Best Mets pitching performances: 1980s

This is Part 4 of my 6-part series. It’s my favorite part because I lived these games. I saw almost all of them from start to finish.

Click the decade to see the other 3 parts: The 1990s The 2000s The 2010s

A reminder: This is a list, not a ranking. Ranking all these games is too hard!

Other reminders:

* Starting pitching dominates the list but relief appearances are included too. I call this “The Sid Fernandez Game 7 Rule.” We’ll get to that one today!

* I could have easily put 15 Tom Seaver starts, 10 Dwight Gooden starts, and 10 Jacob DeGrom starts on here. But in the interests of inclusivity, I chose to limit their presence at least a little bit. I wanted representation from the Grover Powell’s and the Tom Gorman’s too.

You’ll still get plenty of the Big 3 – they combine for 21 appearances, or more than 1/4 of the list.

The way to look at this in totality is simply: If you were telling the history of the Mets, what games would be included in your story of exemplary pitching performances.

I welcome your praise, gripes, memories, and personal statements.

In the end, If you don’t like what I’ve done, make your own list 🙂

Thanks to the newspaper reporters who covered these games and captured the quotes and descriptions used throughout these pieces.

October 1, 1982 – Terry Leach vs Phillies

Line: 10 IP, 0 R, 1 H, 7 K, 6 BB (Mets 1, Phillies 0, 10 innings)

Opponent: 89-73, 9th among 12 NL teams in runs scored

They said it: “Yes,” – Terry Leach when asked if he was a starter or reliever

In the annals of great final weekend starts by Mets pitchers, on one hand you have your John Maine and Johan Santana save-the-season efforts. On the other, you have the gems turned in by the likes of Terry Leach and Miguel Batista.

Leach gets the accolades here, albeit slightly sloppy ones given the walk total. Amazingly, it was only his second career start and he was going up against John Denny, who rode the momentum of his 9 one-hit innings to a Cy Young Award the following season. Leach’s momentum was good as well. The top four Phillies hitters – Garry Maddox, Pete Rose, Garry Matthews, and Mike Schmidt – went a combined 0-for-17 with no walks.

It was the first one-hitter by a Mets pitcher since Tom Seaver threw one against the Cubs in 1977. Leach and Seaver don’t share any other pitching similarities. For those unfamiliar, Leach didn’t throw hard. He threw submarine style, which definitely messed with opposing hitters. He’d make his best mark with the Mets in 1987 and 1988 when he posted a combined win-loss record of 18-3, filling in the starting rotation but spending most of his time in middle relief.

Despite the lack of starting experience to this point in his career, Leach forecast good things for himself going into this game. And he made them pay off.

“In bed last night, I honestly thought about throwing a no-hitter,” he said.

April 5, 1983 – Tom Seaver vs Phillies

Line: 6 IP, 0 R, 3 H, 5 K, 1 BB

Opponent: 90-72, 3rd among 12 NL teams in runs scored

They Wrote It: “There is in all of us the little child that struggles to break loose. And this was the day for it. Tom Seaver returned to New York. This was a day for fantasy.” – Phil Pepe, New York Daily News.

Summary: After almost six years away, it was as if Tom Seaver had never left. Against a lineup that featured Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Mike Schmidt, and Tony Perez, Seaver had no trouble other than stiff muscles in his return to the Mets. It was a big bounceback moment after a 1982 season in which he went 5-13 with a 5.50 ERA.

“Don’t swear and don’t spit,” were among the words of advice Seaver’s mom provided that day (per Pepe’s story). Instead, Seaver sang in the clubhouse “You make me feel so young …You make me feel that spring has sprung.”

Seaver didn’t have an A+ fastball, but he impressed Rose with one of the first he threw. He had a good changeup and a good slider, enough for six memorable scoreless frames.

One random anecdote that I’ve always liked. The game-winning hit in this game came from opening day rightfielder Mike Howard. That position would soon belong to Darryl Strawberry, but on this day, Howard was the unheralded star. It would be his last game in the major leagues.

July 10, 1984 – Dwight Gooden vs American League

Line: 2 IP, 0 R, 1 H, 3 K, 0 BB (NL 3, AL 1)

They Said It: “It didn’t look like he was throwing that hard, but when I got to the plate, it was fast. He throws as hard as anyone I’ve seen,” – Alvin Davis on Dwight Gooden.

Summary: A reminder thatAll-Star Games count too! We’re crediting Gooden for the fifth inning of this one, when he struck out Lance Parrish, Chet Lemon and Alvin Davis in a row to team with Fernando Valenzuela on six consecutive strikeouts. That busted the record for consecutive strikeouts in an All-Star Game set by Carl Hubbell in 1934. Hubbell threw out the game’s first pitch.

Yes, we know Gooden came back out for the sixth and gave up a double to Eddie Murray, but he did retire should-be Hall-of-Fame Lou Whitaker and two Hall-of-Famers, Cal Ripken Jr. and Dave Winfield.

“I wasn’t trying to strike out anyone,” Gooden said. “I just wanted to throw strikes and not walk anyone.”

September 7, 1984 – Dwight Gooden vs Cubs

Line: 9 IP, 0 R, 1 H, 11 K, 4 BB (Mets 10, Cubs 0)

Opponent: 96-65, led NL in runs scored

They Said It: “From where I was playing you would have to call it a hit, but I’d take an error gladly.” – Ray Knight on Keith Moreland’s single.

Summary: This is often considered the signature game of Dwight Gooden’s rookie season, which is impressive considering that he had a pair of 16-strikeout games too (which actually came in his next two starts!).

“What a masterpiece,” said Vin Scully, who was on the call for NBC that night when it was over.

The only hit on this day was a Keith Moreland grounder along the third base line that Ray Knight fielded while moving to his right, but couldn’t get the ball out of his glove to make a throw (see it for yourself).

“It was a tough play,” Gooden said.

The newspaper reporters described Gooden’s fastball as overpowering, and there are definitely bonus points to be had here for doing this against the top-scoring team in the National League.

“It’s an education just to watch him,” said Scully.

In fact, it’s one of very few games in this entire list to happen against a league-leading offense. The Cubs were playing at full strength, save for the latter part of the game when their regulars got hooked due to the lopsided score.

September 12, 1984 – Dwight Gooden  vs Pirates

Line: 9 IP, 0 R, 5 H, 16 K, 0 BB (Mets 2, Pirates 0)

Opponent: 75-87, 10th among 12 NL teams in runs scored

They Said It: “I’m delighted to see a great young pitcher take over the record. In 10 or 12 years, he’ll have other records that mean even more.” – former pitcher and rookie strikeout record-holder Herb Score to New York Daily News.

Summary: How do you follow up a one-hitter against the division leaders? How about a 16-strikeout shutout in which you break the MLB single-season record for most strikeouts by a rookie?

Wrote Fred Kerber of the Daily News: “Gooden, the 19-year-old who may force Roget to find some more synonyms for sensational … dominated in a matter that had been yet unseen.”

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette pointed out that Gooden never even had a three-ball count on a hitter. Pirates manager Chuck Tanner complimented Gooden’s rising fastball and table-dropping curveball.

“What do they say in court, nolo contendre?” Pirates third baseman Jim Morrison said afterwards. “That’s what it was. No contest.”

September 17, 1984 – Dwight Gooden vs Phillies

Line: 8 IP, 2 R, 7 H, 16 K, 0 BB (Phillies 2, Mets 1)

Opponent: 81-81, 2nd in NL in runs scored

They Wrote It: “Greatness is predicted unanimously for Dwight Gooden always with the reservation “… if nothing happens to his arm.” – Dick Young

Summary: Two years before September 17 was a day to remember for a division clinching, it was one for Dwight Gooden’s second consecutive 16-strikeout game, this one a loss when Gooden balked in the go-ahead run in the bottom of the eighth inning with the pitcher on third base.

The balk happened when Gooden began to use a full windup to throw a pitch to Juan Samuel, only to be startled when Keith Hernandez tried to yell “step off!”

“It’s my loss,” Hernandez said at the time.

This was the second consecutive game in which Gooden struck out 16. His 32 strikeouts matched Luis Tiant for the most in two starts (the mark has since been broken).

It’s the last of three consecutive Gooden starts that all made their way into this Top Performances list.

After the game, Davey Johnson was asked about Gooden’s chances for the Cy Young that year.

“Hey, he’s liable to win it 10 years in a row,” Johnson said.

April 28, 1985 – Tom Gorman vs Pirates

Line: 7 IP, 0 R, 5 H, 5 K, 1 BB (Mets 5, Pirates 4, 18 innings)

Opponent: 57-104, 11th among 12 NL teams in runs scored

They wrote it:  “It started with a bang and ended with a whimper.” – game story lede in The Journal News.

Summary:

Tom Gorman is best known for giving up the home run to Rick Camp in the famous July 4 game against the Braves. Gorman ended up getting the win in that game.

He’d get the win in this 18-inning contest and not give up any home runs … or runs period. That’s not to say there weren’t some scares. The Pirates left the bases loaded and had a runner thrown out at the plate in the 14th and nearly scored in the 18th only to be deprived of the go-ahead hit on a running catch by right fielder Rusty Staub (who was playing right field vs right-handed hitters and left field vs left-handed hitters).

“I know you wouldn’t call what I do a sprint but I ran as fast as I could,” Staub said.

The big highlight for the Mets was Darryl Strawberry’s first inning grand slam. They wouldn’t score again until the 18th on Jason Thompson’s error on Clint Hurdle’s ground ball

Said Gorman afterwards “I was tired.”

From the land of obscure stats: Gorman was the first pitcher in 80 years to record two wins in games lasting at least 18 innings in the same season. The last before him was Ed Reulbach of the 1905 Cubs.

August 20, 1985 – Dwight Gooden vs Giants

Line: 9 IP, 0 R, 7 H, 16 K, 3 BB (Mets 3, Giants 0)

Opponent: 62-100, last in NL in runs scored

They Said It: ”During the game, one of the guys came up to me and said ‘Let’s go for 20 strikeouts.’ – Gooden to reporters afterwards.

Summary: This one’s on YouTube, Kiner’s Korner and all. It’s the other of Gooden’s 16-strikeout games, the ones from 1984 being a little more memorable since they were back-to-back. Davey Johnson said a week earlier that he felt sorry for the Giants. Gooden had a great hard curveball to go with the optical illusion of a rising fastball. When Giants catcher Bob Brenly was asked how you hit Dwight Gooden, his answer to reporters was simply “rarely.”

By the way, fun trivia: Mets hitting coach Chili Davis was the only Giants hitter not to strike out. He had three hits.

September 6, 1985 – Dwight Gooden vs Dodgers

Line: 9 IP, 0 R, 5 H, 10 K, 0 BB (Mets 2, Dodgers 0, 13 innings)

Opponent: 95-67, 5th among 12 NL teams in runs scored

They Said It: “Just his normal self.” – Dodgers 2B Steve Sax describing Gooden’s game.

Summary: This one’s famous as the first of back-to-back pitcher’s duels that peak Gooden had with the ace of an eventual division winner’s staff (Fernando Valenzuela and John Tudor). Gooden went nine innings and allowed no runs in both, with his mound opponent allowed to go longer (Valenzuela went 11 innings, Tudor went 10).

The Mets won this one (lost the other), on Darryl Strawberry’s two-run double in the 13th. Nearly 52,000 fans definitely got their money’s worth. It began a stretch of five starts, in the thick of a division race, in which Gooden allowed no runs in nine innings four times, and one run in eight innings once (but let’s also note he homered in that game, a 12-1 win over the Pirates).

October 1, 1985 – Ron Darling vs Cardinals

Line: 9 IP, 0 R, 4 H, 5 K, 3 BB (Mets 1, Cardinals 0, 11 innings)

Opponent: 101-61, led NL in runs scored

They Said It: “I think a lot of people have wondered if Ronnie can handle big-game pressure. This game should answer that.” – Gary Carter.

Summary: This is the signature game for Ron Darling’s career, given how he matched John Tudor toe-to-toe for 9 innings in one of the most thrilling and dramatic games in franchise history. Remember that the Mets were three games behind the Cardinals with six to play and needed a road sweep to catch St. Louis. This was the series opener and props to Davey Johnson for sticking with Darling rather than switching to Dwight Gooden.

Though Darling didn’t dominate, he was rarely threatened, with the biggest threat being a two-on, one-out scenario that Darling erased by getting Ozzie Smith to ground back to him for a double play. Those outs were needed against Tudor, who posted an 0.93 ERA in 48 1/3 innings against the Mets in 1985.

Even Tudor paid Darling a compliment, saying “he pitched a super game,” which is about as high a level of praise as Darling could receive.

May 27, 1986 – Ron Darling vs Dodgers

Line: 9 IP, 1 R, 5 H, 12 K, 2 BB (Mets 8, Dodgers 1)

Opponent: 73-89, 9th among 12 NL teams in runs scored

They said it: “That’s the way he’s supposed to pitch,” – Davey Johnson

Summary: Davey Johnson was tough on Ron Darling. Darling wasn’t overpowering like a Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden, or Jacob deGrom. He had to think his way to victory, so a start like this was a major accomplishment.

This game is actually much better remembered for the brawl that took place when Tom Niedenfuer plunked Ray Knight after a George Foster grand slam.

But while that was ugly, Ron Darling threw a beauty, retiring 13 in a row in on stretch. His ERA was a meager 1.16 in his last six starts. You’d be hard-pressed to say he could have been any better.

October 14, 1986 – Dwight Gooden vs Astros

Line: 10 IP, 1 R, 9 H, 4 K, 2 BB (Mets 2, Astros 1, 12 innings)

Opponent: 96-66, 8th among 12 NL teams in runs scored

They said it: “I let everything I had go in the ninth because I had never pitched 10 innings before. When I came back to the dugout after the ninth, nobody said anything. It was like getting ready for the game all over again.” – Dwight Gooden.

Summary: The Mets refusal to let Dwight Gooden go 10 innings was a frequently-picked scab in Mets coverage at that time. It’s funny to think of that now when we’re happy to see a pitcher go 7 innings.

But giving Gooden the 10th inning was an interesting gamble in this one, given that Doc wasn’t striking batters out at his usual rate and had allowed eight hits. You could have made a better case from Nolan Ryan, who yielded but one run and two hits in nine innings and was pulled.

The Astros made things interesting with a two-out hit by Terry Puhl and (after a stolen base) walk to Bill Doran, but Billy Hatcher’s heroics would have to wait another day, as he flied to right. As you likely know, the Mets won in the 12th on Gary Carter’s hit off Charlie Kerfeld.

Count pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre as one who knew Gooden could handle the moment.

“As the game goes on, he becomes more of a bulldog,” Stottlemyre said afterwards.

October 15, 1986 – Roger McDowell vs Astros

Line: 5 IP, 0 R, 1 H, 2 K, 0 BB (Mets 7, Astros 6, 16 innings)

Opponent: 96-66, 8th among 12 NL teams in runs scored

They said it: “I don’t do anything special with the ball. I don’t go split-fingered. I don’t turn it over. I just throw it and watch it sink.” – McDowell circa June 1985 in a column written by Mike Lupica, New York Daily News.

Summary: The story of Game 6 of the NLCS is about the three-run comeback in the ninth inning, the lead-take that didn’t last in the 14th inning and the punch-for-punch fight that was the 16th inning.

But you can’t tell the story of Game 6 without Roger McDowell’s five scoreless innings on 51 pitches in the ninth through 13th inning of a tie game, with an honorable mention to Rick Aguilera who held the score at 3-0 with three scoreless relief innings in regulation. The decision to go so long with McDowell was tied to what was looming for the Mets if they lost Game 6 – a matchup with Mike Scott (who I still think they would have beat) in Game 7.

It’s McDowell, and not Ray Knight or Darryl Strawberry, who recorded the Mets highest Win Probability score (WPA to those who like stats) in this epic game. He faced 15 batters and retired all but one, and that one was caught stealing. The sinker was sinking pretty well that day. Ten of the outs came on the ground.

October 21, 1986 – Bob Ojeda vs Red Sox

Line: 7 IP, 1 R, 5 H, 6 K, 3 BB (Mets 7, Red Sox 1)

Opponent: 95-66, 5th among 12 AL teams in runs scored

They said it: “I don’t think Bobby Ojeda is confident pitching here. He knows if he makes a mistake, it’s on The Wall and it kind of broke him down a little, I think.” – Oil Can Boyd prior to Game 3 of the 1986 World Series.

Summary: This one could share billing with Bob Ojeda’s complete game win in Game 2 of the NLCS or Ron Darling’s 7 scoreless innings against the Red Sox the next day. None of these were necessarily great-pitched games, but circumstances of deficit elevate them to a level that makes them distinct in Mets history.

In this case, we’re talking about being down 2-0 in the World Series and pitching against the team that traded you the previous season (Ojeda was vocal about his anger at Red Sox management during the postseason).

Yes, Ojeda was advantaged by the Mets by the Mets scoring four runs before he even took the mound for the bottom of the first. But Boston did score nine the previous game, so there was no guarantee that things were going to work out in the Mets favor. A nice and easy seven-pitch first inning did foreshadow the rest of the game a little bit.

That’s not to say Ojeda didn’t have a little bit of stress. The Red Sox scored a run and put two on base in both the bottom of the third and bottom of the fifth. But Ojeda struck out Bill Buckner and got Jim Rice to ground out to get through the first jam and got Buckner to ground out to end the second one.

“This was a situation where everybody’s trying to knock each other’s block off,” Ojeda said. “That’s what makes it a great athletic contest. Bittersweet? Definitely not. I was trying to beat those guys.”

Let me also say that it was hard to pick from all the good content that there was for quotes and written excerpts from this game. In the end, I like this one from Phil Pepe of the Daily News because of how wrong it turned out.

“A left-handed pitcher in Fenway Park has as much chance of survival as a side of beef tossed into a lion’s den at the Bronx Zoo. Fenway is the Temple of Doom for lefties, and Bobby Ojeda is not Indiana Jones.”

October 27, 1986 – Sid Fernandez vs Red Sox

Line: 2 1/3 IP, 0 R, 0 H, 4 K, 1 BB (Mets 8, Red Sox 5)

Opponent: 95-66, 5th among 12 AL teams in runs scored

They Wrote It: “Fate can be cruel. For a life-long Red Sox fan, it can be doubly so … It proved to be an ambivalent tug: wanting the Red Sox AND Fernandez to win. One can’t have it both ways. I’m unhappy that the Red Sox didn’t win. But I’m not unhappy that Sid Fernandez played a key role in their not winning it. Maybe that it what life is all about.” – Bill Kwon, Honolulu-Star Bulletin

Summary: This one is the king of all Mets relief appearances. I actually would think about putting it in the top couple of games overall. Mathematically it isn’t close to being the pitching performance most responsible for the Mets winning a World Series. But spiritually, it is.

The Mets trailed Game 7 against the Red Sox, 3-0 and it could have been worse. But Sid Fernandez was there to bail Ron Darling out, inducing a fly ball to right field to escape trouble in the fourth inning. Sid subsequently threw two more scoreless innings to give the home team a little momentum. The Mets tied the game in the sixth, took the lead in the seventh and won it when Jesse Orosco struck out Marty Barrett.

It’s good to see how effusive everyone was with their praise for Fernandez postgame.

“There’s no doubt about it, he was the hero,” said manager Davey Johnson. “He got the fans and our own players believing we could come back. He was the MVP of tonight’s game.”

As for Sid, he was eager both to get fitted for a ring and to return to his island.

“Tell the people back home I should be there by Wednesday,” he said.

October 27, 1986 – Jesse Orosco vs Red Sox

Line: 2 IP, 0 R, 0 H, 2 K, 0 BB

Opponent: 95-66, 5th among 12 AL teams in runs scored

They said it: “When I came in, I wasn’t thinking about baseball, I was looking for the bathroom. I was really pretty nervous. I just told myself ‘Stay within yourself. This is no time to fold.’” — Jesse Orosco

Summary: If we’re going to do relief appearances, this one has to be on here, right?

This would be the definition of as good as it gets: Six up, six down, three outs gotten with the tying run on second base in the eighth inning Game 7 of the World Series.

And oh by the way, Jesse Orosco got an RBI in this game – he’s the last relief pitcher to get an RBI in a World Series game and the only one to do it in Game 7.

Orosco threw 18 of 24 pitches for strikes in these two glorious innings. Though in fairness, if he’d only thrown one pitch and it was the last one of this game, he’d still have found his way on here.

July 3, 1988 – Sid Fernandez vs Astros

Line: 9 IP, 0 R, 2 H, 12 K, 2 BB (Mets 5, Astros 0)

Opponent: 82-80, 8th among 12 NL teams in runs scored

They Said It: “Today, Sid became a complete pitcher,” – Davey Johnson

Summary: Just about every time Sid Fernandez took the mound, you thought he’d pitch a no-hitter or put up a huge strikeout total. In this game, he was within striking distance of the no-hitter and his whiff total was highly impressive. He held the Astros hitless over the last six innings showing no sign of tiring in a 124-pitch effort.

Fernandez threw his fastball at an average speed of 89 MPH and his curveball at 63 MPH per Bob Klapisch’s story in the Daily News. The Astros had no chance against that kind of differential. There was never a reason to worry.

“Sometimes Sid worries about things,” Johnson said. “Anxiety wears him out. He’s still awful young and he’s really come a long way …”

July 29, 1988 – Bob Ojeda vs Pirates

Line: 9 IP, 0 R, 3 H, 6 K, 1 BB (Mets 1, Pirates 0)

Opponent: 85-75, 4th among 12 NL teams in runs scored

They Said It: “It felt like ’86 again. I loved it, every minute of it.” – Bob Ojeda

Summary: Here’s the deal. There’s a game almost identical to this one the next year in which Frank Viola beat Orel Hershiser in Los Angeles. That one isn’t included because I had to cap this list somewhere and I chose to do it at 80 games.

And this game, which I attended as a 13-year-old, was a treat. The Mets entered the day two games in front of the Pirates for the NL East lead. That lead had been seven games not long before, but the Mets ran into some trouble. This was of course at a time when only the division winner made the playoffs. So a first place-second place matchup in late July carried some weight.

The Mets had the right guy on the mound that night. That’s as in the guy who got the must wins in Game 2 of the 1986 NLCS and Game 3 of the World Series. Bob Ojeda made quick work of the Pirates, combining with John Smiley for dueling three-hitters in a mere 2 hours and 7 minutes.

The Mets won on an eighth inning home run by Kevin Elster that (at least from our view) eluded the glove of Barry Bonds at the left field fence by millimeters.

Had Smiley been a Met, he’d have made this list too (instead he settles for a nice mention in the TV show This Is Us). Elster’s hit was only the Mets second of the game.

July 14, 1989 – Sid Fernandez vs Braves

Line: 8 IP, 3 R, 6 H, 16 K, 0 BB (Braves 3, Mets 2)

Opponent: 63-97, 11th among 12 NL teams in runs scored

They Said It: “He was sitting at his locker, somewhere beyond sadness …” – Bob Klapisch, New York Daily News

Summary: My dad was bugging me to include a Fernandez start against the Giants in which he pitched five no-hit innings against the Giants but left the game after injuring himself hitting a triple.

I’ve chosen to include this one instead because, as was true for many starts in Fernandez’s career, he deserved a better fate. His luck, in terms of run and bullpen support, matches Jacob deGrom’s.

If the no-hit bid turned injury woe was tantalizing, this game was more scintillating. Davey Johnson said it was the best Sid Fernandez ever pitched. Fernandez struck out 16 through eight innings, mostly with his rising fastball. He had one stretch of eight strikeouts in nine batters. He reached two strikes 22 times, including 10 hitters in a row.

The streak ended when Lonnie Smith, the same guy who struck out three times in a row, rode a rising fastball out to left field for a walk-off home run leading off the ninth.

“This was a tough way to lose but at least I was happy with the way I pitched,” Fernandez said (a quote you don’t hear too often from pitchers these days).

Good enough to make the top Mets pitching performances of all-time.

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