The 1988 National League Championship Series was a matchup of a pair of teams that had comfortably won their division. The NL East Division champion New York Mets finished with a record of 100-60, 15 games ahead of the second-place Pittsburgh Pirates. The NL West Division champion Los Angeles Dodgers finished with a record of 94-67, seven games ahead of the Cincinnati Reds. The Mets were heavy favorites to win the series. They were only two years removed from the team’s 1986 world championship and had owned the Dodgers during the regular season, winning 10 of their 11 games. What appeared to be a potential mismatch turned out to be an epic seven-game series.
Game One pitted two of the National League’s best right-handed starters against each other. The Dodgers started the hottest pitcher on the planet, Orel Hershiser, who finished the season with a 59-inning scoreless streak that began in the sixth inning of an August 30 game against the Montreal Expos. The 30-year-old right-hander finished the season with a 23-8 record and a sterling 2.26 ERA. The Mets countered with Dwight Gooden, who finished the season with a mark of 18-9 and a 3.19 ERA, including a 3-0 record and 1.53 ERA against the Dodgers.
A sold-out crowd of 55,582 was crammed into Dodger Stadium when Hershiser delivered the first pitch at 5:25 P.M. under a clear twilight sky. The game-time temperature was 63 degrees, slightly below average because of the misty marine layer that had enveloped the City of Angels earlier in the day.1
The first inning was like Hershiser’s previous 59 as he retired the side without yielding a run. Leadoff batter Mookie Wilson was retired on a line drive to right field, then Gregg Jefferies laced a clean single to right. The top of the first ended when Keith Hernandez lined out to second baseman Steve Sax, who easily doubled Jefferies off first.
The Dodgers scored in the bottom of the inning. Sax took Gooden‘s first offering, a high fastball, the other way for a base hit to right. After a game of cat-and-mouse that saw Gooden throw over to first base four times, the ever-aggressive Sax easily stole second. Franklin Stubbs struck out on a 3-and-2 fastball that tailed out of the strike zone. Kirk Gibson, soon to be named the NL MVP, moved Sax to third when he fought off a fastball in on the hands and sent a little looper to second that Wally Backman fielded on one hop. Mike Marshall then dropped a single in front of right fielder Darryl Strawberry to score Sax and put the Dodgers up 1-0.
Neither team was able to mount much of a threat in the ensuing innings. The Mets put runners on first and third with two outs in both the third and sixth innings but Hershiser escaped unscathed both times with inning-ending groundouts. Similarly, the Dodgers failed to move a baserunner past second against Gooden and the score remained 1-0 until the bottom of the seventh.
Mike Scioscia doubled to right to lead off the bottom of the seventh. The Dodgers catcher advanced to third when third baseman Jeff Hamilton hit a weak grounder to first, and scored on Alfredo Griffin’s single to right that increased the Dodgers’ lead to 2-0. With Hershiser on the mound, the game seemed to shape up exactly the way Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda would have liked.
Hershiser extended his scoreless innings streak to 67 with a 13-pitch bottom of the eighth.2 The Dodgers ace stuck out Backman looking to start the inning before Lenny Dykstra, pinch-hitting for Gooden, walked. Wilson, swinging at the first pitch, hit a sharp two-hop grounder to Griffin at short who stepped on second and threw to first for a tidy 6-3 inning-ending double play.
Manager Davey Johnson turned to Randy Myers to keep the Mets close. Myers enjoyed a rock-solid season for the Mets. The left-handed reliever, who finished 16th in the NL MVP voting, pitched in 55 games for the Mets and finished 7-3 with 26 saves and a 1.72 ERA. Myers retired the Dodgers in order on only six pitches.
Hershiser went to the mound to start the ninth with a two-run lead, three outs away from putting the Dodgers ahead in the series. Jefferies led off with a single and moved up to second when Hernandez grounded out to first. Strawberry lined a double to right-center to score Jefferies and make it 2-1. That brought Lasorda to the mound to make a pitching change. Hershiser recalled the conversation on the mound in which he pleaded to stay in the game. “Tommy, don’t take me out. I’m fine. I’m fine.” Lasorda replied, “Bulldog, you’re tired,” to which the pitcher replied, “Tommy, I’m fine, I just look tired because it’s the first run I’ve given up in 67 innings.” Lasorda had the last word, “Bulldog, get off the mound.”3 Hershiser exited to a thunderous standing ovation.
Jay Howell was summoned to get the last two outs and preserve the Dodgers’ one-run lead. The hard-throwing Howell, who had a reputation for being effectively wild, had been acquired by the Dodgers the previous December as part of an eight-player, three-team trade. The hope was that he would shore up the back end of the team’s bullpen. Howell went 5-3 with 21 saves and a 2.08 ERA during the regular season.
Kevin McReynolds, the first hitter Howell faced, walked, bringing up fastball-hitting Howard Johnson. Howell refused to give in to Johnson and threw him five consecutive curveballs. The fifth one struck out a flailing Johnson. With the Mets down to their last out, catcher Gary Carter was all that stood between the Dodgers and a one-game series lead.
With the outfield playing deep to guard against an extra-base hit, Howell started Carter off with a pair of curveballs and went ahead in the count, 0-and-2. With the sellout crowd rising to its feet in anticipation of the final strike, Carter connected with a curveball, low and way, and sent a blooping liner to center that caromed off diving center fielder John Shelby. With the runners going on contact, Strawberry scored easily to tie the game while McReynolds raced around third and ran over Scioscia in a violent collision ahead of the throw to give the Mets a 3-2 lead. Backman grounded out to Sax to end the inning but the damage was done.
Carter’s hit and the sequence of events that followed were dissected and relived after the game and for years in the future:
Howell shared his reaction with the Los Angeles Times’s Sam McManis after the game. “My first reaction was that I was surprised he swung,” Howell said of Carter’s chasing an 0-and-2 curve that was tailing out of the strike zone. “Then I was surprised he hit it.”4
During the nationally televised postgame interview that followed the game, Carter said he was looking for the curveball. “I wasn’t looking for anything else but,” Carter said. “I looked bad on the second pitch that he threw to me and all I was trying to do was make contact. … I was just trying to stay on the ball. Fortunately, I was able to make contact.”5 Carter went on to credit Shelby with making an outstanding play on the ball and it just “snuck in there.”6 The Dodgers center fielder said, “I had a good feeling I could get the ball. That is why I dove.”7 Had Shelby not dived for the ball, McReynolds would have been held at third base and the game would have remained tied.
Years later Scioscia recalled the collision at the plate, which resembled a fullback barreling into a waiting linebacker. The solidly built Dodgers catcher said, “McReynolds scored the go-ahead run and knocked me into, I guess, San Bernardino County from Los Angeles County.”8
Myers returned to the mound for his second inning of work with a slightly different task than he had when he entered the game in the eighth. Instead of keeping the Mets in the game, Myers was left to close the game out for the Mets. For the second consecutive inning he retired the Dodgers in order and the Mets had stolen Game One to start the series.
This article was published in “Met-rospectives: A Collection of the Greatest Games in New York Mets History“ (SABR, 2018), edited by Brian Wright and Bill Nowlin. To read more articles from this book at the SABR Games Project, click here.
1 “Weather History for KLAX — October 4, 1988,” https://wunderground.com/history/airport/KLAX/1988/10/4/DailyHistory.html?req_city=&req_state=&req_statename=&reqdb.zip=&reqdb.magic=&reqdb.wmo=.
2 Officially, Hershiser’s scoreless innings streak remained at 59. Postseason statistics are not aggregated into regular-season statistics.
3 “Oral History of Epic Mets-Dodgers 1988 NLCS,” https://mlb.com/news/oral-history-of-epic-mets-dodgers-1988-nlcs/c-152995440.
4 Sam McManis, “Dodgers Come Up Empty on Last Grasp: Carter Lifts Mets to Win, 3-2, in Game 1,” Los Angeles Times, October 5, 1988. https://articles.latimes.com/1988-10-05/sports/sp-2818_1_dodger-stadium.
5 “1988 NLCS Game 1 New York Mets at Los Angeles Dodgers PART 2,” https://youtube.com/watch?v=iMtV5hOS9O4.
7 Sam McManis.
8 “Oral History of Epic Mets-Dodgers 1988 NLCS.”