HOUSTON — Through no fault of traveling secretary Billy DeLury, the Dodgers' itinerary came perilously close to being altered Wednesday night.
"If we had blown a 5-0 lead with two outs in the ninth inning," Dodger reliever Tom Niedenfuer said, "we'd be taking the bus to Frisco."
The Dodgers were able to hang onto their airline boarding passes, as well as what's left of their dignity, when Niedenfuer struck out Houston pinch-hitter Phil Garner with the tying runs on base, saving the Dodgers' 5-3 win over the first-place Astros before a crowd of 33,327 in the Astrodome.
The occasion was Niedenfuer's 27th birthday, but he would have been content to let starter Orel Hershiser blow out the candles on the Astros, who had managed just two singles through the first eight innings.
"It wasn't my idea," said Niedenfuer, summoned by Manager Tom Lasorda after the Astros strung together three hits and two walks for three runs and two men still on base in the ninth.
"I would have liked the 5-0 shutout," Niedenfuer said. "But you have to give that club (the Astros) credit. They come back no matter what the score is.
"I was just trying to stay away from the obvious thing, something I haven't been able to do all season."
The obvious thing, for anyone who has spent the last year in Botswana, was a home run. Only two nights earlier, Niedenfuer had served one up to Jose Cruz during another Astro comeback.
Lasorda's advice to Niedenfuer?
"He didn't say a whole lot," the pitcher said.
Maybe not to Niedenfuer, but Lasorda couldn't say enough once he got back to the dugout.
"I was hiding (in the runway) and praying," the manager said.
But no more was heard from the Astros after Niedenfuer caught Garner looking with a 2-and-2 fastball, giving the Dodgers their first win in six games in the Astrodome this season.
If shortstop Mariano Duncan had been looking during batting practice, he would have been in the starting lineup. Instead, Duncan had his back to the plate when Enos Cabell lined a ball that struck Duncan in his right calf.
A devastating blow? Hardly. With Duncan scratched, Bill Russell was a late entry, and all he did was double twice off Houston ace Mike Scott, starting a four-run, first-inning rally with his first hit and scoring on Bill Madlock's double after his second hit.
"If it wasn't for me, we wouldn't have won today--I got Russell in there," Cabell gloated.
His humor was lost on Duncan, who was sitting in front of his cubicle with an ice pack on his right leg, which already was sore because of a sprained right knee.
"But if you don't came back soon," Cabell said to Duncan, "(Russell) will die."
Russell said he was still in the runway between the clubhouse and dugout when Cabell's liner struck Duncan.
"I was on the last step to the bat rack, and I heard someone yell, 'Oh, no,' " Russell said. "I looked out at Duncan and I said, 'Oh, no.' I'm sure he felt the same way.
"But in the back of my mind, because of his knee, I knew I might play tonight, which was fine with me. I could have picked a better pitcher to start against, though."
Scott was merely the league leader in strikeouts and earned-run average. But the Dodgers scored more earned runs in the first inning than the Astro right-hander had given up in any of his previous 20 starts.
"I was high on almost everybody," said Scott, who lasted just five innings, his shortest outing of the season. "The best control I had was when the count was 2-and-0 or 3-and-1. Then I'd throw the fastball down the middle, and they'd hit it pretty good."
Lately, Russell hadn't been hitting anybody. He was 1 for 15 in his last seven games and 4 for 36 (.111) in his last 16.
But after Scott struck out Steve Sax to open the game, Russell grounded a double just inside the third-base bag. Scott grazed Madlock with a pitch, walked Len Matuszek to load the bases, then went 2-and-0 to Greg Brock before grooving a fastball, which Brock whacked into right field for a two-run double. Mike Scioscia followed with a two-run single, and just like that, it was 4-0.
From there, it should have been easy for Hershiser, who gave up a single to Craig Reynolds in the third, another to Cruz in the eighth, and seemed on the verge of his first shutout of the season.
But John Mizerock opened the ninth with a ground-ball single past Sax. Bill Doran followed with a check-swing single, and suddenly, Houston had its guns drawn on Hershiser.
Billy Hatcher was out trying to bunt his way on, but Denny Walling walked to load the bases. Dickie Thon followed with a smash at Russell, who backhanded the ball on the short hop and got the force at second, as a run scored.
Two more came in when Kevin Bass doubled, extending his hitting streak to 20 games, longest in the National League this season. When Cruz walked, Lasorda couldn't put off going to the bullpen any longer.
Hershiser stayed on the bench instead of retreating to the clubhouse to witness the final out.
"It was fun watching that last out," Hershiser said.
More fun, to be sure, than riding the bus to Frisco.
Dodger Notes The win, only the Dodgers' second in seven games on this trip, enabled the third-place Dodgers to move within eight games of the Astros, who stayed four ahead of the second-place Giants. The win's significance? "I put very little on it," said Orel Hershiser, now 12-8, the same record as loser Mike Scott. "We're so far back right now, it's just one win. We'll see how big this win was seven or eight games down the road." . . . Manager Tom Lasorda gave the team another of his speeches before the game. "He's a tough loser and a great winner, I guess," Hershiser said. "He never lets us get complacent. One game to him is a lifetime." . . . Hershiser, who said his stuff was as good as it has been all season, has not thrown a shutout since last Sept. 3 against Montreal. He had five shutouts in 1985.