The 1980’s were such a great time to be a Cardinals fan. Gashouse baseball had returned to St. Louis, but this time it went by another name: Whitey Ball. Manager and GM, Whitey Herzog transformed a group of players that didn’t quite fit together into a unified team featuring excellence in speed, defense and timely hitting. A balance of veterans supporting an exciting core of young players who, if they could avoid the injury bug, could provide championship caliber baseball for many years to come.
In literature, each great hero had a foe of his or her equal. Sherlock Holmes had his Professor Moriarty. Harry Potter has his He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. For the 1980’s, the Cardinals archenemy were the New York Mets, and a mighty villain they turned out to be.
The Cardinals would battle the Mets for supremacy of the National League East for much of the decade. Like the Robert Brown character from the Star Trek Episode “The Alternative Factor” (aka And What of Lazurus), this battle went on for what seemed an eternity with neither side able to claim victory. The Cardinals would finish first in 1981 (with the strike ruining their first post-season under Herzog’s leadership), 1982, 1985 and 1987. The Mets got off to a slow start but would win in 1986 and 1988. Each team would bring home one World Series title. The two teams would meet 173 times in the decade, and only a single game would separate the two, with the Mets owning the advantage. To the Cardinals fans, the differential felt more like 50 games as it seemed like the Mets were winning every series. This would become one of the best rivalries between two quality baseball teams – and each of their fans developed a strong dislike of the others.
The Race for 1987
Led by the 1-2 punch of Vince Coleman and Ozzie Smith backed up by the big bat of Jack Clark, the Cardinals got off to a slow but steady start in 1987. Key injuries kept the Cardinals from contending in 1984 and again in 1986. In mid-April, it seemed like it was happening again. On April 19, Barry Lyons of the Mets ran after a foul ball and slid hard into the Cardinals dugout, hitting John Tudor and leaving the staff ace with a severely broken leg. Tudor would miss the next three months, but somehow Herzog found a way to keep his team focused. And winning.
As the temperatures started warming up in May, so did the Redbirds. They continued to win more than losing in June and suddenly the Cardinals found themselves with a comfortable lead early in the summer. A 9 game winning streak in early July all but sealed up the National League East, or so we thought. Unfortunately, there were still 2 months to play, but a 10 game lead felt safe.
The Cardinals would begin to falter in August and again in September as additional injuries took their toll – none bigger than to slugger, Jack Clark. To add to the drama, a 7 game winning streak by the Mets in early August right on the heels of sweeping the Cardinals in St. Louis, and another 6 game run in early September brought the two rivals to within 1 1/2 games with less than a month to play. So much for that 10 game cushion.
This brings us to September 11, 1987. With a slim 1 1/2 game lead, the Cardinals went on the road to play 2nd place New York in a 3 game weekend series. Tensions were high and the momentum gained from winning this series would propel one of the two teams into postseason.
The 1987 Mets had a ferocious lineup. If they had any weakness, it was a vulnerability to left handed pitching, which the Cardinals had in abundance. For the series opener, the Cardinals were going with the always dependable John Tudor. Very quickly it became clear that this game was not going to follow anybody’s script.
Before we knew what hit us, the Mets had jumped out to a 3-0 lead. A Keith Hernandez RBI double and 2 run home run from Darryl Strawberry would get the home crowd of over 50,000 standing on their feet. Cardinals fans hopes for a September miracle series were destroyed in a span of about 3 minutes. And the first inning had just finished.
The Mets starter, Ron Darling, was unable to perform the most important job given to a pitcher – shut down the opponents when given a lead. A walk to Dan Driessen (filling in for an injured Jack Clark) and one of the rarest sights in baseball, a walk to Willie McGee, gave the Cardinals some hope. Three quick infield groundouts brought an end to the rally, but the Cardinals did manage one run. There was plenty of time – just eat away at the lead, one run at a time. Herzog style.
It was now John Tudor’s job to keep it a 3-1 Mets lead, and he didn’t fare much better than Darling. Two quick outs to the 8th and 9th place hitters brought Mookie Wilson to the plate. It also brought the New York crowd back to their feet. Wilson would hit a solo home run and the Mets would have their 3 run lead back. Now trailing 4-1, Cardinals fans felt like the season might be ending right here. To make matters worse, Ron Darling had shaken off his early game troubles. With Darling settling in and Tudor faltering, the season felt over. Tudor would find his groove though and the game would stay 4-1.
In the top of the 6th, Whitey Herzog would make the gamble of the game, maybe the season. Whitey would pinch hit for Tudor and hope that the bullpen could hold off the Mets. That decision appeared to backfire when Lance Johnson lined out to Keith Hernandez. Now it was up to the pesky Vince Coleman, and Coleman did what we had come to expect: a push bunt between Darling and Tim Teufel. With Ozzie Smith batting , Coleman would steal second base. This was Whitey Ball at it’s finest. One run at a time, keep the pressure on the other team. As quickly as it started, it ended when an overly aggressive Coleman was picked off of second base. Ozzie would extend the inning with a walk, but Tommy Herr grounded out weakly to first, ending the threat. But it was a threat, if they could just get another chance.
In the 7th, the Cardinals would try some Whitey Ball again. A walk and force out would put speedster, Willie McGee at first base. And after a Terry Pendleton strikeout, McGee would try to steal second. This game would feature another rarity – Gary Carter would throw out McGee at second, ending another rally. If the Cardinals could just break through.
This is when most Cardinal fans turned off their radios, and those that did missed some of the most exciting baseball of the decade.
In the bottom of the 7th, Scott Terry would get into trouble. A leadoff double by Len Dykstra and sacrifice bunt from Mookie Wilson had another runner at third with just one out. Running on contact, Herr made a good play on an infield grounder to throw out Dykstra at home. A seeing eye single from former Cardinal Keith Hernandez had the Mets poised for a 2 out rally. Herzog would again go to his bullpen – this time time for young lefty, Steve Peters. Only 24 years old and on the one month anniversary of his major league debut, Peters would face the toughest left handed hitter in 1987 – Darryl Strawberry. Peters would hit second in the next inning, so he knew he was in for just one out. If he could get it. Looking nothing like a nervous rookie, Peters got Strawberry to strike out, ending the rally.
We are now in the 8th inning and Davey Johnson calls for his closer, Jack McDowell. McDowell and Jesse Orosco would make a formidable righty/lefty combination out of their bullpen, much like the Cardinals had with Ken Dayley and Todd Worrell. The top of the 8th would feature the third rarity of the game – a Keith Hernandez error. The Cardinals would get a runner as far as third base, and the Mets seemed willing to concede a run to avoid a big rally. But the rally failed to materialize and more Cards fans turned off their radios.
And this brings us to the most exciting 20 minutes of 1987. Perhaps of the last 50 years.
With the Cardinals trailing 4-1 and the Mets closer in a nice groove, the Cardinals brought the heart of the order up (Ozzie Smith, Tommy Herr and Dan Driessen) in their final at bat. Or so they thought. Ozzie would start things off with a walk. Tommy Herr would try to pull the ball through the right side of the infield, but Keith Hernandez would make the play and take the conservative out at first. Smith’s run at second base meant nothing. Or so they thought. Driessen would strike out and the Cardinals were down to their last out – still trailing 4-1. Willie McGee would extend the inning, hitting a sharp single up the middle, scoring Smith from second. Again the Mets would make the conservative play holding McGee at first, allowing Ozzie to score without a throw. Smith’s run meant nothing. The Cardinals final hope now lies on the shoulders of youngster, Terry Pendleton. Roger McDowell gets two quick strikes against the Cards third baseman. What happens next still gives me goosebumps when I think about it. With 2 strikes, one strike away from dropping the first game of this pivotal series, Terry Pendleton hits a 2 run homer to the deepest part of Shea Stadium – dead center field. At first, it was hard to hear the call over all of the Mets fans cheering thinking they had won the game.
Improbably, the game was now tied 4-4. The Cardinals were not done – not by a long shot.
David Green would double putting the go ahead run at second, but catcher Tom Pagnozzi would strike out to end the inning.
Whitey Herzog would go again to his bullpen and play the lefty vs lefty odds, chosing Ken Dayley over Todd Worrell. Fans of the 80s Cardinals will remember fondly the pitching antics of Ken Dayley. He would show moments of dominating brilliance followed by unexpected wildness. And then sometimes followed by cartoon-like wildness. Like Mitch Williams in the 90s, Dayley could walk the bases loaded and then strikeout the side. The bottom of the 9th on September 11, 1987 we would experience all that, and more.
Lee Mazilli would make the first out on a line drive to Dan Driessen. A single by pinch hitter Bill Almon would set the stage for some of Dayley’s drama. A wild pitch would put Almon at second base. The winning run is now in scoring position with only one out and Dayley now has to face the top of the Mets batting order. Poor Mookie Wilson was overmatched by Dayley’s devistating fastball and wicked curve and eventually would strike out. A walk to Tim Tuefel would bring Keith Hernandez to the plate. Once again, the Mets fans were on their feet and cheering so loudly that they could be heard as far away as Philadelphia. This time, Dayley gets the best of the ex-Cardinal, getting him to ground out to his counterpart, Driessen.
Could it get any better than this ? Extra innings late in a pennant race between the league’s best two teams ? Of course it could – with a Cardinal victory, which would not take very long on this evening. Like all of the great games of the decade, it involved some more Whitey Ball.
Jesse Orosco, the other half of the Mets closing tandem, was on to pitch the 10th inning. Tony Pena would line out to short to start the inning. A seeing eye single to left field would put Vince Coleman on first. A wicked single to left from Ozzie Smith would put Coleman at 3rd, and a single to right center by Tommy Herr would put the Cardinals on top for the first time in the game, 5-4. Driessen’s force play at 2nd would score an insurance run when he beat out the double play throw to first and the Cardinals had a 6-4 lead. Willie McGee being Willie McGee, struck out to end the rally, but nobody cared – we had a 6-4 lead.
With the heart of the Mets order due up in the bottom of the 10th, Herzog stayed with his lefty, but Todd Worrell was getting ready. Just in case.
He wouldn’t be needed on this night. This time, there was no drama as Ken Dayley made quick work of the Mets, striking out Strawberry and getting fly ball outs from Kevin McReynolds and Gary Carter. This was the brilliance that Dayley occasionally displayed and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
The Rest of the Story
Within one pitch of losing the first game of the pivotal series in New York, the Cardinals rallied for a victory, winning not only this game, but gaining some much needed momentum that would carry them to the National League East Championship and another World Series visit. After this game the Cardinals would not look into the rear view mirror to see who was chasing them – they were not to be caught.
From here, the Cardinals would go on to split or win all but two series after this monumental game. They would lose a heartbreaker on September 25, a Friday game at Wrigley. One bad pitch by Bob Forsch to Andre Dawson gave the Cubs a 2-0 lead that would hold up in spite of two Vince Coleman stolen bases. With the season winding down, the Cardinals would lose 2 of 3 to the Mets at home – but those games meant nothing as Danny Cox, Joe Magrane and Greg Matthews took 3 of 4 from Montreal, the last of these with the Mets in the stands, watching the Cardinals celebrate for winning the National League East for the 3rd time in the decade.