rallies this time for the 1986 kings from Queens. Hershiser cruised to a 6-0 triumph, sending the Dodgers on to their memorable meeting with Oakland in the Fall Classic.

Scioscia: We were anticipating Doc on short rest, and we get the word as we are coming to the park that Ron Darling is starting. We are surprised. In retrospect, we may have caught a break facing Darling instead of Doc. Orel showed what a No. 1 does in a series if you're one of the best pitchers in baseball. He just took control and went through a difficult lineup, tossed a complete game and went on to win the game.

Hershiser: We got a little more fire because Davey Johnson then joined the media parade as far as ripping on us. He said they were going to be OK in Game 7, because Hershiser is going again on short rest and he's going to be tired. And I'm pretty much thinking to myself, "I hope he grabs a bat" -- kind of tongue-in-cheek.

It was just so much fun to compete at the highest level on the biggest stage [in] really a David and Goliath situation, with the Mets as talented as they were and as much as they had beaten us. And to make it to Game 7 and to have that responsibility is the utmost thing you want to do as a competitor. You go out in the driveway as a little boy and you compete with your brothers or your neighborhood kids and you make these scenarios up.

Dodgers advance to Series

Howie Rose (Mets radio voice): The mystique of Hershiser had been deeply engaged by the time it got to Game 7. The only chance the Mets probably had was to get off the mark immediately, and they didn't. The seventh game was over in about 45 minutes, and the rest of the night was just sort of the Mets sitting in this stinking waiting room just counting the minutes and the outs until their season was over.

Darling: He was unhittable. On those kinds of nights, you're out to match zeros with him as long as you could -- and I could not at all. Hershiser just had a historically great year. Their team, if you look at their ballclub after the injury to Gibson -- Gibson coming off the bench and hitting the [World Series] home run against [Dennis] Eckersley -- magic happens sometimes in sports. They had it, and we couldn't match it.

Lasorda: That was the toughest seven games I ever managed in playoff history. It was a team that everybody thought never belonged there.

Riding a tidal wave of momentum now, the Dodgers, Stunt Men and all, proceeded to slay another giant in the World Series. Taking the bash out of Oakland's supremely confident brothers, Hershiser and Co. completed mission implausible in five games.

In looking back at that year, it's Gibson's home run in Game 1 of the World Series that is most remembered, but the Dodgers will tell you that Scioscia's homer in Game 4 of the NLCS was just as -- if not more -- important.

Lyle Spencer is a national reporter and columnist for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @LyleMSpencer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.