The Cardinals had just won the last three games against their division leaders. After dropping the opening game in this six game series, the Cardinals had roared back and momentum was clearly on their side of the diamond. How long would it stay there ? There was still one more double header to play.
August 17 – Game 1
From the time that the lineups were posted, everybody knew this was going to be a good game. John Tudor would make the start for the Cardinals. His opponent would be a young Rick Aguilera for the Mets. Aguilera would become one of the game’s most dependable closers, earning 318 career saves, mostly with the Minnesota Twins. At this point in his career, Aguilera was starting games, not finishing them. While he may have been somewhat lost behind the brightly shining stars of Dwight Gooden, Sid Fernandez and Ron Darling, he was still a very effective pitcher.
Back to back doubles by Tommy Herr and Andy van Slyke would put the Cardinals on the scoreboard in the first inning. Aguilera would limit the damage to just this one run, which would be important because Tudor had been be very stingy with runs, especially against the Mets.
On the other side of the field, Tudor was shaky, but kept the score at 1-0 as he got through the first inning without too much trouble.
The Mets would suffer a huge blow when Aguilera had to be taken out of the game after retiring the lead-off hitter in the second inning, John Morris. Rick Anderson, loser of the second game of the August 14 double header, would take over for Aguilera. Anderson would retire the Cardinals rather quietly until the fourth inning, when the Cardinals would score an exciting run. With the bases loaded, Curt Ford flies out to center field. Tommy Herr tries to score, and Andy van Slyke tries to advance to third base. Van Slyke is thrown out at third for the last out of the inning, but Tommy Herr crossed the plate before van Slyke was tagged out. The Cardinals now had a 2-0 lead.
John Tudor did not have his good pitches working this afternoon, and he struggled to keep the Mets off the scoreboard. He was successful until the bottom of the sixth inning. Two walks and a single would load the bases for the Mets. A Tim Teufel fly ball to center field would cut the Cardinals lead in half, now just 2-1. Tudor retired Ed Hearn and Rafael Santana to end the Mets threat.
Doug Sisk and Jesse Orosco would combine for four scoreless innings of relief of Anderson. They did all that they could to give the Mets a chance to win. John Tudor did his job for seven innings, and then Ray Soff and Pat Perry would finish off the Mets in the last two. Tudor would earn his twelfth win on the season, and Perry would pick up his second save. Lost in the box score is a fine 1 1/3 innings from Ray Soff.
August 17 – Game 2
Somehow the Cardinals had won four of the five games in this strange series. Even more surprising is that they had done it without Jack Clark and Willie McGee, both out with injuries. McGee had been nursing a bad hamstring in late July. Instead of going on the disabled list, he rested it and played through the pain. He would end up tearing it in early August and would miss the rest of the month. Vince Coleman took over center field duties and played well in McGee’s absence.
Jack Clark had injured his thumb in late June and would miss the rest of the season. The Cardinals used a righty/left platoon of Alan Knicely and Clint Hurdle, plus Mike Laga and Jim Lindeman to fill in for Clark. None came close to the firepower and intimidation of “The Ripper”, and opposing pitchers were able to keep the Cardinal run total low as a result.
In this final game, it would be up to Danny Cox to do the unthinkable, winning the final game. Although Cox did not have a good win-loss record coming into this game, he had pitched as well as he did in his 18 win season a year earlier. He had suffered a broken his ankle late in spring training and was supposed to miss the first two months of the season. With Kurt Kepshire ailing, Cox proved his toughness by coming back on April 26 and only missing two starts. He struggled at first, but by mid season he was winning two of every three decisions.
His opponent would be the big left-hander, Randy Neimann. This would be the only start of the season for Neimann. Like Herzog did with Rick Horton, Davey Johnson was calling on a long reliever to make a spot start instead of trashing his rotation for the next week or more. In his few major league appearances, Niemann appeared to be quite hittable, so this game seemed to favor the Cardinals.
All but the Rick Horton games had been close. Most had not been decided until the last pitch was thrown, and the way this one started out, it looked like it might be another pitcher’s duel. The two hurlers retired the first fifteen batters they faced, and did so at a breakneck pace. There was a subtle difference, and that would play large in the coming moments. Neimann was keeping the Cardinals hitters off balance, and they were grounding out harmlessly to the infield. Cox was feast or famine: strikeout or a hard hit fly out. One of the two was about to break.
Unfortunately for Cardinals fans, it would be Danny Cox. The string of six retired in order would be broken when he gave up a lead-off walk to backup catcher, John Gibbons. We have learned from our previous stories, lead-off walks generally come back to haunt the pitcher that surrenders them, and this time would not be an exception. Rafael Santana would follow the walk with a single to right field. Gibbons did not have great speed, so he only advanced to second base. Cardinals fans held their breath as Randy Niemann tried to move the runners up a base with a sacrifice bunt, but failed to do so, fouling out for the strikeout. Danny Cox got Len “Nails” Dykstra to strike out for the second time in as many at-bats, giving hope that he might be able to work out of this trouble. Wally Backman, also a strikeout victim
in his first at-bat, had other ideas and ripped a pitch down into the left field corner, easily scoring Gibbons. Tito Landrum came up with the ball quickly, and had a right fielder’s throwing arm, so Santana held up at third base. He would be stranded there when Cox got former Cardinals first baseman, Keith Hernandez, to ground out to end the inning.
In the top of the fourth, the Cardinals managed to get the first ball out of infield against Niemann. It would be a harmless fly ball to center field by Tommy Herr to end the inning. 12 up, and 12 down – Niemann was perfect through four innings.
Danny Cox would walk the dangerous Darryl Strawberry to start the Mets half of the fourth inning. Just like in the previous inning, it would prove disastrous. And quickly when Danny Heep hit a two run homer, extending the Mets lead to 3-0. Cox righted himself and got finished the inning without any further damage. For now.
Alan Knicely, getting the start at first base, broke up the perfect game with a ground ball up the middle. It wasn’t hit particularly hard, but it was hit where nobody was playing. With one out, Steve Lake would hit a rocket that Keith Hernandez couldn’t handle. Knicely was able to advance to third as Hernandez’s throw was too late. Lake tried to take second base on the throw and would have been out, but Howard Johnson’s throw was wide. Johnson was given the error on the play.
John Morris followed that with a single on the right side of the infield, scoring both Knicely and Lake, bringing the Cardinals to within a run at 3-2. This would be the closest the Cardinals would come to catching the Mets in this series finale.
The Mets hitters would break the game open in the bottom of the inning as they sent eight men to the plate against Danny Cox. They hit Cox hard. The big right-hander managed to get two outs before Vince Coleman misplayed a fly ball that opened the floodgates. Before Cox could retire another batter, the Mets had extended their lead to 5-2.
Rick Horton, hero of the second game back on Thursday evening, would take over for Cox in the sixth inning. He pitched as well as he did in that game, except for one pitch to pinch hitter Tim Teufel. Teuful would deposit Horton’s errant pitch over the outfield wall for a solo home run.
Roger McDowell took over for Neimann in the seventh inning. Except for one brief moment, Neimann had been mesmerizing. The Cardinals how had a steep hill to climb with McDowell on the mound. It would not happen as McDowell shut down the Cardinals for three innings, allowing just two base runners: a dropped third strike in the seventh inning and an Andy van Slyke single in the eighth.
A Len Dykstra three run homer off Ray Burris would end the Mets scoring, and they finished the six game series with a 9-2 thumping of the Cardinals. Niemann would earn the win and McDowell would pick up a long save, of the three inning variety.
The Rest of the Story
The Mets would take the first and last games of his historic series, and the Cardinals would win the four games in between. The Redbird would pull to within eighteen games of first place with those four wins, the closest they would be to the Mets until the start of the 1987 season. To add insult to injury, the Mets would win 10 of the other 12 games between the two teams.
As well as the Mets had played so far in the season, they kicked it up a notch after this series. They would finish the season on a 30-13 tear, running away with the National League east title. The would defeat the Astros in the National League Championship Series as well as beating the Boston Red Sox in one of the more memorable World Series, unless your name is Bill Buckner – but that is a story for another day.
There were some unexpected heroes in the series. On the Mets side of the field, Lee Mazilli only got three hits, but one of them was a solo home run to break up Greg Mathews’ shutout. Rafael Santana, a solid glove but a throwaway at the plate, also had a good series. He would get six hits, three of them for extra bases. He would also score three runs in the series. Last, but not least, was Randy Neimann who threw six brilliant innings in his only start of the ’86 season.
For the Cardinals, the story was mostly pitching. Ray Soff and Pat Perry had been great out of the bullpen. You could not have asked any more out of Tim Conroy and Rick Horton in their spot starts. Even though Todd Worrell was shaky, he was able to turn things around and would go on to win the NL Rookie of the Year award.
Perhaps the biggest story was a young outfielder for the Cardinals by the name of John Morris. Morris had made his major league debut just a few days before this series. In the six games, Morris would collect seven hits, including a triple, and would drive in five runs. Two of those hits would be instrumental in a pair of the Cardinals wins. He would play part of five seasons in St. Louis before finishing his short career with the Phillies and Angels. His most productive time was being in a platoon with Jim Lindeman in 1987. If the ladies from the Cardinal Diamond Diaries had been blogging back then, I’m sure they would have adopted him as one of their favorite players.