The New York Mets' domination of the Dodgers, which has been evident in many forms this season, was pressed to its limit Tuesday night in Game 1 of the National League championship series.
One out away from beating the Mets, behind effective pitching from starter Orel Hershiser and reliever Jay Howell, the Dodgers instead fell hard in a dramatic ninth-inning collapse that turned an impending victory into a 3-2 loss in front of 55,582 fans at Dodger Stadium.
Dodger hopes hinged on Dodger outfielder John Shelby, who was charging Gary Carter's blooper as it was descending in shallow center field and as two Met baserunners were charging toward home plate.
If Shelby had caught the ball, the tying and winning runs would not have scored, a Dodger victory would have been secured, and the Mets' 10-1 record over the Dodgers would have been just so much trivia.
Instead, Shelby was sprawled on the center-field grass, the ball hitting his glove and bouncing behind him. And, after Shelby retrieved the ball and hesitated before throwing to home plate, Dodger catcher Mike Scioscia became a hit-and-run victim when Kevin McReynolds flattened him to score the go-ahead run.
So, another Dodger pratfall against the Mets had been completed, courtesy of Carter's broken-bat, 2-run double.
Fittingly, the Dodgers' fall was literal and figurative. Shelby and Scioscia were down on the decisive play, and so were the rest of the Dodgers in the wake of the loss. They vowed to be back up tonight, when rookie Tim Belcher faces the Mets' David Cone, in Game 2.
Discouraging for the Dodgers was the knowledge that they had lost even though Hershiser had shut out the Mets for 8 innings to unofficially run his scoreless-inning streak to 67.
And, they had come up short, even though their offense was able to manufacture 2 runs off Met starter Dwight Gooden.
"We know, as a team, we could beat Orel Hershiser," Met first baseman Keith Hernandez said. "I know we beat Howell, but we really beat their ace (Hershiser). Obviously, that's a big win for us and a tough loss for them.
"Obviously, that puts us in a position of putting the hammer on them. If we win (tonight), it's in our hands. We could go for the throat."
You could say the Dodgers, after doing everything possible to beat the Mets through 8 innings, felt some tightness in the vicinity of the throat in the ninth inning.
Hershiser, who had dispatched the Mets in an economical 89 pitches after 8 innings, gave up a leadoff single to Met rookie Gregg Jefferies in the ninth. It was the third hit in 4 at-bats for Jefferies, who had not faced Hershiser before.
After Hernandez's hard-hit grounder to first base moved Jefferies to second, Hershiser dueled with Met right fielder Darryl Strawberry, that Dodger wanna-be. Strawberry worked the count to 2-and-2, before fouling off 4 pitches. Then, he connected with Hershiser's hanging curveball and sent it into the right-center gap to score Jefferies, cutting the Dodgers' lead to 2-1.
Summer had turned to fall, and another Olympic Games had come and gone since Hershiser last gave up a run. But when Jefferies set foot on home plate--one small step for the Mets, a giant leap for Hershiser' earned-run average--it was the first time in 67 innings Hershiser had allowed an opponent to score.
Deciding that Hershiser had tired, Manager Tom Lasorda summoned Howell, who had ended the season having not allowed a run in his last 18 innings.
Howell walked McReynolds, the potential go-ahead run, on 5 pitches. Throwing almost exclusively curveballs, Howell then struck out Howard Johnson and went ahead of Carter, 0-2.
With the sellout crowd on its feet and roaring in anticipation, Howell threw Carter another curveball, low and away. Carter reached out and sent a blooper into shallow center field.
"My first reaction was that I was surprised he swung," Howell said. "Then, I was surprised he hit it. I just turned around and looked to see what type of jump John got on the ball. It would have taken a great play for John (Shelby) to catch the ball. And I've seen John make plays like that before."
This, however, was not one of those times. Shelby appeared to get an adequate jump on the ball and, diving headfirst, he appeared to have reached the ball in time. The ball, upon Shelby's impact with the grass, bounced in and out of his glove and trickled behind him.
"I had a good feeling I could get the ball," Shelby said. "That's why I dove."
Had Shelby not dived for the ball, the tying run, Strawberry, would have scored and McReynolds would have been held at third base. But McReynolds, observing Shelby's stab at the ball, did not hesitate, rounding third and heading for home plate.
Shelby, however, did hesitate--and the Dodgers lost.