Roberts' use of Kershaw parallels Lasorda bringing in Gibson to pinch-hit
By Hal Bodley
The last time the Dodgers went to the World Series was in 1988, that unexpected, improbable five-game conquest of heavily favored Oakland.
As the Dodgers survived Thursday night's 4-hour, 32-minute elimination match over Washington that sends them to the National League Championship Series against the heavily favored Cubs (Saturday at 8 p.m. ET/5 PT on FS1), memories and comparisons of 1988 flash back.
Close your eyes for a moment. It was well past midnight on the East Coast on the morning of Oct. 16, when Kirk Gibson, who could barely walk, limped to the batter's box in the ninth inning of Game 1 of the World Series, with the Dodgers down, 4-3, and a runner on.
Gibson looked almost helpless as he fouled off pitch after pitch from Dennis Eckersley, Oakland's dominant closer.
Then Gibson sent Eckersley's eighth pitch screaming out of Dodger Stadium. He pumped his fist in the air as he hobbled around the bases, his historic walk-off home run defining the 1988 Dodgers and propelling them to their most recent championship. Tommy Lasorda was the manager then.
Summoning the injured Gibson to pinch-hit in Game 1 was a daring move for Lasorda.
Gibson, who would become the NL Most Valuable Player that season, was Lasorda's best hitter. He'd carried the Dodgers offense for a team that was picked to finish no better than fourth. But he was hurt and not expected to play.
"I just had a hunch," said Lasorda. "It's all about heart, and although Gibby could hardly walk, I knew if there was any way to come through, he would."
When you talk about the 1988 Dodgers, it's always about Gibson's homer and the pitching of Orel Hershiser, who won two games in the World Series and was its MVP. He was also the NLCS MVP and the NL Cy Young Award winner that year.
At one point, Hershiser threw a record 59 scoreless innings.
Like Lasorda, rookie manager Dave Roberts seems to have a knack for pushing the right buttons. He's daring, as evidenced by bringing in Clayton Kershaw to get the final two outs against Washington. The Dodgers ace had thrown 110 pitches just two days before, but got the dangerous Daniel Murphy (7-for-16 in the NL Division Series) to pop out and fanned the overmatched Wilmer Difo.
As the Giants gained momentum in the NL West, the Dodgers season seemed in doubt when Kershaw, the three-time NL Cy Young Award winner, sustained a back injury in June. He was out 2 1/2 months. But here he was on the mound for the final two outs and, in a sense, like Gibson did in 1988, he sent the Dodgers to their next big test.
Moments later, in the wee hours of Friday at Nationals Park, the Dodgers were pulling on shirts emblazoned with the word "respect" on the front.
Much like the Dodgers of 1988, this team that hasn't celebrated a championship in nearly three decades is determined to achieve just that.
In 1988, the Dodgers had to get past the Mets, who'd won 100 games, followed by the A's, who'd led Major League Baseball that summer with 104 wins, powered by Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco.
Now for the Dodgers, it's on to Wrigley Field and the multitalented Cubs, who are trying to end a 108 year championship drought. Chicago can be compared to the Mets of '88. The Cubs led MLB with 103 wins and eliminated San Francisco in the NLDS.
Winning the 1988 World Series over Oakland "still tops my list of achievements," said Lasorda, speaking over the phone from a hospital bed in Los Angeles last week.
The former Dodgers manager, who turned 89 in September, was hospitalized with back and shoulder issues.
"Yes, I think that definitely was it," he said. "That was a team nobody thought could win. People made fun of us. We turned around and beat the Mets in the playoffs and then the great Oakland team, which had won 104 games. That was just a tremendous year."
And who can forget that improbable moment when Gibson came off the bench to hit the walk-off homer? It's undoubtedly the most storied pinch-hit at-bat in Dodger history, and it was Lasorda's decision to use him.
"That whole postseason was magical," Lasorda repeated. "And [Gibson] was a big part of it."
Lasorda, who has spent the past 10 years as a special advisor to the Dodgers' chairman, says he sees a lot of the 1988 team in this L.A. juggernaut.
"The guys in '88 just wouldn't let anybody beat us," he said. "We didn't think any game was out of reach. The players believed in themselves. That was so important. I do believe this team is probably better than we were in 1988. They have better talent."
Roberts is the first rookie manager to guide a Dodgers team to a division title since Lasorda did it in 1977.
Lasorda succeeded the legendary Walter Alston with four games left in the 1976 season. In his first full season, he guided the '77 Dodgers to the NL pennant before they lost the World Series to the Yankees in six games. He just completed his 67th season with the organization.
Tommy was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1997 and led the club to NL pennants in each of his first two years.
Overall, he won four NL pennants and two World Series championships (1981 and '88). His overall managerial record is 1,599-1,439. He managed 61 postseason games.
The 2016 Dodgers have proven they're resilient, but if they're to get to the World Series for the first time in 28 years, they'll need the moments and magic that the 1988 champions found when nobody thought they could.
Hal Bodley, dean of American baseball writers, is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. Follow him @halbodley on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.