THE BIG SHOW
Even before spring training, the New York Mets and the Oakland Athletics were cast as teams for whom the regular season would be a dress rehearsal for the gala opening of the World Series on Oct. 15 in New York. And the A's and Mets did just what the script said they would do: move into first place early in May and end the regular season firmly established as the two best teams in baseball.
But wait, what about the playoffs? No problem, according to this plot line: The top teams in the National League West and the American League East—as it turned out, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Boston Red Sox, respectively—would be mere bit players to New York and Oakland. Indeed, in the regular season, L.A., which clinched a tie for its division title Saturday, and Boston, which beat the New York Yankees twice last weekend to cut its magic number to three, played their roles perfectly. The Mets beat the Dodgers in 10 of 11 games and allowed them a total of 18 runs. The A's out-homered the Red Sox 13-1 and beat them nine out of 12.
Ah, but there are players waiting in the wings who could turn the final act of the script into fiction. The ones who could steal the spotlight from New York are named Orel Hershiser, John Tudor, Tim Leary and Tim Belcher. Threatening Oakland are the stellar Bruce Hurst, Roger Clemens, Mike Boddicker and Lee Arthur Smith. "The Red Sox and the Dodgers have the kind of pitching that can win eight out of 14 against any two teams," says Atlanta Braves general manager Bobby Cox. "If I had to pick a team to go all the way, I think it would be Boston—if Clemens is right."
San Francisco manager Roger Craig adds, "Don't ever bet against the Dodgers' pitching and Kirk Gibson."
Still, as good as Hershiser, Tudor and friends may be, New York is clearly the favorite in the National League series. To begin with, the Mets' pitchers have been even better than the Dodger staff, with a cumulative 2.84 earned run average to L.A.'s 3.02. Though Doc Gooden had some rocky moments after his 8-0 start, he will be on the mound Oct. 4—against Hershiser—for the opener in Dodger Stadium, where the Doctor is 4-0 with an 0.34 ERA in six career starts. And Game 2 starter, David Cone, whom Gooden calls "the best pitcher on the Mets," was 2-0 and 1.32 in L.A. For the third game, at Shea Stadium, New York will send out Ron Darling, who was 13-1 at home through Sunday. When the fiery Bobby Ojeda was injured last week in a gardening accident, Sid Fernandez became the Mets' No. 4 man, and if he can remain unrattled—a big if—he has shutout stuff. " New York has the best starting pitching I've ever seen, and I've seen some great rotations," says Pittsburgh Pirate pitching coach Ray Miller. "And they also led the league in homers and runs. Good luck to anyone against them."
The Mets have speed—four players stole 20 or more bases—and no matter which duo (from among Lenny Dykstra, Gregg Jefferies, Mookie Wilson and Wally Backman) hits at the top of the order, they'll get on base. Manager Davey Johnson doesn't try to finesse runs, because he has, by far, the most power of any team in the National League. Darryl Strawberry had 21 home runs and 55 RBIs in the first half; Kevin McReynolds ("their best player," says one scout) had 26 homers and 97 RBIs through Sunday and also quietly carried the Mets through August. He has also gone 21 for 21 in stolen bases and led the league's outfielders in assists. Gary Carter is a showtime player, Keith Hernandez a money hitter. And there are few players more dangerous against hard-throwing closers than Howard Johnson, who, astonishingly, often bats seventh. Indeed, Pirate manager Jim Leyland points out that the Mets get tremendous production from the bottom of their order, in part because their pitchers hit exceptionally well. It seems almost unfair that New York also has Randy Myers and Roger McDowell in the bullpen and the best bench in the baseball. Sure, the Mets' defense gets knocked, but with all those strikeout pitchers, the infield's limited range is not all that important.
Still, the Dodgers' pitchers can beat anyone, and if they keep games close, manager Tom Lasorda will do anything to steal a game. He'll bunt, hit-and-run, squeeze and try to run on Carter, who threw out less than 20% of opposing base runners this season.
For L.A. to stand a chance, Hershiser and Tudor must win Games 1 and 2 at home against Gooden and Cone. Some insiders suggest that Lasorda may then switch his usual rotation and replace Leary, who got bombed in his last N.Y. start, with Belcher, who has been overpowering down the stretch, or even Fernando Valenzuela, recently returned from the disabled list. If the starters falter, Lasorda's rebuilt bullpen includes Jay Howell as the stopper and Ricky Horton, a southpaw Met killer.
Clinching its division early may have helped L.A., which needed a breather. Gibson was banged up and tired from playing the season as if he were running a post pattern. Steve Sax was worn down and fell into a bad September slump. John Shelby, who has a career .311 average against the Mets, began striking out with regularity. Mike Marshall has started to hit, and Jeff Hamilton, a young third baseman, has improved, but L.A. needs Sax to get on base and Gibson to deliver big plays. "Gibson's the closest thing to a one-man team I've seen in years." says a scout. "Walk him, and he's apt to steal second and third and score on a ground ball. Pitch to him, and he's apt to hit a 500-foot homer."