When the New York Mets arrived in Los Angeles for a weekend series against the Los Angeles Dodgers in early September 1985, fans could be forgiven for feeling that the games were a preview of the National League Championship Series.1 The hometown Dodgers were running away with the NL West, 8½ games up on the second place Cincinnati Reds thanks to an elite pitching staff and the torrid bat of Pedro Guerrero. The Mets, meanwhile, were only 1½ games behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL East, with baseball’s most dominant ace up their sleeve: phenom hurler Dwight Gooden, who had lost only one game over the past three months (his prior start on August 31) and appeared destined, if not overqualified, for Cooperstown.2
Taking the rubber for the Dodgers in Friday night’s opener was left-hander Fernando Valenzuela, whose start to the 1985 season—41 straight innings without an earned run—had evoked memories of 1981’s “Fernandomania.” Though he had struggled in midseason, Valenzuela entered the contest against New York in peak form, a winner of nine of his last 10 decisions. Only three National League pitchers were hotter at the moment: Valenzuela’s teammate Orel Hershiser, cruising along to a 19-3 finish; the Cardinals’ John Tudor, who began the season 1-7 but won 20 of his final 21 decisions; and the pitcher on the hill for the Mets that night.
Gooden, two months shy of his 21st birthday, entered the contest 20-4 with a 1.81 ERA and 219 strikeouts, each mark topping the major leagues.3 His previous visit to Dodger Stadium, on June 4, was typical of his career to that point, that is to say utterly dominant: a complete-game victory with 12 strikeouts against one run allowed.4 All signs pointed to the Dodger Stadium crowd of 51,868 witnessing an epic pitchers’ duel, and that’s exactly what they got.
The Mets’ lineup offered a few twists. Holding down right field was 38-year-old journeyman Tom Paciorek, who had become part of New York’s alignment against lefties with Mookie Wilson recovering from a shoulder injury. Darryl Strawberry, usually in right field, shifted to center. First baseman Keith Hernandez was flying across the country after testifying at a federal drug trial in Pittsburgh that afternoon.5 Gary Carter filled in at first, with Ronn Reynolds replacing Carter behind the plate.
Both pitchers dealt one-two-three innings to start the game, and through five the Mets’ top hitter was Gooden himself with a pair of singles. As for the Dodgers, their entire offense consisted of two hits from Bill Madlock, a four-time batting champion acquired in a trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates six days before.6
Neither team had even advanced a runner as far as second base since the fourth inning when Los Angeles opened the eighth with back-to-back singles by Mike Scioscia and Greg Brock. The Dodgers attempted to manufacture the go-ahead run, substituting rookie Reggie Williams to run for Scioscia. Trying to advance the runners to second and third, Steve Sax bunted to the third-base side of the mound, but Gooden fielded the ball and flipped to third baseman Ray Knight for the force on Williams. After squaring to bunt, Valenzuela pulled his bat back and grounded to shortstop Rafael Santana, who got the force at second. Now, with runners at the corners and two out, Mariano Duncan—who had one hit in his last 32 at-bats—lifted a fly ball toward Paciorek, still playing right. Paciorek misjudged the ball but recovered to make the catch, tumbling on the ground, to preserve the tie.7 (“How the bleep did he catch that ball?” Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda wondered afterward.8)
The Dodgers again threatened in the ninth when right fielder Mike Marshall reached on Knight’s error, bringing MVP candidate Guerrero to the plate with one on and one out. Guerrero, whose record-setting 15 home runs in June9 had carried the ballclub offensively, had doubled in his previous at-bat. With two strikes on Guerrero, the Dodgers sent Marshall, who to that point in the season had stolen only two bases on eight attempts. The gamble backfired as Guerrero struck out on Gooden’s 123rd pitch of the game, and Reynolds—New York’s starting catcher for only the 10th time all season—threw to second to complete the inning-ending double play.10
Valenzuela returned for the 10th to face the bottom of the lineup. He retired Mookie Wilson, pinch-hitting for Reynolds, but walked Santana. With Gooden due, manager Davey Johnson sent up Hernandez, who had arrived in the fifth inning after his flight from Pittsburgh.11 Santana broke for second on a hit-and-run, but the move backfired when Hernandez grounded directly to Duncan at the bag for an easy double play. Doc’s final line included everything Mets rooters could ask for, except a win: 9 IP, 0 R, 5 H, 0 BB, 10 K.12
Gooden was replaced by rookie reliever Roger McDowell, who immediately surrendered Madlock’s third single of the night. After a sacrifice by Steve Yeager, the Mets walked Greg Brock intentionally. Pinch-hitter Terry Whitfield, batting for Sax, provided the 6-4-3 double-play grounder to end the threat. Watching from the on-deck circle was Valenzuela, who remained in the game to face the top of the Mets’ order in the 11th and record three up, three down. Remarkably, not a single Met had reached third base.
The Dodgers pinch-hit for Valenzuela to lead off the bottom of the frame, closing the book on the longest outing of his career (11 IP, 6 H, 0 R, 3 BB, 5 K).13 Duncan’s single and stolen base put the potential winning run on second with one out for the second inning in a row. However, McDowell was again up to the threat, retiring Ken Landreaux and Marshall on grounders to strand Duncan.
Taking the mound in the 12th was Dodgers closer Tom Niedenfuer, who had held opponents scoreless in 32 of his past 39 appearances, lowering his ERA to 1.97. Niedenfuer allowed only a two-out single to Knight before retiring 41-year-old pinch-hitter Rusty Staub, whose major-league debut in 1963 came more than a year before Gooden’s birth.
In the home half of the 12th, the Dodgers again landed baserunners when Guerrero and Madlock started the inning with singles off new pitcher Terry Leach, leading to another managerial chess match. After Yeager’s flied out, the Mets brought in their closer, left-hander Jesse Orosco, to face the left-handed-hitting Brock. Lasorda countered with right-handed Enos Cabell, who, like Hernandez, had arrived midgame after testifying in the drug trial in Pittsburgh. Orosco retired Cabell, then former Met Bob Bailor, to close out the inning.
“And we head to the thirteenth … scoreless!” may have been the radio call from Vin Scully as Niedenfuer returned to the mound for his second inning of work. Two singles, two outs, and some aggressive baserunning14 by New York put runners on second and third for Strawberry, the young Mets slugger who starred in baseball and basketball at nearby Crenshaw High.
With chants of “Darrrrr-yl, Darrrrr-yl” raining down, Strawberry sliced a Niedenfuer pitch just past the reach of Guerrero in left;15 it bounced into the left-field seats for a ground-rule double, treating those in attendance to something they had not yet seen that night: runs.
The score was 2-0 as the game headed to the bottom of the 13th. Knocked down but not out by Strawberry’s heroics, the Dodgers loaded the bases with two outs for Madlock, who had already singled four times in the contest. A fifth single here would likely tie the game, but Orosco induced a popup to Hernandez to end the game.16
The Mets took over first place less than a week later. The Cardinals, however, responded with a 14-1 stretch to regain first, then held off one last Mets charge to lock up the division.
As for the Dodgers, they won the West handily but faltered against St. Louis in the NLCS, dropping four straight games after staking out a 2-0 lead in the series. Niedenfuer had struggled in September—the September 6 game was part of a nine-appearance stretch with an 8.53 ERA—and his late-season troubles culminated in serving up decisive ninth-inning home runs in the final two games of the NCLS: Ozzie Smith’s Game Five blast and Jack Clark’s Game Six backbreaker at home.
The Mets, of course, were just a year away from popping champagne corks in 1986, and the Dodgers were only three years from their own magical October. However, neither principal in the September 6, 1985, pitching duel proved consequential. Gooden posted an 0-3 record in the 1986 postseason while a shoulder injury kept Valenzuela off the 1988 Dodgers postseason roster. As such, the epic pitching matchup in September 1985 that had felt like a preview of so many postseasons to come ultimately proved to be a game without sequel.17 Fortunately, it was a masterpiece.
I was fortunate enough to attend this game as a high-school junior, having taken the public bus with a friend to Dodger Stadium. Though we were both lifelong Dodger fans, we were equally obsessed with Dwight Gooden, hence somewhat relieved for his amazing season not to suffer the blemish of an additional loss. The atmosphere from the very start was as intense as I’ve ever experienced for a regular-season game, and contrary to reputation very few Dodger fans headed to the exits early. As for my friend and I, we not only stayed until the very end but even longer so we could collect autographs. I still have my 1985 Topps Darryl Strawberry card, which the game’s hero signed that night while holding new baby D.J. in his arms.
This article was fact-checked by Thomas Brown and copy-edited by Len Levin. The author wishes to thank SABR Games Project Committee Chair John Fredland, whose valuable feedback greatly improved the story, as well as SABR members Mark Armour, Kurt Blumenau, Bill Pearch, and John Racanelli, who provided early comments on the story’s initial draft.
Baseball card collage illustration by Jason Schwartz.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org for information, including the box scores.
1 Jack Lang, “Doc-Fernando a Sellout,” New York Daily News, September 6, 1985: 214. “Dodger Stadium is a complete sellout and DodgerVision—the team’s pay-TV cable company—expects the largest audience in its history.”
2 Per Stathead, Gooden’s combined bWAR through two seasons exceeded that of the closest Hall of Fame pitcher, Tom Seaver, by 4.8. Moreover, his bWAR of 12.2 in 1985 remains as of 2022 the highest of any pitcher in the Live Ball era.
4 Steve Marcus, “No. 5: Gooden Vs. Fernando,” Newsday, September 6, 1985: 174. Gooden and Valenzuela had already met four times during 1984 and 1985, with Gooden winning three of the contests. Strawberry was quoted in the article as saying, “What a great matchup. It’s one of the best pitching matchups you will ever see no matter how many times you see it. I think Dwight enjoys beating him.”
5 Murray Chass, “Hernandez of the Mets Tells Jury of His Experiences with Cocaine,” New York Times, September 7, 1985: 144. Hernandez was one of several current and former players testifying in US District Court in what came to be known as Baseball’s Drug Trials.
6 Dan Hafner, “Madlock Joins Dodgers; Pirates to Get Three Players,” Los Angeles Times, September 1, 1985: III,1.
7 Steve Marcus, “Strawberry Does It in 13th,” Newsday, September 7, 1985: 30. Paciorek provided his account on his unorthodox but timely catch. “I was playing shallow. If he was going to beat us, he was going to have to hit the ball over our head. He hit the ball hard, directly over my head. It was a tough play. I leaped as tall as a building. I just reacted. I don’t think I changed the course of history.”
8 Gordon Edes, “Gooden Goes 9, Valenzuela 11, but Dodgers lose in 13,” Los Angeles Times, September 7, 1985.
9 Gordon Edes, “Guerrero Ends Month with a Game-Winner,” Los Angeles Times, July 1, 1985. With an eighth-inning home run off Bruce Sutter of the Braves, Pedro Guerrero tied Babe Ruth, Bob Johnson, and Roger Maris for the most June home runs with 15. The four-way tie was broken in 1998 by Sammy Sosa, who remains the current (2022) record holder with 20.
10 Jack Lang, “Darryl’s Double in 13 Nips LA, 2-0,” New York Daily News, September 7, 1985: 26. Gooden threw 86 strikes and 35 balls.
11 Chass, “Hernandez of the Mets Tells Jury of His Experiences with Cocaine.”
12 “He made 120 or more quality pitches, and I felt that was enough. He’s only 20 years old,” Johnson said. Jack Lang, “Gooden vs. Valenzuela,” New York Daily News, September 8, 1985: 48. Gooden on his pitching performance: “I felt real good. The first inning tonight felt like the second to me. I felt strong early and just kept going.” Terry Johnson, “Dodgers’ Bullpen Cracks,” San Pedro (Califomia) News-Pilot, September 7, 1985: 12.
13 Lasorda on Valenzuela’s performance: “The way he was pitching he deserved to win it. Fernando pitched an outstanding game. What a shame we didn’t win it for him.” Lang, “Gooden vs. Valenzuela.”
14 Michael Martinez, “Mets Defeat Dodgers in 13th on Strawberry’s 2-Out Double,” New York Times, September 7, 1985: 43-44.
16 Orosco reflected on the game’s finish. “‘Well, I sure didn’t want to face those two guys,’ said Orosco (5-4) about Guerrero and Madlock. “‘I really had to reach back and go with what I had. It was a big relief for me when Madlock popped up.’” Marcus, “Strawberry Does It in 13th.”
17 Valenzuela and Gooden faced off only one more time in their careers, a May 28, 1989, game that coincidentally went 12 innings. This time, the Dodgers won the contest 4-3 on a rare walk-off balk; neither starter was involved in the decision.