Shea Stadium was a sea of cardboard K's: black ones, red ones, green ones, orange ones, some held aloft, others hung from upper-deck railings. There were cloth K's, too, and K's drawn on blank sheets of paper. Shea didn't have enough nooks and crannies for all the K's that greeted the appearance of Dwight (Dr. K) Gooden on a gala night last week. "We've got a wild bunch tonight," said Mets video technician Joey Fitzgerald, looking out at Gooden from a runway behind home plate, radar gun in hand.
With none out in the top of the sixth, Gooden had already struck out 11 San Francisco Giants and was coasting on a 3-0 lead. In his next start, on Sunday, the Mets' 20-year-old ace would become the youngest 20-game winner in modern history, striking out four batters and allowing two earned runs and five hits before being lifted for a pinch hitter in the sixth inning of a 9-3 Mets victory over the San Diego Padres. It was his 14th win in a row and left him with a 1.78 ERA and 212 strikeouts, both best in the majors. And the win kept the Mets within a game of the Cardinals in the red-hot National League East race. Now, however, in the sixth inning against the Giants, Gooden was at his pluperfect best. He stared in, coolly snapping his gum, as Giants first baseman Dan Driessen stepped to the plate.
"He's really blowing it out now," said Fitzgerald, a former minor league relief pitcher who videotapes and radar-clocks Met players. In the world of Gooden, Fitzgerald is a sort of digitized Boswell, intimately familiar with the good Doctor's pitching life. He can tell you that Gooden throws the hardest curveball in the National League (at nearly 80 mph) and that Gooden and Lee Smith of the Cubs, according to his RA-GUN readings, serve the hottest fastballs (96 mph). Fitzgerald noted that over the last few innings Gooden had been scorching the air with 94-mph heat.
"Dwight is one of the few pitchers in the National League who actually get faster as they go along," he had explained. "Most guys start at their fastest, then gradually lose from five to seven miles an hour. Dwight starts at 89 or 90, then gets up to 93 or 94 around the third inning and holds it. And he'll bring it a notch or two above that if he really needs to, like if a runner's on third base."
Fitzgerald pointed his radar pistol directly at Gooden, who started Driessen off with a wicked curveball that caught the outside corner. Strike one.
"Seventy-four," reported Fitzgerald. "That's his better curve, the slow one. It moves more." Giants catcher Bob Brenly, who fanned three times during the game, calls Gooden's hook "a spine-bender." Mets second baseman Wally Backman just shakes his head. "Doc's out there throwing this incredible heat, and then he comes in with an 80-mile-an-hour hook a guy couldn't hit even with a four-by-four," Backman says. "You almost have to laugh."
Driessen only winced as a 94-mph fastball shot past him for a called strike two. The crowd of 31,758 roared—and kept roaring. Their K signs danced. Shea crowds swell by an average of about 5,000 when Gooden pitches, largely for the thrill of cheering his two-strike pitches. With Gooden on the verge of a K, the stadium rocks with noise. Now Gooden fired. Whooooosh! Driessen swung right through it. Shea rocked. "Ninety-four," Fitzgerald said, reading the figure from the RA-GUN.
Such was the fans' hunger for strikeouts that they actually booed Mets first baseman Keith Hernandez and leftfielder George Foster for catching two-strike foul pops in the seventh and eighth innings. But the levelheaded Gooden doesn't want to strain his K-pabilities. "A lot of strikeout pitchers develop arm trouble," he said after the game. "I'll take a ground ball over a K any day. That's less pitches." Still, Gooden fanned four more Giants to complete a 3-0, seven-hit shutout. His 16 strikeouts established a 1985 major league high, and by putting his season's total over 200—he ended the week with 212—he became only the second player in baseball history ( Cleveland's Herb Score was the first) to reach that milestone in each of his first two major league seasons. "I never thought, I mean, no way, that I'd be striking out this many," Gooden says softly and earnestly. "They've been the biggest surprise."
Against the Padres on Sunday, Gooden struggled a little. Pitching in a drizzle, he had difficulty with slippery baseballs, tossing 93 pitches in his six innings and handing San Diego an unearned third-inning run with two wild pitches and his own throwing error. "I just never found my rhythm," he said afterward.
But when Mets manager Davey Johnson pinch-hit for him, the Mets were leading 4-3. Gooden repaired to the clubhouse and watched on TV as his teammates added five insurance runs and reliever Roger McDowell shut out the Padres over the final three innings to preserve the win that boosted Gooden's record to 20-3. He became the youngest 20-game winner by 27 days, supplanting Bob Feller.