October 15th, 1986. I am a sophomore at Rollins College and my team, the New York Mets, are playing game 6 of the NLCS against the Houston Astros. I remember many details about the previous time the Mets were in the playoffs in my rooting lifetime, but I was only six in 1973. When you are six the word "pressure" doesn't apply.
The Mets are coming off a dramatic 12-inning, game 5 victory and have returned to Houston with a 3-2 lead in the series. Game 6 is the rare must win for both teams. The Astros need was obvious. The Mets need to win because Mike Scott is poised to pitch in game 7. Scott dominated the Mets 1-0 in game 1 and again in game 4, winning 3-1. In those losses, Scott fanned 19 batters (14 in game 1) and only allowed 8 hits. Adding to the intrigue is the Mets fascination with the thought that Scott was scuffing the baseball. It was such a big story that before game 6, County Judge Jon Lindsay took a sheet of sand paper to the mound when he threw out the first pitch. Scott's presence looms over game 6 like the Death Star over Alderaan.
When game 6 begins in the mid-afternoon, I am settled into the common room in Elizabeth Hall and ready for a few hours of quality playoff angst. Two lefties are on the hill, Bob Ojeda and Bob Knepper. The legendary Keith Jackson is on the call with Tim McCarver (yup, that Tim McCarver) by his side.
The Mets enter the game with a .185 team average for the series. No team had ever won an LCS with a team average under .220.
New York goes meekly in the first. It'll be the first of six times they go 1-2-3 in the first seven innings. Knepper would pitch 15 1/3 innings in this series, and only allow runs in two of them.
The Astros waste no time jumping on Ojeda and sending me into an early state of panic. A hit and run double by Phil Garner scores Billy Hatcher and the squirming has begun. Base hits by Glenn Davis and Jose Cruz plate two more and before the butterflies in my stomach can flap their wings a few times, it's 3-0 Houston.
Rafael Santana's single in the top of the third makes the Mets a cumulative 2-54 in the first three innings of the series.
The game settles into a pitchers duel. I spend some of the time pacing, some of the time nestled deep into the couch in the common room. People walk in and out of the room. Guys want to know the score before heading back out to the beautiful Florida afternoon. Girls come in hoping to watch their afternoon soaps. I grunt them away without so much as a glance in their direction. (there's a reason I had a K Corner hanging over the bed in my dorm room my sophomore year.) In the first eight innings of the game the Mets get one base runner to second base. One. Basically they got to second about as often as I did. (ba-dum, bum)
The biggest issue for me on this day is my "job" with the school radio station. I have to do the sports update a little after 6pm. So in the 7th inning I hop in the shower while the Mets bat (when losing, I shower while my team bats because they can't lose a lead they don't have), get changed and grab my walkman radio, before heading toward the station.
Knepper's dominance through the first eight innings cannot be overstated. 8 IP, 1 H, 5 K and only four outs recorded in the outfield. The Mets can't touch him. As I make my way across the Rollins campus, the warm afternoon sun casts my shadow out before me (is that the shadow of a looming Mike Scott?) A sense of defeat is creeping in.
As I enter the WPRK studios, the kindly, old Gordon Frazer is at the mic, teeing up the next song by Bach or Beethoven. Gordon has seen it all. He covered World War 1 for NBC radio. He helped introduce television at the World's Fair. Now he is retired and helping to teach aspiring radio broadcasters the tricks of the trade on his own time. (When Chris "Maddog" Russo was a Rollins student, Gordon told him he needed to get voice lessons or he'd go nowhere. Apparently Gordon wasn't always right.) He is a wonderful man, with a soft, willowy voice and pleasant disposition. But right now, the pressure of the moment is too much and I can barely muster a hello to Gordon. I sit in the chair and await his tee up to deliver my report. I still have my walkman on and give the update as I listen to Brent Musburger and Johnny Bench on CBS radio. Dykstra has tripled and Mookie has singled. I barely hear Gordon say "...and now with an update on the day in sports, Gus Ramsey." As I deliver my report, Hernandez doubles to the gap, scoring Wilson. "And the Mets have just scored again on a double by Hernandez! It's now 3-2 in the top of the 9th!" I can hardly contain myself. After finishing my report, I stay in the studio (karma) to hear the rest of the inning. The Mets tie the game, but leave the bases loaded. Joy and frustration.
The game creeps into extra innings and I hurt. I am in real pain. It may be an ulcer. I can't sit. I pace in the back of the room as both teams do nothing through the first four extra innings.
It's the top of the 14th. The sun has all but set. More girls have come to the common room and left shortly after their arrival. They say things like "You're still watching this game?" They go unanswered. Finally, the Mets have something going. Strawberry is on second when Backman singles to right. Straw races around third as I jump up and down like a maniac. It looks like a good throw may get him, but it's a bad throw. A real bad throw. And suddenly, well as sudden as it can be in the 14th inning, the Mets have the lead.
Roger McDowell was 0-3 against the Astros in 1986, but today he has delivered 5 shutout innings of relief before handing the ball over to Jesse Orosco. As noted by Mark Simon on ESPN New York.Com, McDowell is the only pitcher in postseason history to throw at least five innings of relief in a postseason game, in the ninth inning or later, without allowing a run.
When Orosco took the mound for the 14th, I was confident, confident that the pain in my side was something that was about to rupture and kill me before this game ended. I am standing behind one of the couches, shifting from one foot to the other, when Bill Doran strikes out. During the Doran at bat, McCarver notes that in 18 innings in this series, Mets relievers have not allowed an earned run. Thanks, Tim. Up comes Billy Hatcher. Hatcher hit six home runs in '86, three from each side of the plate, but had just eight in 591 career ABs. On the second pitch of the at bat, Hatcher laces a fastball down the line. My knees buckle when he hits it and I let out a big sigh when the camera catches up to it to show that it is going foul. Yikes, that was close. Carter smartly pockets the inside fastball and calls for a curve (called strike 2) on the next pitch, as McCarver notes, "I don't think Hatcher will get another inside fastball this at bat. Either a heater away or a curve. (the next pitch is a fastball away, ball 2) If you make a mistake on a fastball away, a single is all he'll get. Inside could be a homer." After a breaking ball just misses, the count is now full. The next pitch is a fastball in. As Keith Jackson says the words, "High in the air... toward the corner..." I start to bend over. "...curving... home run!" The ball hits the net attached to the foul pole and I drop to my knees, throwing my hands on my head. I cannot believe it. This can't be happening. I have no more energy. This game needed to end. Now. I have nothing left to give and now we are tied in the bottom of the 14th. I've never known true despair in my life until this moment.
The next two Astros batters go quickly and there is much needed time to regroup. Breath. Breath.
The Mets do not score off 88-year old Aurelio Lopez in the 15th (Gordon Frazer covered Lopez in the '47 series). The Astros do nothing off Orosco, who seems to have regrouped.
As the 16th inning starts, it occurs to me that I have not eaten since breakfast at around 9am. Perhaps that's the reason for the pain in my side. Perhaps not.
Strawberry leads off the frame with a pop-fly, AstroTurf bounce double, that Hatcher misread. It should have been an out. I am standing and shuffling again. Knight rips a single to right and just like in the 14th, Strawberry is racing around third and I am jumping like a maniac. And just like the 14th inning, it looks like a good throw may get him, but Kevin Bass's throw is way up the line. As the Astros new pitcher is warming up, Tim McCarver compares this game to Beowulf. Really? I read Beowulf during my freshman year. I suppose I wanted to kill myself during that too, but for completely different reasons. The Mets tack on two more runs and now we have a three run cushion. Finally, breathing room.
Orosco is out for his third inning. Davey Johnson has no other choice. Doug Sisk is not coming in this game. Orosco does away with Craig Reynolds and we are two outs away from the World Series. Davey Lopes walks. No biggie. Bill Doran singles. OK, tying run is at the plate, but a ground ball can be a DP and we're done. Meeting at the mound. McCarver has left the booth to go to the field for post game interviews. Billy Hatcher is up. Not again. There's no way he can do it again. Please, Jesse, no inside fastballs. Fastball away, ripped to center for a single, Lopes scores and it's 7-5. I can not take it. The pain comes rushing back to my sides. Another meeting at the mound. Davey Johnson takes part in this one and says something like, "Jesse, I've run out of TUMS and Doug Sisk is warming up in the pen. For the love of all that is holy, please get two more outs." I am now sitting on the couch, both knees pulled up to my chest, peeking over those knees. Walling grounds into a force play as Hernandez smartly gets the out at second, keeping the tying run on first base. Glenn Davis and his 31 HRs come to the plate. If I had any pee in me, it would be coming down my pant leg right now, but there is nothing in me but fear. Davis bloops a breaking ball to center but Dykstra pulls a Billy Hatcher, breaks back on the ball and can't recover in time. Doran scores. It's 7-6. The tying and winning run are on base. I am now rocking, praying, cursing, crying and sweating. Orosco throws a couple of good breaking balls in the dirt that Bass chases and misses. McCarver, from his vantage point in the Mets clubhouse says, "Keith, you are in a situation right now, I do not believe Orosco will waste any kind of fastball. You are in a situation where the whole season depends on one pitch and my guess is a breaking ball." The next two pitches are breaking balls away that just miss. If I had a cell phone in 1986, I would have already dialed the 9 and the 1 with my finger sitting on the 1. The count is full. Orosco throws one more breaking ball and Jackson proclaims "Struck him out!!!" I scream. I fall to the floor. I may have blacked out.
Twenty five years later this remains the most exhausted I have ever been after watching a game. The Mets ensuing World Series win and the Broncos Super Bowl victory over the Packers brought the ultimate joy, but this game ran the emotional gamut like nothing I've experienced before or since. As Keith Jackson is wrapping up, he notes this game was "brought to you by Chevrolet, the heartbeat of America." A heartbeat is something I am glad to still have after that game.
OTHER NOTES ON THIS GAME:
Watching this game 25 years later it is astonishing how little is made of game 7 and the Mets having to face the dominant Scott if we get there. The first time it's mentioned that Scott would be the starter in a game 7 is the top of the 3rd inning. In the bottom of the 5th McCarver points out that if the Astros and Red Sox both win today (Clemens pitched for Boston in their game 7 win against the Angels on this day), both Scott and Roger Clemens would not be available for game 1 of the World Series. If this NLCS were to be played now, there would be montages of Scott striking out batters with Mets players collecting scuffed baseballs in the dugout, graphics showing Scott's numbers in the first two games, sound bites from both teams and league officials talking about the controversy. In 1986, barely a mention.
I still think Billy Hatcher should have caught Dykstra's ball in the 9th and could have caught Hernandez's ball in that inning as well.
The Mets also got a break when Bill Doran mistimed his jump on Wilson's soft-liner in the 9th.
Great moment in the 9th when Dave Smith's 1-2 pitch to Knight misses outside. Astros catcher Andy Ashby slammed his leg in frustration after the pitch is called a ball. Knight stands over the plate and yells back at Ashby, who gets in Knights face. Astros manager Hal Lanier comes to the mound with the sole purpose of waiting for the home plate ump, Fred Brocklander, to come to the mound so he can yell at him. As Brocklander makes his way to the mound, Astros SS Dickie Thon has to be held back by his teammates as he yells at Brocklander. It's a good 30 or so seconds of controlled pandemonium over a pitch that was a foot outside.
The Mets hit just .189 in the series, striking out 57 times.
The Mets made just 1 error in the series.
What they said after the game:
Gary Carter: "Mike Scott was our incentive to Win Game 6.We didn't want to face Him in Game 7.''
Bob Knepper: "For 8 innings, that's the best I've ever pitched."
Keith Hernandez: "That's the best series I've ever played in," and "If we had lost this series it would have been the biggest disappointment of my career."
Ray Knight: "This is my 16th year in professional baseball and I've never been involved in something so emotional and under such a mental strain and under as such physical as I have been in this series.
Mike Scott, who was named MVP, said "I'm numb."