Thursday, January 14, 2016

Best Postseason Win: Los Angeles Dodgers

The 1988 Dodgers were a two-man team.

This is, of course, not literally true; they had a full roster. It's not even figuratively true, as they had a number of effective supporting players. But a midseason trade of Pedro Guerrero to the Cardinals left them with only one starting position player with an OPS+ over 120, and only three over 100. The pitching staff was a bit deeper, with three starters at 115 or higher in ERA+ and a quality bullpen - but the team still only had two players who earned over 3 WAR.

Fortunately, those two were very, very good. Kirk Gibson won the NL MVP, and Orel Hershiser set the major league record for consecutive scoreless innings and won the Cy Young. Still, the NLCS pitted them against the Mets, who had a Gibson-quality player in each corner outfield spot and plenty of depth to spare in their league-best lineup, not to mention a stacked rotation that helped them allow the fewest runs in the league.

The series started in LA, where the teams split the first two games. The Mets took Game 3 back in New York, which rendered Game 4 a near-must-win for the Dodgers. Which brings us to...

1988 NLCS Game 4: Dodgers 5, Mets 4 (12). (Not the game you were expecting, was it?)

The pitching matchup was a pretty good one. Not only that, but it's one that will bring a smile to the faces of baseball nerds everywhere - albeit not as much of one as if it had occurred 3 years earlier. It was New York's Dwight Gooden against LA's John Tudor (who had been acquired for Guerrero in the aforementioned midseason deal).

The Dodgers got off to a good start in the top of the first, with barely any help from Kirk Gibson. Steve Sax led off with a single and stole second, and Mickey Hatcher walked behind him. Gibson grounded out, moving the runners to second and third. Mike Marshall struck out, but John Shelby singled, bringing both runners home. A balk and a wild pitch moved Shelby to third before Mike Scioscia struck out to end the inning.

Tudor was flawless in the first, as was Gooden in the second. Darryl Strawberry reached on an error to open the bottom of the second, and Gary Carter singled with one out, but Tudor stranded both of them. Sax opened the third inning with a walk and stole the next two bases, but was left 90 feet away; Gooden led off the bottom of the inning with a single, but Mookie Wilson hit into a delayed double play, forcing Gooden at second and then getting picked off.

Shelby singled, stole second, and moved to third on a groundout in the top of the fourth, but the Dodgers once again left him at third. Keith Hernandez led off the bottom of the inning with a single, and Strawberry then homered to tie the game at 2; two pitches later, Kevin McReynolds went deep as well to put the Mets in front. Tudor retired the next three Mets, but Gooden was settling in at this point, working around an error in the fifth and erasing a leadoff walk in the sixth with a double play ball.

Tudor, meanwhile, continued to struggle through the middle innings. A two-out walk to Gregg Jefferies and a Hernandez single in the fifth put runners at the corners before Strawberry struck out to leave them there. But in the sixth, McReynolds led off with a ground-rule double, and Carter tripled him home, pushing the lead to 4-2 and chasing Tudor from the mound. Brian Holton relieved and struck out Tim Teufel; Kevin Elster drew a four pitch walk, and Gooden grounded into a double play to end the inning.

Gooden allowed a walk to pinch hitter Danny Heep in the top of the seventh, then wild pitched him to second before stranding him. Ricky Horton set the Mets down in order in both the seventh and eighth, but Gooden worked a 1-2-3 eighth as well, bringing the Dodgers down to their last chance.

At the end of the eighth inning, Gooden had thrown 118 pitches; he'd been effective since the first, but he also wasn't quite the ace he'd once been. In 2015, this would be an obvious closer situation; Gooden might not even have thrown the eighth, let alone the ninth. But in 1988, Gooden remained on the mound through an eight-pitch walk to Shelby, then allowed a game-tying two-run homer to Scioscia. Even then, Gooden stayed in until Alfredo Griffin's one-out single, at which point Randy Myers took over. Tracy Woodson's pinch single moved the go-ahead run into scoring position before Sax and Hatcher went down to end the inning. Alejandro Pena then tossed a spotless ninth to send the game to extras.

Myers and Pena both worked routine tenths; the only runner who reached was Wilson, who led off the bottom of the inning with a walk and was later caught stealing. Rick Dempsey drew a base on balls to open the eleventh; Mike Sharperson then bunted into a force, after which Griffin sacrificed Sharperson to second. Roger McDowell then relieved Myers and retired Woodson to end the rally. In the bottom of the eleventh, McReynolds walked with one out and stole second; Wally Backman then walked behind him before Pena induced a popup from Howard Johnson to extinguish the threat.

McDowell set down the first two Dodgers in the twelfth, but Gibson then launched an 0-1 pitch over the right field wall for a go-ahead homer. Tim Leary took the mound in the bottom of the inning and got into immediate trouble, allowing singles to Mackey Sasser and Lee Mazzilli. Jefferies flied out, and Jesse Orosco relieved Leary and walked Hernandez to load the bases with one out. Strawberry popped up, but the right-handed McReynolds was due next, and Orosco was a lefty, so the Dodgers turned to the bullpen again.

Well, sort of. They actually turned to their rotation - more specifically, the top of it, as they summoned Orel Hershiser to draw a game-ending flyout from McReynolds.

A game-tying homer in the ninth (followed by a subsequent rally that almost took the lead), both teams squandering chances in the eleventh, and the Mets very nearly coming from behind in the twelfth after Gibson's homer put LA in front? Yeah, I can see why WPL picks this one, even against some rather more famous competition.

The Dodgers would take Game 5, then win Game 7 on a Hershiser shutout. Gibson would get hurt at some point in the series, but came back to hit one of baseball's most famous home runs in the World Series, and Hershiser won a pair of starts to propel the team to a 5-game upset win over the A's.

Not bad for a two-man team.

Two of LA's honorable mention entries are end-of-season playoff games. The first is the second game of the 1959 playoff against the Milwaukee Braves; the Dodgers rallied from a 3-run deficit in the ninth, and both teams left the bases loaded in the eleventh before the Dodgers won in 12. Three years, later, LA faced the Giants in a best-of-three matchup that also had a terrific second game; this time, the Dodgers came back from a 5-0 deficit with a 7-run sixth, the Giants tied it in the eighth, and the Dodgers walked off in the ninth. (In '59, the second game clinched the pennant; in '62, it set up a third, also-thrilling game which the Giants won.)

As far as actual postseason games go, the two best that weren't in 1988 were both late-'70s NLCS games against the Phillies. Game 3 in 1977 went into the eighth tied at 3, then saw the Phils pull ahead with an error-filled two-run rally - only to have LA counter with 3 runs (one unearned) in the top of the ninith. A year later, the fourth game of the '78 NLCS went back and forth through regulation before LA took the game and the pennant on a walkoff unearned run in the tenth.

Now, let's see, I feel like there was one more game to mention...

Oh, right, that other 5-4 game in 1988 that was won with a Kirk Gibson homer. Here is the boxscore, and more importantly, here are the guaranteed chills.

As usual for relocated teams, our next stop will be their previous one, as we examine the rare highlights in the postseason history of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

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