The Near-Miss Of The 1987 New York Mets

The 1987 New York Mets came into the season feeling like a dynasty might be at hand. They had won an epic World Series title in 1986, the culmination of a three-year building program under manager Davey Johnson that included strong seasons in 1984 and 1985. They were both young and established and were widely expected to repeat as champions. That didn’t happen, as they couldn’t quite overcome a slow start.

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None of the problems were due to complacency. The Mets did not stand pat in the offseason They let World Series MVP Ray Knight walk in free agency and put Howard Johnson at third base. It proved to be the right call—Knight only had two unproductive years left in the majors, while Johnson—or “HoJo”, as he was nicknamed–finished 1987 with an on-base percentage of .364, a slugging percentage of .504, hit 36 home runs and stole 32 bases.

And that wasn’t even close to the most significant offseason move. New York pulled the trigger on an eight-player deal with the San Diego Padres, with the focal point being giving up utility man Kevin Mitchell in exchange for outfielder Kevin McReynolds. That one didn’t pan out quite as well. It was no fault of McReynolds, who hit 29 home runs and drove in 95 runs. But Mitchell turned into an outstanding power hitter and eventually won an MVP award.

The core of the championship team was still back in the fold though. The Mets had the most prolific offense in the National League and it was led by Darryl Strawberry The incredibly gifted rightfielder posted an OBP of .398 while hitting 39 home runs, stealing 36 bases, driving in 104 runs and scoring 108.

Strawberry and HoJo were the most complete offensive players, but there was a lot of help. Veteran first baseman Keith Hernandez put up on OBP of .377. Sparkplug centerfielder Lenny Dykstra’s OBP was .352 and though he didn’t have home run power, Dykstra ripped 37 doubles and slugged .455. Gary Carter was in decline, but the future Hall of Fame catcher still hit 20 home runs.

What really separated the Mets’ offense though, was the quality Davey Johnson had on his bench. Mookie Wilson had a stat line of .359 OBP/.455 slugging. Tim Teufel’s numbers were .398/.545. Dave Magadan, a future MLB hitting coach was at at .386/.443 and Lee Mazzilli was at .399/.460. No team in the majors got this kind of production from as many bench players as the Mets.

The pitching, after being the best in baseball in 1986, took a step back. They were still very good, ranking third in the National League in ERA, but their modest regression mirrored that of the team’s.

No one really stood up and had an “ace” caliber year. Dwight Gooden went 15-7 in his 25 starts with a 3.21 ERA and was the best, but it marked a decline from his Cy Young status two years earlier. Sid Fernandez, Rick Aguilera and David Cone all were solid, but unspectacular, with ERAs in the high 3s. Ron Darling struggled to a 4.29 ERA, and 21-year-old John Mitchell finished with an ERA at 4.11.

Perhaps more important than different ERA numbers though was the lack of continuity. New York’s pitching just couldn’t keep healthy. The loss of reliable lefty Bob Ojeda was the biggest problem, and Darling was the only one to exceed 30 starts. The story of Terry Leach was one of the better ones in 1987, as he made 12 starts, 32 relief appearances and went 11-1. But had Davey Johnson known this journeyman was going to be his star, it would have been an indicator that 1987 wasn’t going to be the cakewalk the championship year had been.

After a 6-2 start, a mid-April series in St. Louis was the big warning sign. In the series opener, New York got eight hits and two walks from the top four hitters in the lineup, but were shut down below that, missed opportunities and lost 4-3.

On Saturday, they came out blazing and scored five runs in the top of the fourth. Darling gave them all back in the bottom of the inning. Trailing 6-5 in the ninth, the Mets got consecutive two-out RBI singles from McReynolds and HoJo. They gave it back in the ninth when Carter committed a throwing error on an attempted steal of third. New York took the lead again in the 10th on a walk, bunt, productive out and wild pitch. They did more than give it back in the bottom of the inning—after three singles tied it 8-8, a walk was followed by a grand slam and a 12-8 loss.

The Mets lost the finale 4-2 when Fernandez couldn’t get through five innings. It was the low point of an opening movement to the season that included a series loss to the Cardinals at home, a 6-10 stretch in May and saw New York limp into Memorial Day with a record 19-22 and trailing St. Louis by 7 ½ games.

The holiday marked a modest turn back upward. The Mets began a sweep of eventual NL West champion San Francisco and played pretty well in June, going 16-12. By the All-Star break they were still 9 ½ games back of the Cardinals, but the record had improved to 47-49 and New York moved from fifth to third place in the old NL East they shared with the Montreal Expos, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Pittsburgh and the Cubs.

In late July the Mets began a serious push and it started in St. Louis. In the Tuesday night opener they overcame a 4-2 deficit when Teufel delivered a two-run single in the eighth that led to a 6-4 win. On Wednesday some of the April appeared to resurface when they let a 4-3 lead in the ninth slip and the Cards tied the game. Enter HoJo, who ripped a two-run blast in the 10th for the 6-4 win. And on Thursday, McReynolds’ two-RBI triple keyed a 3-0 first inning lead and Gooden went eight strong innings for the 5-3 win.

New York followed that up by taking two of three in Montreal. In August they took four of six games from San Francisco and then returned home to win another series with a good Expo team that would win 91 games. The Mets were looking like the team everyone expected and even though they still trailed by 3 ½ games on Labor Day, all the momentum was on their side as the stretch drive beckoned.

The lead was narrowed to a game and a half when St. Louis came to old Shea Stadium for a highly anticipated series on the second weekend of September. Strawberry ripped a two-run blast in the first inning of the Friday night opener and the Mets were leading 4-1 in the ninth inning. Then, the NL East race made another stunning pivot.

Roger McDowell, on in relief, allowed one run and there was a man aboard when he faced Cardinal third baseman Terry Pendleton. McDowell gave up a two-run shot and the game was tied. The meltdown continued in the 10th when the Cards got two more runs and won it 6-4. And that avalanche continued into Saturday as Gooden was shelled, giving up five runs in the first inning of an 8-1 loss.

New York salvaged the finale with a 4-2 win behind a good start from Cone. They were still within 2 ½ games. But it was the blow they couldn’t recover from. The series held stable over the next couple weeks and the Mets were still pinning their hopes on a final three-game series in St. Louis. It never came to that—in the first part of the final week, while the Cards were taking three of four in Montreal, the Mets were losing two of three to the mediocre Phils. The race was clinched on Thursday before the final showdown could begin.

It was a bitter ending and in fairness to the Mets, the injuries in the pitching staff were the paramount reason and they still won more games than postseason participants in San Francisco and eventual champion Minnesota. They would recover and win the NL East in 1988. But this team of so much talent never returned to the World Series and never became a dynasty.