Welcome to The Happiest Recap, a solid gold slate of New York Mets games culled from every schedule the Mets have ever played en route to this, their fiftieth year in baseball. We’ve created a dream season that includes the “best” 133rd game in any Mets season, the “best” 134th game in any Mets season, the “best” 135th game in any Mets season…and we keep going from there until we have a completed schedule worthy of Bob Murphy coming back with the Happy Recap after this word from our sponsor on the WFAN Mets Radio Network.
GAME 133: September 6, 1985 — Mets 2 DODGERS 0 (13)
(Mets All-Time Game 133 Record: 24-24; Mets 1985 Record: 81-52)
September + Pennant Race + 1985 could only add up to one conclusion for the New York Mets: Dwight Gooden. The 20-year-old 20-game winner had dominated the National League for the better part of five months. He would now attempt to own his spectacular season’s sixth, under the most pressing of circumstances.
The Mets entered this weekend series against the N.L. West-leading Dodgers a game-and-a-half back in their own Senior Circuit sector, and Doc offered the best chance to pick up or at least maintain ground. But Gooden was going up against a pretty formidable opponent, too: Fernando Valenzuela. The two had hooked up twice previously in 1985, each pitcher taking a decision. The Mets had seen Valenzuela in New York less than two weeks earlier and found little success against him, losing 6-1 as Fernando tossed a complete game.
Friday night at Dodger Stadium…the 20-4 righty with a 1.81 ERA going for the visitors…the 16-9, 2.37 southpaw toeing Chavez Ravine’s high rubber for the home team. On paper, it couldn’t get much better than Gooden vs. Valenzuela.
On the field, however, it could exceed the paper.
It was stupendous. It was ace vs. ace doing exactly what you paid for if you were fortunate enough to be among the 51,868 in attendance. Staying up late back in New York was rarely as rewarding.
Valenzuela drew from the Mets three efficient groundouts to start the game in the first. Gooden answered back with a pair of strikeouts and a flyout. And they were off.
Neither fully suffocated the opposition, but for 7½ innings, no baserunner on either side reached third The Mets — with a righty-leaning lineup that featured Tom Paciorek in right bumping Darryl Strawberry to center, and Gary Carter at first in place of Keith Hernandez, who was still in transit after testifying at the baseball drug trial in Pittsburgh when the game began — twice got two baserunners on with one out, in the second and the fourth. But on each occasion, Valenzuela got the ground ball double play he needed. Doc brushed off the occasional pesky Dodger and racked up nine strikeouts through seven frames.
The first serious threat against Gooden came in the bottom of the eighth. Mike Scioscia and Greg Brock opened the inning with singles. A ground ball to Gooden cut down the lead runner and another to Rafael Santana forced a man at second. Still, that left L.A. with runners on first and third, with Mariano Duncan representing the go-ahead run in nothing-nothing game. The uprising was quelled when Paciorek made a terrific diving catch on Duncan’s fly to right.
“How he caught the ball,” Lasorda grumbled, “I’ll never know.”
The Mets didn’t touch Valenzuela in top of the ninth. The Dodgers sniffed an opportunity in the bottom of the inning when Ray Knight’s error put Mike Marshall on, but Gooden responded by striking out MVP candidate Pedro Guerrero, Gooden’s tenth K of the night. Marshall had taken off on the pitch, but was gunned down by Carter caddy Ronn Reynolds at second.
0-0 heading to extras. Valenzuela kept pitching. Davey Johnson went to his bench. Mookie Wilson pinch-hit for Reynolds, but flied out. Two batters later, the late-arriving Hernandez pinch-hit for Gooden with Santana on first, but Fernando teased a 6-3 DP grounder from Mex.
Still 0-0. The tie was entrusted to Roger McDowell in the bottom of the tenth. He let Bill Madlock single and advance to second on a sacrifice but threw his own double play ball to get out of it. Valenzuela remained in for the eleventh and retired Wally Backman, Paciorek in Strawberry all on grounders. Finally, in the bottom of the eleventh, Tommy Lasorda pinch-hit for Fernando with Len Matuszek. It was to no avail, but Duncan followed by singling, stealing and moving to third on a grounder. McDowell, however, stranded him there.
Tom Niedenfuer was the Dodgers’ new pitcher in the twelfth. The Mets did nothing of substance against him. Terry Leach replaced McDowell in the bottom of the inning and surrendered two quick singles. He gave way to Jesse Orosco who left the runners on.
The thirteenth commenced, the teams still knotted at nothing. Santana led off with a single, but a Hernandez grounder forced him at second. It seemed every Met rally was dying in the infield. But finally Backman hit a ball that reached the outfield. Keith ran for third, where the throw that couldn’t cut him down allowed Wally to follow him to second. It was the first time all night the Mets had brought a runner within ninety feet of scoring. Danny Heep pinch-hit for Paciorek, a lefty to face the righty Niedenfuer. Lasorda decided to pitch to Heep and it worked, as Danny fouled out to Scioscia.
With two out and first still open, the Dodger skipper was faced with two options, neither of them thrilling from an L.A. perspective. He could walk Strawberry to load the bases but have to face Carter — who had just homered five times in the Mets’ two previous games in San Diego — or he could take on the lefty Straw.
He told Niedenfuer to go after Darryl. If it was the lesser of two evils, it wasn’t by much. Straw didn’t homer, but he did deposit a ball over the left field fence on one bounce. Darryl’s opposite-field ground-rule double scored Hernandez and Backman and, at last, somebody was ahead: the Mets, 2-0.
Niedenfuer still had Carter on his dance card, but this time Lasorda insisted on an intentional walk. With two on and two out, and the game on the edge of being broken open, Knight singled…right into Strawberry. Darryl was hit by the batted ball, which meant a third out for the Mets. They’d have to settle for a 2-0 lead.
Now it was up to Orosco to nail down what had been a classic for 12½ innings. Hammering wasn’t quite Jesse’s thing, however. He walked Bill Russell to commence the bottom of the thirteenth. Strikeouts of Duncan and Candy Maldonado calmed Met nerves, but then Marshall singled and Guerrero walked. The bases were loaded for the first time all night by either team. And what a time to load them. Madlock, who owned four batting titles in his career and four hits on the night, was the next batter.
He was also the last batter. Orosco popped him to Hernandez at first. The Dodgers were left to rue eleven runners left on base as the Mets rode the exploits of Doc and Darryl to a 2-0 win that kept them apace with St. Louis.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On August 31, 1973, a Friday night in St. Louis, Ray Sadecki and the sixth-place Mets fell behind 3-0 in the first on consecutive Cardinal hits from Joe Torre (double), Ted Simmons (single) and old friend Tommie Agee (triple). Sadecki stiffened for the next five innings, giving up no more runs to the Redbirds, while the Mets chipped away on a Buddy Harrelson RBI single in the second and a Cleon Jones sacrifice fly in the third — though aggressive baserunning ran them out of each inning before they could get anything else. Ed Kranepool singled in the tying run off Mike Nagy in the sixth, with yet another Met (Rusty Staub) going out on a throw from the outfield.
After pinch-hitting for Sadecki in the top of the seventh, Yogi Berra turned to Tug McGraw, who had only recently began to turn his season around, however subtly. He won his first decision all year on August 22 and had lowered his ERA from 5.45 on August 20 to 5.18 entering this game five appearances later. McGraw had been a mystery through the summer of 1973, but now summer was ending, so maybe his mysterious miseries were wearing off as well.
Tug held the Cardinals scoreless in the seventh, eighth and ninth, long enough for the Mets to arrive in the tenth inning still tied at three. After Diego Segui struck out Harrelson and Segui to begin the festivities, the Mets sprung into action with five consecutive singles: Wayne Garrett, Felix Millan and Jones off Segui and Staub and Kranepool off ex-Met Rich Folkers. Three runs resulted and gave McGraw a 6-3 lead to take to the bottom of the tenth. He’d give up a run, but nothing more and the Mets would win 6-4.
A nice win, to be sure, but much nicer was that the Mets, unwilling basement tenants for so much of July and August, vacated last place in the N.L. East on the last night of August and would enter September in fifth place. That may not sound like a great position to start the traditional final month of the schedule, but it was not a traditional year in the division. Upon leapfrogging the Phillies, the Mets sat only 5½ games from first place at the dawn of September 1973.
And from there, who knew what might happen?
GAME 134: September 5, 1969 (1st) — METS 5 Phillies 1
(Mets All-Time Game 134 Record: 26-22; Mets 1969 Record: 78-56)
It was a milestone that, before 1967, seemed out of the Mets’ grasp for at least another generation. Come 1967, you knew it was only a matter of time.
Three years’ time, as it turned out.
From 1962 through 1966, the heart of an era when 20 wins was the price of admission for a pitcher seeking affirmation for having pitched a great season, the Mets had never had a hurler return from a year on the mound with more than 13 victories. Of course the Mets didn’t have any great teams then, so it’s no wonder something as modest as Al Jackson’s 13-17 record in 1963 — quite respectable for the 51-111 club on which it was earned — was as good as it got.
Then along came Tom.
Tom Seaver was a break with all that had gone on before in Metsdom, won-lost records included. On September 13, 1967, as Seaver’s sensational rookie campaign neared its end, the hard-throwing righty was handed a 2-1 lead in the top of the ninth at Atlanta when his catcher, Jerry Grote, singled in Ed Kranepool with the go-ahead run off Pat Jarvis. In the bottom of the inning, Seaver was all business. A flyout to right of Rico Carty, a grounder to short of Felix Millan and fly to left by Mike Lum, landing in Tommy Davis’s glove, finished off the Braves. With that, Tom Seaver set a new record, becoming the first Met pitcher to win 14 games in one season.
Before the year was out, Seaver would raise the mark to 16 wins, and he’d put up the same total one year later. His mark, however would be surpassed by another rookie, Jerry Koosman, whose Year of the Pitcher exploits in 1968 yielded him a spectacular 19 wins.
Now, in September 1969, the Mets were aiming higher than ever, including Seaver, who came into this first game of a Friday doubleheader at Shea against the Phillies with a 19-7 record, matching Koosman’s ’68 amount with a month to go. The team was in second place, five games behind the Cubs. That the Mets were bearing down on first-place Chicago was the most accurate barometer of how far the Mets had come in such a short time, but the fact that they possessed a starting pitcher on the precipice of a heretofore unthinkable Met milestone…just chalk it up as another Amazin’ element of a season whose most magical properties were yet to be revealed.
Seaver was never much for magic. He was skill and competitiveness, so why shouldn’t he be 19-7? Better yet, why shouldn’t he be about to be 20-7?
A second-inning leadoff single to Johnny Callison and an RBI triple to Deron Johnson would provide a momentary impediment to Tom’s provisional aspirations, but the Phillies didn’t score anything else and their 1-0 lead was short-lived. In the bottom of the second, two Grant Jackson walks (to Ron Swoboda and Rod Gaspar) sandwiched a Richie Allen error (on a Grote grounder) to load the bases for Al Weis. Weis singled off Jackson’s glove to put one on the board for the Mets, and Seaver’s subsequent infield groundout, thanks to Weis’s tough takeout slide at second, became two unearned runs as Gaspar hustled home behind Grote.
With a two-run advantage, Seaver’s businesslike instincts kicked in. He was perfect in four of the next six innings and allowed two unrelated hits in the two other frames. When Grote added a two-run homer off John Boozer in the bottom of the eighth, that matter of time was reduced to only three outs.
Allen grounded out. Callison struck out. Johnson was all that stood between a Met and a milestone. A one-two count set the stage. Ralph Kiner calls it:
“No pitcher for the Mets has won twenty ballgames in their history. Seaver’s one strike away. Here’s the one-two pitch…swung on and missed, strike three! So Tom Seaver becomes the first twenty-game winner in Mets history, the first twenty-game winner in the National League, and the Mets win it by a score of five to one.”
An economy of words for an economic effort. Though Mets fans had waited nearly eight years for such a moment, Seaver expended a mere one hour and fifty-two minutes capturing it. Five hits, one walk, seven strikeouts…yes, very much a vintage Tom Seaver effort, just as it was becoming universally understood exactly what that meant.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On September 4, 1976, what had been a blowout became a duel in earnest. It wasn’t supposed to be that way from a Mets perspective, not in July when it was a Met doing the blowing out, but fate had interceded, so you took what you could get.
Dave Kingman homered off Carl Morton of the Braves on July 18, giving Sky King 32 roundtrippers for the season after 92 Mets games. His most relevant National League slugging competition at the time came from Hack Wilson, the holder of the N.L. mark for most homers in a season. Hack hit 56 in 1930, and Kingman held a healthy lead over Wilson’s 29 in 92 46-year-old Cubs games as he headed for history.
Then Dave took a dive.
He tried to catch a fly ball off the bat of Phil Niekro the next night, and when the dust settled in left field, Kingman came up lame, tearing a ligament in his left thumb. Kingman was en route to the DL, Wilson was safe for posterity and the season’s lead Sky built was very much in danger, for while Kingman sat for more than a month, perennial National League home run champ Mike Schmidt charged. Schmitty, who topped Sky by a single dinger in 1975, had pulled even, 32 to 32, with Dave during the big man’s absence, so when the Mets and Phillies met at Shea this Saturday afternoon, power would speak to power.
Schmidt struck first, taking Nino Espinosa deep in the sixth, bringing the Phils within a run of the Mets at 4-3 and grabbing a 33-32 lead over Kingman in the contest most Mets fans were really watching. The Phillies had already buried the Mets in the N.L. East, so this was the closest thing to a pennant race to be found in Flushing.
In the bottom of the seventh, Dave got his groove back, belting a two-run shot off Ron Schueler for his 33rd home run of the season. The Mets were up 7-3, which would become the final in the game, while Kingman and Schmidt remained deadlocked in the all-important tater column.
GAME 135: September 8, 1985 — Mets 4 DODGERS 3 (14)
(Mets All-Time Game 135 Record: 20-28; Mets 1985 Record: 82-53)
The Mets were about to be done playing outside their division this Sunday in Los Angeles. That’s where their seasonlong battle for N.L. East supremacy with the Cardinals would be settled over the ensuing four weeks, which represented right and proper scheduling. Yet the Mets couldn’t leave the West behind without one final dramatic flourish so befitting the way they traveled far and wide in 1985.
Some seasons don’t pack as much drama into 162 games as the Mets did for this late-summer swing through California. They had split four games in San Francisco, all of which were either one-run or extra-inning affairs (the last of them won on a slumpbusting Keith Hernandez pinch-homer off lefty Mark Davis); they bullrushed San Diego, sweeping the Padres with eight homers in three games (five by Gary Carter across two games); they won an thirteen-inning thriller that had been scoreless for twelve in the L.A. opener, then lost a Saturday Game of the Week that featured a benches-clearing scuffle after Mariano Duncan charged Ed Lynch, a Darryl Strawberry homer to tie things in the top of the ninth and a two-out walkoff single from Mike Marshall to snap the Mets’ five-game winning streak.
On Sunday, the Mets might have been thinking “getaway game,” but they wouldn’t escape Los Angeles quickly or quietly.
Carter belted a leadoff home run in the second off Orel Hershiser for an early 1-0 Met lead. Sid Fernandez threw seven wonderful innings, marred only when Duncan’s sac fly scored Steve Sax in the fifth. El Sid’s effort was rewarded in the eighth when a wild pitch while Mookie Wilson, making his first start since returning from arthroscopic shoulder surgery, was batting gave the Mets the go-ahead run, and Hernandez’s single scored Wilson (who had reached on a Duncan error).
Fernandez came out for a pinch-hitter during the rally, giving way to Jesse Orosco. Orosco, in turn, gave away the 3-1 lead on a leadoff walk to Duncan and a game-tying two-run homer to Marshall. In what, with any luck, was a preview of the 1985 NLCS, there were certain Dodgers getting the Mets’ goats, namely Duncan and Marshall.
Hershiser stayed in one more inning and kept the Mets from scoring when he grounded Clint Hurdle back to the mound with two on. Roger McDowell took over pitching duties for the Mets in the ninth and avoided calamity for two innings. Hershiser was succeed by Ken Howell, and he kept the Mets from scoring in the tenth or eleventh. Starter Rick Aguilera became Davey Johnson’s next reliever, in the bottom of the eleventh, and he left a pair of Dodgers on base.
It was now a battle of bullpens. Lasorda placed his team’s fate in the left hand of Carlos Diaz, a reliable southpaw for the Mets a couple of years earlier before he was traded, along with supersub Bob Bailor, for Fernandez. If Diaz was in the mood to show the Mets what they gave up on, this was a good time to do it. He struck out lefties Hernandez and Strawberry to get out of the twelfth inning, and after a 1-2-3 frame from Aguilera, took care of the Mets in the top of the thirteenth. Doug Sisk succeed Aguilera and threw his own in-order inning at Enos Cabell, Marshall and Dave Anderson.
Going to the fourteenth inning, the Mets and Dodgers stayed tied at three — but in an instant, they were untied. Mookie led off against former teammate Diaz by lining his fourth home run of the year. What a good time to switch from speed (Wilson was one of five Mets with a stolen base on the day) to power. The 4-3 lead became Sisk’s to hold, and despite the righty’s generally perilous handling of his responsibilities, Doug couldn’t have been more perfect. He got three consecutive outs and the Mets flew home with another close win.
Better yet, they were flying as high as they could in the National League East. The exhilarating 7-3 trip pulled them to within a half-game of St. Louis…and when the Cardinals dropped a makeup game the next day to the Cubs, it was a dead heat atop the division. The Mets were 82-53, the Cards were 82-53. Deliciously, this meant St. Louis would be heading to Shea for a three-game set whose conclusion would determine the frontrunner in the East.
The Mets were done playing the West, potential October appointments notwithstanding. Their 46-26 record against the “other” six clubs in the league was tasty in its own right, but it was just an appetizer for what was about to come next.
“We’re ready for the Cards,” Hernandez promised.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On September 1, 1984, the annual expansion of the rosters coincided with the opening of Mets fans’ hearts for one of their longtime favorites, a player who had been missing from all the fun their team had been having as it turned around a seven-year trend of losing. Nobody could possibly appreciate returning to active duty to these Mets than one of the Mets who soldiered on while those seven years had their way with his body and went after his will to win.
Actually, there was little chance John Stearns would ever let anything get the best of his competitive instincts, no matter how much the air of seemingly endless defeat must have choked somebody so determined to prevail. He may have played on one losing Mets team after another, but the Dude was never defeated.
Except maybe physically.
The four-time All-Star catcher hadn’t caught or batted in the major leagues in more than two years thanks to an aching, injured right elbow that took its sweet time healing. Except for a handful of pinch-running appearances, Stearns had all but fallen off the Mets fan radar in 1983 and 1984. New names signifying a new era had filled the Metsopotamian consciousness during his extended absence, so while the Hernandezes, Strawberrys and Goodens led the Mets toward a hoped-for rendezvous with destiny, Stearns was…
Where was he anyway?
John was in Colorado undergoing intense rehabilitation after a pair of operations. “My life literally revolved around my arm,” he would write in the New York Times. “I became obsessed with getting it well. I read anatomy books about the elbow” and was at the point where he could “probably teach a pre-medical course on kinesiology of the elbow, complete with medical terms and definitions.”
But the only degrees Stearns was interested in were how many from the major leagues all this work was getting him. He stayed in shape but he also began to look ahead. Stearns realized there might not be any more baseball for him. As he approached his 33rd birthday, he thought about other careers. This surely wasn’t the way he wanted to go out.
“The Mets were hot and in first place,” Stearns wrote of what was going on back in Flushing without him. “I thought about all those years I had left my guts on that field at Shea playing for last place. I thought to myself how could I miss this pennant race? How could there be any justice in watching the Mets win from the sidelines? That was the lowest point for me — watching the club click and not being a part of it.”
Finally, it all began to pay off. August 1984 rolled around and Stearns wasn’t in pain. He worked out for Davey Johnson and his coaching staff. Showing he was close to contributing, the Mets sent him to Tidewater for a rehab stint. When the rosters expanded in time for a Saturday doubleheader against the West-leading Padres, John was called up.
By now, the Mets weren’t so hot and they weren’t in first place. But they weren’t out of it either. At 5½ in back of the Cubs, they needed every win they could get to remain viable as the season’s final month got underway. They got one in the opener as Gooden struck out ten Friars in eight innings. The nightcap, however, shaped up as a different, less appealing story.
The Mets started another rookie righty, one whom they hoped would follow Gooden into phenom status. Calvin Schiraldi had been their top Tide pitcher throughout ’84, and they expected big things immediately. Alas, the only big thing they got from the 6’ 5” righty was his ERA: an unsightly 10.80 after his dreadful 3⅓-inning debut left the Mets in a 5-1 hole.
Things looked bleak as the Mets batted in the fourth. With two outs, reliever Tom Gorman was due up, but Davey Johnson opted for a pinch-hitter. It would be a September callup, but no raw rookie.
It was John Stearns.
One of the best Mets from some of the worst Met years was about to get his chance with something on the line late in a very good Met season. Though he’d spent a decade as a major leaguer, you couldn’t blame the Dude if he was as nervous as kid getting his first at-bat.
“There were two outs and nobody on,” Stearns recounted in the Times regarding his first plate appearance since August 17, 1982. “Eric Show was having a good ball game. I walked to the on-deck circle in a daze. I got in the box and Show went two-and-oh on me. I was ready and I knew I was going to get a piece of cheese (baseball talk for a fastball). I saw the pitch coming and I swung. I knew I hit the ball hard, and the next thing I remember I was standing on second base with a double. The crowd was giving me a standing ovation. I didn’t know if it was a dream or what. The experience was chilling — in my top five ever!”
If it had been only a sentimental swing, it would have plenty. But it was more. It was just what the contending Mets needed. Wally Backman singled Stearns to third and Herm Winningham (debuting this same day) doubled Stearns home. Keith Hernandez would follow with a bases-loading walk, Darryl Strawberry with a bases-loaded walk and Hubie Brooks with a three-run double.
John Stearns had ignited a five-run fourth to put the Mets up 6-5. Later Straw would homer and the Mets would go on to win 10-6 for a doubleheader sweep that pushed the Mets to within five of first. Huge win for the 1984 Mets. And for John Stearns, New York Met from 1975 through 1984, a season he’d finish by catching the Mets 90th win of the year? His hit was sure to stay with him for a long time.
“George Foster called for the ball and he gave it to me after the game,” Stearns would report. “It reads, ‘Welcome Back Dude, Show, Double 9-1-84.’”
Thanks to FAFIF reader Joe Dubin for providing broadcast audio from the game of September 5, 1969.