Remembering the 1986 New York Mets: The Five Greatest Moments
The '86 Mets came into the season with a point to prove. They had finished runner-up in the NL East the past two seasons, but they had shown steady improvement under Davey Johnson after the miserable years with George Bamberger and Joe Torre at the helm.
Darryl Strawberry had grown into an instant power hitter since bursting onto the scenes in 1983, and with Ron Darling, Lenny Dykstra, and Dwight Gooden all joining the Mets the previous season, they were in a solid position to challenge for the division crown.
The one missing piece of the puzzle came via Boston in the way of finesse pitcher Bob Ojeda. After a 9-11 record with the Red Sox in '85, Ojeda proved to be one of the most reliable arms in the National League in the 1986 season, posting a stellar 18-5 record with a 2.57 ERA.
With a strong nucleus already in place, a manager eager to win, and some young talent eager for their chance on the biggest stage, the Mets took the baseball world by storm.
From bench-clearing brawls, pitching duels, and dramatic victories, here are my five greatest moments from the memorable 1986 season.
5: Mets Wrap Up the Division, Set Record Number Of Wins
Through 139 games of the regular season, the Mets boasted a 93-46 (.669) record, and they sat 22 games ahead of the Philadelphia Phillies with 23 to play.
The Mets had finished second in the division for the past two seasons, after seven years as one of the worst teams in baseball. Davey Johnson said the Mets were going to dominate the competition in 1986 and, with three games coming up in the City of Brotherly Love, his prediction was on the cusp of coming true.
While there was never any doubt by now that the Mets were the elite team in the National League, they were unable to clinch the title on the road, instead having to wait for five more days until they hosted Dennis Eckersley and the Chicago Cubs at Shea.
Doc Gooden, although erratic with eight Ks and five walks, tiptoed his way into and out of trouble to pitch a complete game, and the Mets got to Eckersley early, knocking him out of the game in the fifth after scoring three runs on eight hits.
Dave Magadan, standing in for Keith Hernandez went 3-for-4 with a pair of RBI singles, and Dykstra, Strawberry, and Knight also had a pair of hits as part of a 4-2 victory.
Hernandez came into the game as a defensive replacement in the eighth inning, recording two putouts, including Chico Walker's final out of the game that won the Mets the division.
The Mets went 13-4 over the final two-and-a-half weeks of the season, setting a franchise record of 108 wins. To this day, it's a record that still stands.
4: Gary Carter Breaks Out Of Slump With Walk-Off Win
There are so many moments from the 1986 National League Championship series with the Astros. Remember Game 3 of the series when the Mets rallied from behind on Lenny Dykstra's walk-off home run in front of 55,000 people at Shea? Or how about Game 6, probably the best playoff game of all time? We'll get to that later.
Or how about one of my favorites...Game 5 where the series was poised at 2-2 and six-time All Star (and former Met prospect) Nolan Ryan was squaring off against 21-year-old prodigy and reigning Cy Young winner Doc Gooden.
Ryan had eight strikeouts through four perfect innings, and the sides exchanged single runs in the fifth. The Astros took the lead on a groundout and Strawberry knotted things up with a solo shot down the right field line.
The pitching duel continued as neither starter allowed a runner past second through the remainder of the game. Nolan Ryan was pulled for a pinch hitter in the 10th inning after allowing one run on two hits (12 Ks), and Gooden, who had scattered six hits through five innings, shut the Astros down on three hits until he was replaced in the 11th.
The Mets would win the game in the 12th inning on Gary Carter's walk-off RBI single up the middle off Charlie Kerfeld, scoring Wally Backman from second base.
The Kid found the perfect time to break out of his 1-21 slump, coming through in one of the key moments of the series to send the Mets on their way.
It won't be lost on Astros fans that Kerfeld would have actually had Backman picked off first if he hadn't thrown the ball away. It was that costly error which allowed Backman—the eventual winning run—to move up into scoring position.
The win was the third one-run game of the series and the second time in four days that they won it with their final at bat. They had all the momentum heading back to Texas for Game 6, knowing they were just one win away from their third trip to the Fall Classic in the club's 25-year history.
3: Fighting To the End: New York's No-Nonsense Approach To Baseball
Despite a 13-game lead in the National League East—a lead they had held non-stop since the third week of the season—the Mets continued to fight for every victory, even in the second half of the season with the dog days of summer approaching.
“Fight” may be the operative word, both figuratively and literally.
In the second game of a three-game set at Cinergy Field in Cincinnati, the Mets were trailing Pete Rose’s Reds 3-1 heading into the ninth inning.
Bob Ojeda was on the hook for the loss after giving up three runs in five innings and, with two Mets down on the strength of Mookie Wilson’s double play ball, it looked as though they were going to lose their fourth game in five days.
Two batters later, Keith Hernandez had runners on the corners, but he lofted a routine fly ball to rightfielder Dave Parker who dropped what would have been the third out, allowing the Mets to tie the game.
In the bottom of the 10th inning, Eric Davis—pinch running for Pete Rose—stole second and then slid hard into third, getting into a fight with Mets third baseman Ray Knight. The benches emptied and the teams brawled: Kevin Mitchell raced in from right field, and Reds’ pitcher Mario Soto, the losing pitcher from the day before, also got involved. 16 minutes later, Ray Knight emerged from the pile, bodies strewn everywhere.
All four men were ejected, forcing Davey Johnson to play All-Star reliever Jesse Orosco in right field for three innings, reliever Roger McDowell in both left and right field, and catcher Gary Carter at third base (for four innings, no less) for just the second time in his career.
But the excitement didn’t end there. In the bottom of the 12th inning, with the game still tied at 3-3, the Reds had runners on first and second with nobody out, threatening to win the game. Carl Willis, who had just retired the Mets one-two-three in the top of the frame, looked to move the winning run 90 feet away, but he bunted into a double play, first-to-third.
The Mets went on to win the game in the 14th inning when Howard Johnson hit a three-run home run, and Roger McDowell, who had recorded three outs in the 11th inning before playing the outfield, came back in to get three ground ball outs to seal the victory.
The fight was arguably the biggest moment of the Mets' regular season, epitomizing the team and its brash fighting spirit.
2: NLCS Drama: One Of the Greatest Playoff Games Ever
Going into Game 6 of their National League Championship with the Houston Astros, the Mets knew it was now or never if they wanted a shot at their second title.
Astros ace Mike Scott had baffled Davey Johnson's Mets in Game 1 and Game 4, and he was set to pitch the decider, should the series go the distance. He had struck out 14 batters in a complete game shutout to open the series, and he followed it up with nine innings of one-run ball. They didn't want to test their luck a third time, especially in the Astrodome where they had lost four of their last five meetings with Houston.
And so it came down to Bob Ojeda squaring off against Bob Knepper. Little did they know it then, but Oct. 15, 1986, would go down as one of the biggest games in the club's history.
The Astros plated three runs on four hits in the bottom of the first inning and Knepper shone for the Astros, giving up just two hits and a walk through the first eight innings.
Then, as became the theme for the Mets in the playoffs in '86, they rallied late. Lenny Dykstra led off the ninth with a pinch hit triple and he scored on Mookie Wilson's RBI single to right. Keith Hernandez doubled Wilson home to cut the lead to 3-2 and, after Dave Smith came in and loaded the bases on back-to-back walks, Ray Knight tied things up with a sac fly to right field.
After four relatively uneventful extra innings, the Mets took their first lead of the game on Wally Backman's single in the 14th inning, only to see Houston center fielder Billy Hatcher hit a solo shot deep down the left field line.
Two innings later the drama began all over again. The Mets plated two runs on a double, RBI single, walk, and two wild pitches before the Astros could retire a batter in the 16th inning.
Darryl Strawberry doubled and Knight scored him on a base hit to right, advancing to second on the throw home. Jeff Calhoun replaced Aurelio Lopez but threw an 0-2 wild pitch to Backman to move Knight to third, and Backman dug in and drew a nine-pitch walk.
Calhoun then threw another wild pitch to closer Orosco that scored Knight from third, and Orosco then dropped down a perfect sacrifice bunt on the following pitch to get Backman to third. Dykstra joined the party with an RBI single to right, and only Mookie Wilson's ground ball double play stopped the damage.
After more than four-and-a-half hours, the Mets were were once again just three outs away from a trip to the World Series.
But three singles and a walk later and the Astros were threatening not only to rally again, but to win the game and force a decider. The Astros cut the deficit to 7-6 and they had runners on first and second with two out. Kevin Bass had worked the count full against Orosco, but the Mets reliever recorded his fifth, and most important strikeout of the day, to send the team into a frenzy.
It took 16 innings, 430 pitches, and 4:42 hours, but the Mets were finally on their way back to Shea to host the Red Sox.
1: Two Words: Billy Buckner
There are very few moments in Mets history that evoke the same memories as Vin Scully’s call from Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.
“Little roller up along first…behind the bag. It gets through Buckner! Here comes Knight, and the Mets win it.”
Mets fans know the story, but it never gets old. It’s more famous than when they actually won the championship two days later.
For those who want to relive the memories, it went a little something like this.
The Mets were trailing the best-of-seven series against the Boston Red Sox 3-2, and although they had rallied to tie Game 6 in the eighth inning on Gary Carter’s sac fly, the contest moved into extra innings when Howard Johnson failed to drop down a key bunt.
New York fell behind in the 10th inning on Dave Henderson’s homer, and Marty Barrett’s RBI off Rick Aguilera gave the Sox a 5-3 lead.
Wally Backman and Keith Hernandez made the first two outs of the inning, and Kevin Mitchell was reportedly in street clothes already booking his flight home before he got called to pinch hit.
Mitchell followed Carter’s single to left with a line drive back up the middle to put the tying run on base. Knight sent Shea into a frenzy with an RBI single to center field, bringing up Mookie Wilson with the go-ahead run at first and the tying run on third.
Bob Stanley came in for Calvin Schiraldi and the Mets held their breath once again as Wilson fought off three straight 2-1 pitches. The seventh pitch found its way to the backstop as Mitchell dashed home to tie the game, with Knight moving up to second base on the wild pitch.
Wilson fouled off two more pitches, with the Red Sox still just one strike away from their first championship since 1918.
Then, on the 10th pitch of the at-bat, one of the most famous moments in baseball history took place.
Wilson hit a slow ground ball down the line, a three hopper that would have given the Sox the third and final out they needed to force an 11th inning. It was all set to be a foot race to first base—Mookie versus Billy—but we’ll never know who would win that battle.
The ball bounced over the bag toward Buckner who was playing on the infield dirt some 10 feet behind the base and, on the third hop as Buckner went down to grab it, the ball rolled between his wickets and into shallow right field.
We all know what happened on that Monday night in October two days later as the Mets won their second World Series. But for fans, 1986 probably doesn’t get any better than Game 6, one of the greatest of all time.
To relive the moment, click here.