Like the 1960s and current decade, the 1980’s were a great time to be a Cardinals fan. Whitey Herzog transformed the team from a group of players that didn’t quite fit together into a unified team showing excellence in speed, defense and timely hitting. For each hero there had to be a foe of its equal, and for the 1980s that would be the New York Mets.
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 but leaving a trail of destruction across the entire National League.
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 head to head match up over the decade would give a slight edge to the Mets (the Cards winning 86 and losing 87) but to a Cardinals fan the differential seemed much greater. 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.
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. Heating up in May and continuing to win more than losing in June the Cardinals found themselves with a comfortable lead early in the summer. And then a great 9 game winning streak early in July all but sealed up the National League East, or so we thought. Unfortunately there were still 2 months to play but the 10 game lead felt comfortable. The Cardinals would begin to falter in August and again in September as injuries took their toll – none bigger than the one to slugger Jack Clark. Couple this with a Mets 7 game win streak in early August right on the heels of sweeping the Cardinals in St. Louis and another 6 game streak in early September pulled the Mets within 1.5 games with less than a month to play.
This brings us to September 11, 1987. With a 1.5 game lead the Cardinals were set 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 would be to a left handed pitcher. Which was good for the Cardinals as the dependable John Tudor would start this game. But this game was not going to follow anybody’s script. Before we knew what hit us, the Mets jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the bottom of the first. 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. And Cards fans hopes for a September miracle series were destroyed. In a span of about 3 minutes.
But Ron Darling could not do what pitchers are taught to do. 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.
And the ball would be handed back to John Tudor to keep it a 3-1 Mets lead. Two quick outs to the 8th and 9th place hitters brought Mookie Wilson to the plate. And the crowd back to its feet. Wilson would hit a home run and the Mets would get that 3 run lead back. Now leading 4-1, Cards fans felt like the season might be ending. Right here and right now. And it would get worse. Ron Darling would make quick meat of the Cards striking out the side in the top of the 3rd. 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, Herzog would make the gamble of the game. Too early for Ken Dayley or Todd Worrell, Whitey would pinch hit for Tudor and hope that the bullpen could hold off the Mets. The decision to pinch hit backfired when Lance Johnson lined out to 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. And 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. But as quickly as it started, it ended. Coleman would be picked off of second. Ozzie would walk but the rally ended when Tommy Herr grounded out weakly to first.
Scott Terry would make quick work of the Mets in the bottom of the 6th getting Gary Carter to strike out, a weak grounder from Cardinal killer Howard Johnson and another strike out from former Cardinal Rafael Santana.
In the 7th the Cardinals would try Whitey Ball again. A walk and force out would put Willie McGee at first. And after a Terry Pendleton strikeout, McGee would try to steal second. This game would feature another rarity – Gary Carter would through out McGee at second, ending another rally.
This is where most Cardinal fans turned off their radios. Learning my lesson from childhood, I didn’t. My wife and I did get into the car and drove about 30 miles into North Dallas to go to a CD store. In 1987, CD stores were not very common and this Sound Warehouse in North Dallas was the closest.
In the bottom of the 7th Terry would get into trouble. A leadoff double by Len Dykstra and sacrifice bunt from Mookie Wilson had another run at third with less than 2 out. Running on contact, Herr made a good play to throw out Dykstra at home. But a seeing eye single from former Cardinal Keith Hernandez had the Mets poised for a 2 out rally. And Whitey would again go to his bullpen – this time young lefty Steve Peters. 24 years old and on the one month anniversary of his ML debut, Peters would face the toughest left handed hitter in 1987 – Darryl Strawberry. His spot was up second next inning, so Peters knew he was in for just one out. If he could get it. Not looking 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 to third, 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 10 minutes of 1987.
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). 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 meant nothing. Or so they thought. Driessen would strike out and the Cardinals were down to their last out – still trailing 4-1. 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. Smith’s run meant nothing. And in steps youngster Terry Pendleton. And Roger McDowell gets two quick strikes against the Cards third baseman. And sitting in the Sound Warehouse parking lot while my wife was shopping for CDs I heard something that I could not believe. 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. 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. And 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. And the bottom of the 9th on September 11, 1987 we would experience all that was a Ken Dayley outing.
Lee Mazilli would make the first out on a line drive to Dan Driessen. Then a single by pinch hitter Bill Almon would set the stage for some of Dayleys drama. A wild pitch would put Almon at second. The winning run in scoring position with only one out and Dayley facing the top of the Mets potent batting order. Poor Mookie Williams 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. And the Mets fans to their feet. Cheering so loudly that they could be heard as far away as Philadelphia, Dayley gets the best of the ex-Cardinal, getting him to groundout 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. And like all of the great games of the decade it involved some Whitey Ball.
Jesse Orosco, the other half of the Mets closing tandem would pitch the 10th. Tony Pena would line out to short to start the inning. A seeing eye single dribbling into left would put Vince Coleman on first. A wicked single to left 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. And 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.
But he wouldn’t be needed on this night. 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 come at a better time.
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 enough momentum to 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.
As a postscript to this story, 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. And 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 winning the National League East for the 3rd time in the decade.