When you say the words “Game 6” to any Mets fan, immediately their thoughts turn to the 1986 World Series. You can’t blame those fans for thinking of that memorable game first. After all, the game in which Mookie Wilson hit a “little roller up along first” was voted by Mets fans as the most memorable moment in Mets history.
But that wasn’t the only memorable Game 6 for the Mets that season. If not for the events of “the other Game 6”, there might not have been a chance for Mookie Wilson and Bill Buckner to etch their names in the memories of millions of Mets fans. That first Game 6 was played in the Astrodome in Houston and it took place 25 years ago today.
After playing a 12-inning classic in New York the previous afternoon, the Mets and Astros traveled to Houston to play their second day game in 24 hours on October 15, 1986. The two teams normally would have had the day off before Game 6, but a rainout on October 13 forced them to sacrifice their travel day and play the extra-inning affair at Shea Stadium on the 14th. The game was won by the Mets, 2-1, when Wally Backman scored from second on a Gary Carter single.
Both teams were exhausted when they took the field for the 3 o’clock (Central Time) game, and rightfully so. Unfortunately for the Mets, the Astros woke up from their slumber early in Game 6, scoring three runs off Bob Ojeda in the first inning. The damage could have been worse, but Kevin Bass (more on him later) was tagged out by Ojeda trying to scamper home on a failed double steal attempt. Even with Bass’ baserunning blunder, the Astros still held a 3-0 lead after one inning for starter Bob Knepper.
Knepper, who was in line for the win in Game 3 before Lenny Dykstra took Astros’ closer Dave Smith deep in the bottom of the ninth, was dominant over the first eight innings of Game 6. He faced the minimum three batters in seven of the eight innings, allowing only two hits and walking one. The Mets were three outs away from a potential Game 7 matchup against Mike Scott, who had confounded them in Games 1 and 4. The first batter in the ninth inning was pinch-hitter Lenny Dykstra. In Game 3, Dykstra waited until Knepper was out of the game before delivering his big ninth inning hit. This time, he didn’t have to wait, driving a 1-2 offering from the Astros’ southpaw to deep center field for a leadoff triple. It all went downhill for Knepper and the Astros from there.
The next batter was Mookie Wilson, who hit a soft line drive on an 0-2 pitch that fell in for a run-scoring single. Before you could say Dickie Thon, the Mets were on the scoreboard and the tying run was at the plate in Kevin Mitchell. The Mets’ rookie utility man grounded out, but in the process moved Wilson to second base. Up came Keith Hernandez, who had gone 0-for-3 with a strikeout against Knepper. Four pitches later, that oh-fer was no more.
Hernandez doubled to deep center off Knepper, scoring Wilson from second base and cutting the Astros’ lead to one. In doing so, Mex became the second lefty to collect an extra-base hit against Knepper in the ninth after the Mets’ left-handed hitters had gone 0-for-7 against him through the first eight innings. That was the end of Knepper’s day, as he was removed from the game after throwing 101 pitches. Knepper was replaced by Dave Smith, the salt-and-pepper haired reliever who had been tormented by the Mets all season.
Although Smith had an outstanding campaign in 1986, making his first All-Star team and finishing the year with 33 saves and a 2.73 ERA, the Mets were never intimidated by him. Smith faced the Mets three times during the regular season, allowing five runs and eight baserunners (four hits, three walks and one hit batsman) in three innings. That continued in the postseason, as Smith allowed the game-winning two-run homer to Lenny Dykstra to give the Mets the victory in Game 3 of the NLCS. Four total appearances. Four shoddy outings. Might as well go five-for-five.
The first two batters against Smith both walked on 3-2 pitches, as Gary Carter and Darryl Strawberry showed patience at the plate, and helped the Mets load the bases against the Astros. The next batter was Ray Knight, who worked the count to 2-2 before becoming the fifth batter in the inning to produce with two strikes on him. Knight hit a sacrifice fly to right, scoring Hernandez with the tying run and moving Kid and Straw into scoring position. The next batter, Wally Backman, was intentionally walked to bring up pinch-hitter Danny Heep. Heep worked the count full, but instead of becoming the sixth Mets batter to come through after strike two, the mighty Danny struck out, swinging at ball four, which would have given the Mets the lead.
Alas, the game was tied. But the fun was just beginning.
Roger McDowell came in to pitch the tenth inning, as the Mets needed a new pitcher to replace Rick Aguilera, who had been taken out of the game when Lenny Dykstra pinch hit for him in the ninth inning. McDowell would end up giving the Mets one of the best relief efforts in club history.
The Mets had hoped that McDowell would only have to pitch one or two innings, thinking that they would score against the Astros’ bullpen. But that was easier said than done, as the Mets failed to pick up a hit over the next four innings against Dave Smith and Larry Andersen. Fortunately for the Mets, McDowell matched zeroes with the Astros’ relievers, allowing only one baserunner (a 12th inning single to Kevin Bass) over five innings of work. The jolly Roger had gotten the Mets to the 14th inning, and the Astros were bringing in a new pitcher. The time for zeroes had come to an end.
Aurelio Lopez was on the mound for the Astros to start the 14th inning. Like Dave Smith, Lopez had also performed poorly against the Mets during the regular season. His 7.36 ERA against New York was his highest earned run average against any team in 1986. When manager Hal Lanier inserted Lopez into the game, he was hoping to get the reliever who allowed National League opponents to hit only .221 against him. Instead, they got the reliever who couldn’t get anyone out.
Gary Carter led off the inning with an opposite field single. Darryl Strawberry then walked on four pitches. After Ray Knight failed to sacrifice Carter to third (the Mets’ catcher was thrown out by Lopez at third base), Wally Backman stepped up to the plate. With one swing from the Mets’ scrappy second baseman, the Mets had taken the lead, as Backman’s single scored Strawberry from second base. The Mets actually had a chance to do more damage against Lopez in the inning, as Lenny Dykstra was walked intentionally with two outs to load the bases for Mookie Wilson. However, just as Danny Heep had done five innings before him, Mookie struck out against a struggling pitcher. Nevertheless, the Mets had taken a 4-3 lead against the Astros and were now only three outs away from winning their third National League pennant. But the Astros had the top of their order up and were not about to go quietly into the offseason.
Jesse Orosco was called upon to pitch the bottom of the 14th for the Mets, as McDowell had been removed for pinch-hitter Howard Johnson in the top of the inning. After his five-inning, 58-pitch effort, McDowell was done for the late afternoon/early evening and it was up to Orosco to deliver the pennant. His first batter was Bill Doran.
Doran was a speedy second baseman for the Astros who made excellent contact and had one of the best eyes in the league. With 42 stolen bases in 1986, Doran placed fifth in the NL in that category. He also finished fifth with 81 walks and was one of the toughest batters to strike out (57 Ks in 550 at-bats). Doran’s eye for strikes became even better in the postseason, as he had fanned only once in his first 25 postseason at-bats up to that point. So what did Doran do as he faced Orosco in what quite possibly could have been his last at-bat of the season? He struck out on four pitches.
The next batter was centerfielder Billy Hatcher. Hatcher had just finished his first full season with the Astros after playing in 61 games for the Cubs in 1984 and 1985. He had never been considered a power threat and was not a top candidate to get on base, as evidenced by his eight home runs in his first 641 career plate appearances and his .297 on-base percentage. Hatcher had gone 5-for-23 in the series and should have been an easy out for Orosco, as he had never gotten a hit off the Mets’ reliever in four career plate appearances. But with a full count on him, Hatcher hit one of most memorable home runs in postseason history, crushing Orosco’s offering to deep left field. The ball was hit far enough, but would it stay fair? That question was answered as the ball hit the screen attached to the foul pole, rolling down said screen, washing away the Mets’ 14th inning pennant hopes. The game was now tied, 4-4, and Orosco’s save situation had now turned into a “let’s get out of this inning alive” situation.
With the three and four hitters coming up, including the dangerous Glenn Davis, Orosco had to settle down or else a seventh game against Mike Scott would become a shocking reality. The Mets’ veteran got back on the mound and promptly retired Denny Walling and Davis on a weak grounder to first and a pop-up to second, respectively, to end the inning. The game, which had already reached epic proportions, would go on.
Stunningly, despite his best efforts to blow the game for the Astros in the 14th inning, Aurelio Lopez was still on the mound for the 15th, but this time he fared better against the Mets, allowing only a two-out single to Gary Carter. With Darryl Strawberry at the plate, Lopez threw a 1-1 pitch wildly, but Carter was thrown out at second base by catcher Alan Ashby to end the inning.
Orosco also went back to the hill for the bottom of the 15th, and he did even better than Lopez, striking out Kevin Bass and Jose Cruz to start the inning, before getting Alan Ashby to ground out to Wally Backman for the final out. The 16th inning was upon us, only one day and 2,000 miles after the Mets and Astros had played 12 scintillating innings in New York. Something had to give after 27 innings of pulse-pounding baseball. Something did give when the Mets came to bat in the top of the 16th.
After his relatively easy 15th inning, Lopez was given the ball again to start the 16th, but this time he wouldn’t be so lucky. Darryl Strawberry, who was given a fresh turn at-bat after Gary Carter ran his way into the final out in the previous inning, led off the 16th with a double. He was followed by Ray Knight, who delivered an opposite field single to score Strawberry from second. That was it for Aurelio Lopez, who was removed from the game for Jeff Calhoun. With Wally Backman at the plate and an 0-2 count on him, Calhoun uncorked a wild pitch, sending Knight to third. Backman fought back from the 0-2 hole and was able to draw a walk.
Next came Jesse Orosco, who was allowed to stay in the game to sacrifice Backman over to second. On the very first pitch to Jesse, who had already squared around to bunt, Calhoun threw another wild pitch, scoring Ray Knight and moving Wally Backman to second. The Mets were now up by two runs in the 16th, but they were not done yet. Orosco laid down a successful sacrifice, with Backman taking third on the play, and Lenny Dykstra drove him in with a single to right, giving the Mets a 7-4 lead. Even though Mookie Wilson ended the inning by grounding into a double play, the Mets surely had to be happy with their three-run lead. This time, they weren’t going to give up the lead like they did in the 14th, especially with the Astros riding on fumes, right? Unfortunately for the Mets and their fans, those fumes had one more rally left in them.
The bottom of the 16th began as the 14th inning had, with Jesse Orosco striking out the first batter (in this case, it was Craig Reynolds) to bring the Mets within two outs of winning the National League pennant. But then Orosco started showing fatigue of his own, allowing the next three batters to reach base. Pinch-hitter Davey Lopes started the rally with a walk, followed by consecutive singles by Bill Doran and Billy Hatcher. The latter single scored Lopes from second base and put the tying runs on base for Denny Walling.
Davey Johnson could have taken Orosco out of the game there, especially since both singles by Doran and Hatcher were hit on the first pitch, but the Mets manager stayed with his veteran closer, hoping he would reward his faith in him by getting the final two outs of the game. It seemed as if Orosco would get out of the jam and deliver the pennant to New York when Denny Walling hit a ground ball to Keith Hernandez, who attempted to start an inning-ending double play. However, the ball wasn’t hit hard enough and the only out the Mets could get was a forceout of Billy Hatcher at second base. The Astros now had runners on first and third and Glenn Davis was coming up. A home run by the Astros’ slugger would give Houston the improbable victory, adding more suspense to an already tense moment. Although the left-handed Orosco didn’t give in to the right-handed Davis, he still wasn’t able to send him back to the dugout, as Davis produced a run-scoring single to center, scoring Doran and moving Walling to second base. The game was now 7-6, and the tying and winning runs were on base for Kevin Bass.
Bass had already committed a mistake in the game way back in the first inning (hence the “more on him later” 21 paragraphs ago) when he got tagged out by Bob Ojeda trying to score on a failed double steal attempt. Had Bass not made that gaffe, the game might have ended after nine innings. Instead, the Mets and Astros were playing on into the Houston night in a game that seemingly did not want to end.
Baseball is a game of redeeming features, and Bass was being given a second opportunity to make up for his costly first inning baserunning error. Orosco was one out away from giving the Mets a hard-fought pennant, but was not making it easy for himself or his team. After going to a 3-2 count on Bass, Keith Hernandez came over to the mound to deliver an ultimatum to Orosco.
“If you throw him another fastball, we’re going to fight.”
With those words, Jesse buckled down, looked in at catcher Gary Carter’s signs and threw Kevin Bass a full-count slider. In a moment that will forever live on in the minds and hearts of Mets fans, Bass flailed wildly at the pitch, striking out on the 3-2 offering and touching off a wild celebration on the Astrodome mound and on the streets of New York.
After four hours and forty-two minutes, the Mets had finally won their first pennant in 13 years. They had overcome eight masterful innings by starter Bob Knepper and two furious extra-inning rallies by the Astros’ hitters to come out on top. Despite the game lasting 16 innings, the Mets only used four pitchers in the game, with none of them lasting fewer than three innings. Davey Johnson put faith in his pitchers’ arms and that faith was now taking the Mets to the World Series.
The Mets would go on to play the Boston Red Sox in that World Series, and they would play in another memorable Game 6, one that has become even more memorable than the one played in the NLCS. But without that first epic Game 6, there might not have been a World Series appearance for the Mets in 1986.
Twenty-five years ago today, the Mets and Astros gave us baseball theatre in Houston. The curtain did not come down for 16 innings, but in the end, the players all came through with the performances of their lives. It might now be known as “the other Game 6”, but it’s always be one of the most amazing games ever played.