Solving the pitches of the New York Mets' Ron Darling Saturday night proved to be a bigger mystery to the Dodgers than determining the identity of their own right fielder, which was revealed on the lineup card taped to the dugout wall.
Mike Marshall, just off the disabled list and his Wednesday night fight with teammate Phil Garner, made his first start since Aug. 9. But if Manager Tom Lasorda hoped Marshall would provide the same punch he had displayed against Garner, it didn't happen.
Marshall went hitless in four at-bats, and the patchwork Dodgers fell to the Mets, 4-3, for their ninth loss in a row, which caused them to slip within a game of last-place San Diego in the National League West. The Dodgers collected only four hits off Darling and Roger McDowell, who pitched a flawless ninth inning.
Home runs by Darryl Strawberry and Kevin McReynolds, which helped saddle Fernando Valenzuela with his 13th defeat against 11 victories, helped the Mets stretch their winning streak to six games. The defending World Series champions moved within 2 1/2 games of St. Louis in the National League East.
A Dodger Stadium crowd of 35,357 offered only token response to the New Yorkers in their midst, who frequently chanted, "Let's Go Mets," and responded to the news of the Cardinals' 4-1 loss to San Diego with sustained enthusiasm.
"We're really in great shape," Strawberry said. "This West Coast trip (on which the Mets are 7-1) was do or die. If we win tomorrow and the Cardinals lose, we'll be right where we want to be going home."
Darling has helped keep the Mets alive. He is 12-8 overall and 10-2 since ending a personal six-game losing streak in early July.
He struck out 10 Dodgers, walked only one and seemed in trouble only in the first inning, when Pedro Guerrero's one-out single scored Steve Sax, who had singled and stolen second.
Darling then got Marshall to ground into a force play and struck out John Shelby. He allowed only two more hits--a third-inning home run by Valenzuela and an eighth-inning homer by Sax.
Valenzuela was batting .149 when he hit the seventh home run of his career, into the right-field pavilion near the 385-foot mark. It was Valenzuela's first homer since Sept. 11, 1985, when he connected against Steve Bedrosian, then with Atlanta.
Sax's fourth home run of the season got the Dodgers within a run, but Darling then struck out Franlin Stubbs for the third time, ending the eighth, and McDowell breezed through Guerrero, Marshall and Shelby in the ninth for his 23rd save.
The Dodger losing streak is the longest since Aug. 31-Sept. 8, 1973 and within one of the longest since the team's move from Brooklyn. The 1961 Dodgers lost 10 in a row between Aug. 14 and 24, epitomizing what are known as the dog days.
The 1987 Dodgers have scored only 62 runs in the last 23 games, an average of 2.7 runs a game.
"We had a chance in the first inning tonight and didn't capitalize," Lasorda said. "We're in every game but can't get the big hit. I don't know any more, I just don't know."
This time, the Dodgers wasted a solid performance by Valenzuela, who has been hounded by erratic control and angered by insinuations that his velocity has diminished because of a tired arm. Valenzuela walked only three, struck out five and restricted the Mets to three hits over the last six innings. In the second and third innings, however, the Mets had five hits and scored four runs.
Strawberry ripped his 32nd homer deep into the pavilion in right-center to open the second. Mookie Wilson opened the third with a single, advanced on a wild pitch and scored on a single by Keith Hernandez. Valenzuela had two outs and a 3-and-2 count on McReynolds when the Met left fielder drilled his 24th homer into the left-field bleachers, the decisive blow.
McReynolds had only 4 hits in his last 41 at-bats and had not homered since August. 20.
Even before Darryl Strawberry and Kevin McReynolds connected against Fernando Valenzuela, the Mets had hit 162 home runs, eclipsing last year's club-record total of 148. They had hit 25 in their last 18 games and 8 in their last 5. . . . Strawberry has hit 13 of his 32 homers against left-handers and has established career highs for homers, walks (84) and runs (86). . . . X-rays of Tracy Woodson's left wrist were negative, but he will be sidelined for a week while wearing a soft cast. . . . Franklin Stubbs is hitless in his last 32 at-bats. . . . Bob Welch (11-9) pitches for the Dodgers against David Cone (4-3) this afternoon in the finale of a nine-game homestand.