THE BIG SHOW
Even before spring training, the New York Mets and the Oakland Athletics were cast as teams for whom the regular season would be a dress rehearsal for the gala opening of the World Series on Oct. 15 in New York. And the A's and Mets did just what the script said they would do: move into first place early in May and end the regular season firmly established as the two best teams in baseball.
But wait, what about the playoffs? No problem, according to this plot line: The top teams in the National League West and the American League East—as it turned out, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Boston Red Sox, respectively—would be mere bit players to New York and Oakland. Indeed, in the regular season, L.A., which clinched a tie for its division title Saturday, and Boston, which beat the New York Yankees twice last weekend to cut its magic number to three, played their roles perfectly. The Mets beat the Dodgers in 10 of 11 games and allowed them a total of 18 runs. The A's out-homered the Red Sox 13-1 and beat them nine out of 12.
Ah, but there are players waiting in the wings who could turn the final act of the script into fiction. The ones who could steal the spotlight from New York are named Orel Hershiser, John Tudor, Tim Leary and Tim Belcher. Threatening Oakland are the stellar Bruce Hurst, Roger Clemens, Mike Boddicker and Lee Arthur Smith. "The Red Sox and the Dodgers have the kind of pitching that can win eight out of 14 against any two teams," says Atlanta Braves general manager Bobby Cox. "If I had to pick a team to go all the way, I think it would be Boston—if Clemens is right."
San Francisco manager Roger Craig adds, "Don't ever bet against the Dodgers' pitching and Kirk Gibson."
Still, as good as Hershiser, Tudor and friends may be, New York is clearly the favorite in the National League series. To begin with, the Mets' pitchers have been even better than the Dodger staff, with a cumulative 2.84 earned run average to L.A.'s 3.02. Though Doc Gooden had some rocky moments after his 8-0 start, he will be on the mound Oct. 4—against Hershiser—for the opener in Dodger Stadium, where the Doctor is 4-0 with an 0.34 ERA in six career starts. And Game 2 starter, David Cone, whom Gooden calls "the best pitcher on the Mets," was 2-0 and 1.32 in L.A. For the third game, at Shea Stadium, New York will send out Ron Darling, who was 13-1 at home through Sunday. When the fiery Bobby Ojeda was injured last week in a gardening accident, Sid Fernandez became the Mets' No. 4 man, and if he can remain unrattled—a big if—he has shutout stuff. "New York has the best starting pitching I've ever seen, and I've seen some great rotations," says Pittsburgh Pirate pitching coach Ray Miller. "And they also led the league in homers and runs. Good luck to anyone against them."
The Mets have speed—four players stole 20 or more bases—and no matter which duo (from among Lenny Dykstra, Gregg Jefferies, Mookie Wilson and Wally Backman) hits at the top of the order, they'll get on base. Manager Davey Johnson doesn't try to finesse runs, because he has, by far, the most power of any team in the National League. Darryl Strawberry had 21 home runs and 55 RBIs in the first half; Kevin McReynolds ("their best player," says one scout) had 26 homers and 97 RBIs through Sunday and also quietly carried the Mets through August. He has also gone 21 for 21 in stolen bases and led the league's outfielders in assists. Gary Carter is a showtime player, Keith Hernandez a money hitter. And there are few players more dangerous against hard-throwing closers than Howard Johnson, who, astonishingly, often bats seventh. Indeed, Pirate manager Jim Leyland points out that the Mets get tremendous production from the bottom of their order, in part because their pitchers hit exceptionally well. It seems almost unfair that New York also has Randy Myers and Roger McDowell in the bullpen and the best bench in the baseball. Sure, the Mets' defense gets knocked, but with all those strikeout pitchers, the infield's limited range is not all that important.
Still, the Dodgers' pitchers can beat anyone, and if they keep games close, manager Tom Lasorda will do anything to steal a game. He'll bunt, hit-and-run, squeeze and try to run on Carter, who threw out less than 20% of opposing base runners this season.
For L.A. to stand a chance, Hershiser and Tudor must win Games 1 and 2 at home against Gooden and Cone. Some insiders suggest that Lasorda may then switch his usual rotation and replace Leary, who got bombed in his last N.Y. start, with Belcher, who has been overpowering down the stretch, or even Fernando Valenzuela, recently returned from the disabled list. If the starters falter, Lasorda's rebuilt bullpen includes Jay Howell as the stopper and Ricky Horton, a southpaw Met killer.
Clinching its division early may have helped L.A., which needed a breather. Gibson was banged up and tired from playing the season as if he were running a post pattern. Steve Sax was worn down and fell into a bad September slump. John Shelby, who has a career .311 average against the Mets, began striking out with regularity. Mike Marshall has started to hit, and Jeff Hamilton, a young third baseman, has improved, but L.A. needs Sax to get on base and Gibson to deliver big plays. "Gibson's the closest thing to a one-man team I've seen in years." says a scout. "Walk him, and he's apt to steal second and third and score on a ground ball. Pitch to him, and he's apt to hit a 500-foot homer."
Unlike the National League show, the Oakland-Boston series will probably be full of offensive fireworks. The A's make Fenway Park look like something from an H-O train layout. With those Green Monsters in the middle of the Oakland order—Dave Henderson (220 pounds), Jose Canseco (230), Dave Parker (230) and Mark McGwire (225)—and four players with 20 or more steals, the A's are clearly the American League's best offensive team. Most scouts will tell you that Oakland's Walter Weiss and Glenn Hubbard form one of the two best double-play combinations in the league (Boston's Jody Reed and Marty Barrett are the other), and the A's catching duo of Terry Steinbach and Ron Hassey is vastly underrated. As for the pitching, the big three of Dave Stewart, Storm Davis and Bob Welch are 52-27, and the A's bullpen—anchored by Dennis Eckersley—set a major league record for saves (63 through Sunday, 44 of them by Eckersley).
This Boston club isn't of the slugging, thugging genre you remember from the 1940s, '50s and '70s. The current version was next to last in its division in home runs but outscored its opponents by more than 100 runs in Fenway, These stats best define the Sox: Their pitchers lead the league in strikeouts; their hitters are first in walks and last in strikeouts.
"The Sox are very difficult to pitch to, especially in Fenway Park," says A's manager Tony La Russa. "I've never seen a team with more disciplined, professional hitters. Their .360 on-base percentage is unbelievable. They're at the bottom of the division in homers? So what? They lead the division in runs."
Boston's attack starts with Wade Boggs. "He gets to two strikes and starts fouling off pitches, waiting for one he likes," says Miller. "He reminds me of a guy sorting through his mail looking for a check." A's pitchers walked Boggs 17 times in 12 games; and Stewart, who gets into trouble mainly when his control falters, issued nine of those walks.
However, the Red Sox haven't hit nearly as well on the road. Not only did they go 0-6 in Oakland this year, but they've also lost eight straight and 13 of their last 14 there. And if the Red Sox don't clinch until late this week, that could keep manager Joe Morgan from setting up the Hurst-Clemens-Boddicker rotation he would like to throw at the A's. (Hurst is 11-5 with a 2.88 ERA against Oakland, so Morgan wants to be able to use him three times.) If Morgan can't juggle his staff, Clemens will open, establishing the key to the series. Clemens is 1-4, with a 4.40 ERA lifetime against the A's and has won only three times since July. But if he can catch his breath and regain his powers, Clemens could set the winning pattern Boston needs. Boddicker is just 4-4 lifetime in Oakland, but given his ability to handle Canseco, who is 2 for 20 against him, Boddicker is a worthy Game 3 match for Welch (11-4 at home this year). Wes Gardner may have to start the fourth game for the Sox, though Morgan would prefer to have him in the bullpen helping Bob Stanley set up Smith, who this year allowed the A's one hit and no runs in five innings.
"If the A's can beat Clemens, they can win," says one scout. "But any time you face Hurst, Clemens and Boddicker seven times in nine days, you can lose four games."
Adds Eckersley, "The Red Sox match up against us better than any Eastern team." But then, there's what La Russa calls the Reggie Jackson-Carlton Fisk Factor. "Some players rise to the occasion," he says. "They want to be there when it's all on the line. The '72 to '74 A's and '76 to '81 Yankees were loaded with those guys."
So, too, are these Athletics. The Red Sox should remember how Henderson responded to the pressure in the 1986 playoffs, which he saved for the Sox with a dramatic home run. Canseco and Parker also love the heat. McGwire was terrific in the spotlight last year.
And the Red Sox? They have been in two World Series in 13 years, and both times Evans was their best player. Hurst and Boddicker, too, have been brilliant money pitchers. But, in the end, the A's might have a little more Reggie in them.
And we know the Mets are loaded with Reggies. Which is why New York and Oakland should end up where everyone predicted they would be: center stage, in the Big Apple.
With his deceptive speed and obvious power, Canseco will be double trouble for the Sox.
RONALD C. MODRA
Strawberry is the biggest reason the Mets lead the National League in runs and homers.
Clemens (left), assuming he's healthy, and Hurst give Boston aces to deal with Oakland.
Gibson, L.A.'s one-man gang all season, may be too run-down to run over the Mets.
A scout's-eye view of the leading players in the battles for the league pennants—and berths in the World Series
Luis Polonia, If. Dangerous leadoff man who can fly. Sprays ball, but can drive it over outfielders to left and left center.
Stan Javier, cf-lf. Has become a better hitter righthanded, though average (.258) doesn't reflect it. Good base runner, fine outfielder, valuable role player.
Dave Henderson, cf. Huge talent came together in 1988. Hits low ball for power. Learned to be selective. Best athlete on team.
Jose Canseco, rf. Most teams try to minimize his damage and pitch to Parker. Chases breaking balls. Power is from alley to alley. Runs at will.
Dave Parker, dh. Improved down the stretch since recovering from thumb injury. Lefthander who, when jammed, will fight ball into left. Hits lefties well.
Mark McGwire, lb. Has holes—particularly fastballs in—but crushes breaking balls and any mistakes. Underrated first baseman with soft hands.
Carney Lansford, 3b. Right thumb injury limits ability to handle bat and hit for power. Sometimes chases bad pitches, but a deadly breaking-ball hitter.
Terry Steinbach, c. Underrated. Good high-fastball hitter, but can also handle off speed stuff. Batted .300 since All-Star break. Very tough with men on.
Glenn Hubbard, 2b. Takes pitches, bunts, hits behind runners. May give way in starting lineup to Mike Gallego, a dazzling gloveman but no threat at plate.
Walter Weiss, ss. Defensive whiz: hands, range, arm, consistency. Hitting has improved. Slaps fastball all over field.
Dave Stewart, rhp. Forkball added to 90 mph fastball and slider made him an ace, but Sox patience in laying off forkball has hurt him in past.
Storm Davis, rhp. Learned to come inside and use a forkball. A six-inning pitcher. Gets in trouble when he nibbles. Better stuff from windup than stretch.
Bob Welch, rhp. Terrific curve, 87-88 mph fastball that appears faster because it's high and seems to jump. Forkball complements heat.
Dennis Eckersley, rhp. Fastball is back near 90 mph. Pinpoint control on hard stuff sets up out pitch: sweeping sidearm slider.
Wade Boggs, 3b. A hitting metronome—there's no set way to pitch him. Usually takes first pitch. Far better at Fenway (.383 lifetime vs. .327 on road).
Marty Barrett, 2b. Playing manager. Streaky fastball hitter, doesn't whiff, likes to hit-and-run, superb bunter. Has learned to pull, can hit the Wall.
Dwight Evans, rf. Doesn't hit heat well anymore, so takes fastballs early in count. Patient, top zone hitter in league.
Mike Greenwell, lf. Kills low fastballs, but good balance also allows him to hit breaking balls. Very aggressive (16 steals), but can be a wild man in left.
Ellis Burks, cf. Boston's best all-around player. Bothered by bad wrist, but can pull and is learning logo to right. Bunts, steals. Gold Glove caliber.
Todd Benzinger, 1b. Lefthanded, has a classic swing with loose, quick Carew-like hands. Hits outside pitch off the Wall. Seldom bats righty.
Jim Rice, dh. Looks for breaking stuff and still has power. Inside heat gets by him these days except during streaks, when he can still hit mediocre fastballs.
Larry Parrish, dh-1b. Can't catch up to fastball, but still has genuine power and never gives up. No range at first.
Jody Reed, ss. Medium range, great hands and good arm. Surprising hitter, with unusual bat speed for a runt. Best instincts on team.
Rich Gedman, c. Has power, but helicopter swing looks confused. Doesn't get ball into the air enough. Decent catcher.
Bruce Hurst, lhp. Mr. Autumn. Hitters can't tell forkball from fastball. Classic overhand curve. Most K's come on cross-seam heater that freezes batters.
Roger Clemens, rhp. If not worn down, will throw 95 mph fastball that he rides and sinks with uncanny control. Improved forkball and slider.
Mike Boddicker, rhp. A sculptor. Spots fastball amid changeups, curves, sliders at several speeds. Will walk two batters to get the one he owns.
Lee Smith, rhp. Pure 95-mph power, better down stretch than earlier in year. Intimidating, but never pitches inside.
Steve Sax, 2b. Offensive catalyst. Aggressive, up-the-middle fastball hitter who steals bases. Good range to left, but has chronic throwing problems.
Alfredo Griffin, ss. Top fielder, but right hand broken by Gooden pitch in May still hurts his hitting. Loved by teammates because he plays at 78 rpm.
Kirk Gibson lf. League's most dangerous big-situation player. Mets got him out moving fastballs up and in. Deadly hunter, gets big walks, steals.
Mike Marshall, rf. Kills mediocre fastballs, pitches away and mistakes. Anyone who throws inside at more than 85 mph (all Mets starters) can get him out.
John Shelby, cf. Dead fastball hitter. He swings at everything, so pitchers start him off at letters and finish him with balls over his helmet.
Jeff Hamilton, 3b. The postseason sleeper. Likes to pull and can hit high fastball or hanging breaking ball. Outstanding arm.
Mike Scioscia, c. Team leader. Superb receiver, handles pitchers well, can throw out good base stealers, would block the plate on William Perry.
Franklin Stubbs, 1b. Dead lowball hitter with big-time power, but easily handled: can only hit pitch from the kneecap down.
Tracy Woodson, 1b. His big looping cut gives him little chance against lefties Fernandez and Myers. Good defense at first or third.
Orel Hershiser, rhp. Best pitcher in the league over last three years. Rare combination of hard sinker and nasty curve. Good fielder, holds runners, hits.
John Tudor, lhp. No pitcher makes good hitters look so bad. Gets sneaky heat in on righties. Throws dead-fish changeup away and little curve to lefties.
Tim Leary, rhp. Tired after 100 innings in Mexico and 220-plus for Dodgers. No finesse: throws every pitch—fastball, killer split-finger—hard.
Tim Belcher, rhp. Hitters know 94-mph heat is coming, but he still throws it by them. Also has hard slider. Loses it quickly in sixth or seventh inning.
Jay Howell, rhp. Throws everything to the max: fastball, slurve. Gets big K's. Main setup man is former starter Pena.
Len Dykstra, cf. Patient leadoff man. Will take close 3-1 pitch to get on. Bunts, pulls ball with surprising power, steals. Good outfielder.
Mookie Wilson, cf. Always ready for a fastball and dangerous when he gets one. Is 10 for 28 against Hershiser. Exciting runner. Weak arm.
Gregg Jefferies, 3b-2b. Gorgeous swing from both sides. Little guy with short arms, but instincts get him by in the field and make him excellent base runner.
Keith Hernandez, 1b. Situation hitter. Will give up pitches early in game to set up pitchers for late innings. Wears out Hershiser. Master at first.
Darryl Strawberry, rf. Hits balls on outer half of plate a mile, but fastballs inside and high can handcuff him. Career .181 vs. L.A. Shaky defense.
Kevin McReynolds, lf. Superb base runner, strong arm, best leftfielder in game. Crushes pitches from the thigh to belt, and also will hit behind runners.
Gary Carter, c. Knees limit his throwing, but still terrific handling pitchers, blocking balls in dirt. Bat has quickened down stretch.
Howard Johnson, ss-3b. Sits and waits for heat to hit out and doesn't miss often. Average hands, great arm. Aggressive runner.
Wally Backman, 2b. Opposite-field slap hitter, no power. Rarely hits right-handed. Limited range, arm-but Mets seem better with him.
Dwight Gooden, rhp. Fastball has lost some hop, but he has great command. Sinks the heater, has great curve and uses gas more sparingly. Good hitter.
David Cone, rhp. May be best in league, with 94-95 mph fastball, tight-rotation curve that bites sharply, good changeup—all with fine control.
Ron Darling, rhp. An artist. Two different fastballs, splitter, curveball, slider-and changes off most of them. Superb fielder. Quick move to first.
Sid Fernandez, lhp. Odd delivery; slings ball upward with rotation that makes 86-mph fastball look like it's going 96. Slow off mound; vulnerable to bunts.
Randy Myers, lhp. Pure power combined with cockiness and improved control (i.e., a perfect short reliever). Short-arm heater clocked at 96 mph.