There's also Knepper. He won only one game in the last month, but he beat the Mets three times (one of those in relief) during the season. The Mets are also a decidedly different team against lefthanders, who can negate Lenny Dykstra and Wally Backman at the top of the order and neutralize Strawberry in the middle. Ryan has been bothered periodically by elbow problems, and he is a much better pitcher in the Astrodome (a 2.65 ERA at home, 4.56 on the road), but in one stretch he allowed three or fewer hits in 8 of 10 starts. The day before Scott's gem, Ryan took his own no-hitter into the seventh inning. The day before Ryan's excellent performance, the lefthanded Deshaies established a modern major league record by striking out the first eight Dodgers he faced.
The Dome is geared to the Astros' style of play, both because of its customized pitching mound and its AstroTurf. Lanier came over from the St. Louis coaching lines and brought Whiteyball with him. "He doesn't care what the score is or who's on base, he'll run," reads one club's scouting report. "And if you throw that guy out, he'll run the next one." In September Lanier made a double switch and a triple switch, using two first basemen and three centerfielders, in one inning—and won. Centerfielder Billy Hatcher, second baseman Bill Doran, rightfielder Kevin Bass and utilityman deluxe Davey Lopes could put a lot of pressure on a Mets staff that is generally slow to the plate, and on Carter, who threw out barely 20% of opposing base stealers. Hatcher, Bass and Cruz cut balls off in the alleys as any successful turf outfield must, and the Astro middle infield has a decided defensive advantage over the Mets' DP combo.
Houston finally does have firepower, with Glenn Davis, Bass, Cruz and the third base platoon of Denny Walling and Phil Garner (22 homers, 99 RBIs). Davis's 29 home runs include 16 in the Dome, once known as the Eighth Wonder of the World. That performance must rank as Wonder No. 9. With four switch-hitters and platooning at short and third, the Astros are seldom susceptible to left-right bullpen switches. With Lopes, Terry Puhl and the platoons, they are one of the few teams whose depth can approach the Mets'. The Houston bullpen is tied for the league lead in saves, although there is concern over the condition of Dave Smith's elbow. And, more than any team in 1986, they seem to be destiny's darlings, having won 23 of their games in the final at bat.
That said, the pick here is the Mets. They accepted the pressure of the preseason buildup and proceeded to prove that they were the best team in baseball. By now we all know how hateable the Mets are. "There are 24 other teams who will be Astros fans beginning October 7," said one Phillie. "The Mets are the only team in baseball that high fives in BP." We also all know how good they are. Their starting rotation was the best in the regular season. The foursome Davey Johnson dispatches out there—Gooden, Ojeda, Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez—is 63-22; it went 6-2 in the season series with Houston. Gooden may have proved himself human, but 16-6, 2.90 aren't exactly Tim Lollar's numbers, and neither is his 8-1 lifetime record against the Astros. Ojeda had a 1.35 ERA against Houston, while Darling was arguably the best Mets pitcher in the second half. There was concern over Fernandez's elbow and his overstuffed shirt, but he held the Pirates to one run over eight innings last Friday night to break a second-half slump. The Astros beat Roger McDowell thrice during the season, but he and Jesse Orosco still give New York a tremendous right/left combination coming out of the bullpen.
The Mets have more ways to score runs than any NL team. For most of the season the sparks have been provided by Dykstra and Backman at the top of the order, so Johnson may play them even against the lefthanded Knepper, while leaving Mookie Wilson in left and keeping Kevin Mitchell for the bench. Dykstra and Backman get on base 38% of the time; they steal bases and they antagonize. Then come the production hitters in the middle—Keith Hernandez, Carter and Strawberry—followed by Wilson and clutch-hitting Ray Knight. What is remarkable is that the Mets led the league in runs without Carter or Strawberry having big years. Carter didn't reach 100 RBIs until the last week and batted .224 with runners in scoring position and two outs. Strawberry was roundly booed by Shea Stadium regulars, went five weeks without a hit at home, struggled near .260 and knocked in only 84 runs.
But like their media hype or not, these are the two men to watch. Carter has the makings of another Reggie Jackson, someone who thrives in the spotlight. And the immensely talented Strawberry may also take center stage. By mid-September he had stopped wrapping his bat around his neck and again looked like a young Ted Williams. Mets officials are privately predicting that he will be the player to have the monster October—which is why the Mets have to be the favorites over Houston.
Having the American League playoffs start in Boston in Fenway's 75th season isn't just a sentimental delight—it's a decided advantage. The Angels handled the Red Sox 7-5 during the season and took advantage of Boston's July slump to win four of the six games in Anaheim; Clemens won the other two. In many seasons Witt might have won the Cy Young. The Red Sox did beat him twice, but it took a Bruce Hurst Fenway Park shutout and a 3-2 Clemens victory to do that. If there's one pitcher in the American League who could beat Clemens head-to-head, it might be Witt. The Angels also start McCaskill, who didn't give up an earned run to Boston in two games; Sutton, who beat the Red Sox twice, once on a shutout; and Candelaria, whose seven-inning one-hitter against the White Sox on Sept. 21 served notice that he is more than ready for the postseason, despite his chronically tender elbow.
Boston's coaches and scouts are also concerned about the veteran California hitters, especially in Fenway, where they outscored Boston 32-19 in their six meetings. Jackson, who still has more career homers in Fenway than Baylor, began tuning up in the stretch, ditching his slap-hitting style and launching 450-foot homers. Doug DeCinces, Brian Downing and Bobby Grich are all streak hitters capable of considerable damage. The Angels are also stronger up the middle defensively, but then Boston's power pitchers don't necessarily need a great infield behind them.
There are two other significant factors. First, Bob Boone. There is no finer receiver in the American League than this 38-year-old marvel. His ability to steal strikes for pitchers by framing his glove drives opponents crazy, and he can confound the best of hitters with his pitch selection. "Marty Barrett, Dwight Evans and Bill Buckner are out complaining to the home plate umpire about Boone before games even start," says one American League umpire. "I swear he psychs those guys out." Says Wade Boggs, "California's always tough because Boone never pitches me the same way twice in a row. I try not to think when he's catching."
The other significant factor is California general manager Mike Port. "The Angels in the past have died in the clutch," says one rival manager. "The players never had any motivation. Well, Port has about eight of them worried about being free agents once the season is over, so for the first time, he's got at least one third of the ballclub playing for their careers."