Kerfeld made easy work of the Mets, but in the ninth inning Lanier elected to bring on Smith. "The key for us is to get past their starting pitchers and get to the bullpen," said Backman. "We know we can hit those guys. When we saw Kerfeld and Smith come in, our confidence rose." Backman laid down a bunt just inside the first base line to start the inning, and as Davis fielded the ball, Backman veered out into the grass and dived just past the tag. One out later, Dykstra padded up to the plate. When they had introduced the extra players before the game that day, Dykstra and Backman had looked at each other and, at the same moment, said, "God, I wish I was playing." Now they were looking at each other again, and when Smith offered a forkball "that didn't fork," Dykstra reached out and jerked it toward rightfield. Smith looked up as the ball arced into the Mets bullpen. The sky was falling on him at Shea again.
"That was probably the greatest thrill of my life so far in my short baseball career," said Dykstra, descriptively. He had been told repeatedly this season by the Mets' coaching staff to stay within his limitations, but Dykstra refused to play like a little man. "Last year I was choking way up on the bat," he says, "but this winter I decided that I could go ahead and hold the bat like a man."
Actually, Dykstra had bid farewell to boyhood in the second game of the series, when he felt that Astros pitcher Nolan Ryan purposely threw at him after he had cranked one of Ryan's fastballs into the upper deck, foul. After the knockdown pitch, Ryan froze Dykstra with a curve-ball, but Lenny laced the next pitch for a single, igniting a three-run scoring burst with two outs in the fifth inning that salted away a 5-1 victory. "When he threw the ball at my ear, it had to have some purpose behind it," Dykstra said. "All it did was wake us up. It sure woke me up."
It was clear even before the series began that the pitcher who concerned them most was not Ryan, but Scott. He had already been accused by several New York players of scuffing the ball to make the split-finger sink like a brick. Their suspicions were based in large part on Scott's astonishing progress from a career high of 83 strikeouts just two seasons ago to 306 this year. Scott had actually spent the first seven seasons of an undistinguished career in the Mets' organization, before they cast him into the outer darkness of indoor baseball in 1982, trading him to Houston for Danny Heep. Scott's career continued to sputter in the Astrodome. Even after he had learned the split-finger, it took him a while to learn how to make the bottom drop out of it. "I didn't have any idea at the time that it was going to be the pitch it turned out to be," he says. "Then one day in spring training I was throwing it. and guys were suddenly swinging at balls that were bouncing in the dirt. That's when I said to myself, 'This could work out.' "
It worked so well against the Mets in Game 1 that Hernandez and Carter struck out three times each. Carter, who was still convinced that Scott was reupholstering the ball, became so flustered that he asked home plate umpire Doug Harvey to examine one. Harvey is an umpire of such imposing mien that the players refer to him as "God," and yet even he was impressed with Scott's pitch. "It's like a fastball with a bomb attached to it," Harvey said. He inspected this ordnance carefully and tossed it back to Scott. Carter then took a feeble cut at the next pitch and retired, muttering to himself as he went. "When Mike has his good stuff, guys just really look helpless," says Ashby. "If every pitcher in the league masters that thing, you'll have batting titles won by guys hitting .210."
The Astros had needed all of Scott's guile, several great defensive plays and a 400-foot home run from Davis in the second inning just to win the opening game of the playoffs, 1-0. "It's good to get by Gooden," Ashby said, "but with that team, you keep facing guys who won 15 and 16 ball games."
Actually, the second man in the Mets' rotation was 18-game winner Bob Ojeda, who limited Houston to yet another lone run in New York's 5-1 Game 2 victory. Ojeda confounded the Astros with several kinds of off-speed deliveries, the slowest of which was called the "dead fish" because it never stopped sinking. The Mets were still in a post-Scott daze in that game, as Ryan struck out five of the first nine batters. But in the fourth, they broke out of the trance with two runs as Backman singled, Hernandez singled, Carter doubled and Strawberry hit a sacrifice fly. The next inning is when Ryan serenaded Dykstra with chin music, and the Mets exploded for three runs. If nothing else, the Astros won some sort of distinction by using Aurelio Lopez, the most out-of-shape pitcher ever to appear in postseason play.
After the heroics of Dykstra on Saturday and the mastery of Scott on Sunday, came the rains for Monday. Houston was to have sent Jim Deshaies against Gooden for Game 5, but the postponement meant a matchup of Ryan versus Gooden. Even during the rain delay, the Mets' scuffed ball collection once again became a hot topic. Said Lanier, "If they have balls they're saving over there, and if they're such big fans of Mike Scott, they ought to bring 'em over and he'll sign 'em."