Somewhere back there in the days before the split-fingered fastball actually became a cult religion, back when Roger Craig was just another bald guy on unemployment and not the Bhagwan Rog, hardly anybody had ever heard of Mike Scott. "I was just a guy who kind of hung on," Scott says, "sometimes as the 10th guy on a 10-man staff. The way I was pitching, I never knew from one game to the next whether I'd be looking for a new line of work."
When the Houston Astros suggested in 1984 that Scott go to San Diego and learn how to throw the split-fingered pitch from Craig, who was then retired from baseball, Scott was coming off a 5-11 season. Fortunately for Scott, he mastered the pitch quickly, and by last week he had become so commanding with it that twice he overwhelmed the New York Mets in the National League Championship Series, turning baseball's winningest team into a bunch of banjo hitters named Gary and Wally, Mookie and Sneezy, and Grumpy and Doc. Fortunately for the Mets, they had to face Scott only twice last week, during which time he limited them to a single run and struck them out 19 times to insure that the series would go back to Houston and the Astrodome.
"He paints," said Mets first baseman Keith Hernandez after Scott's 3-1 masterpiece evened the series at 2-2 Sunday night. "He's a Rembrandt. If everybody threw like that all the time, this game would never make it because it would just be too bleeping boring."
The Mets had no one to match Scott, although Dwight Gooden came awfully close in Game 1, which the Mets lost 1-0. The Mets' hitters could not come up with any answers to Scott. They did, however, have some questions about him, and most of them centered around whether or not Scott was illegally scuffing the ball before he threw it. So after Game 4, which the Astros had won on home runs by catcher Alan Ashby and shortstop Dickie Thon off New York starter Sid Fernandez, the Mets produced more than a dozen balls bearing scuff marks. They said they had collected the balls during the game. It was a kind of People's Court, with home plate umpire Dutch Rennert acting as Judge Wapner. Rennert pointed out that not a single player had asked him to inspect a ball during the game and said that the evidence was inadmissible because it came from the Mets. To that, second baseman Wally Backman replied, "Well, we sure as hell weren't sitting in the dugout rubbing the balls up."
However he did it, Scott's was the scratch for which the Mets had no equivalent itch. Pitching on only three days' rest, he didn't have an overpowering fastball Sunday, so he relied increasingly on the split-finger. "I was sitting on that pitch all night and he still stuck it down my throat," said Hernandez.
The Astros were in desperate need of a lift on Sunday after having blown a 4-0 lead in Game 3 and losing 6-5 in the last inning. Mets rightfielder Darryl Strawberry, who later set a Championship Series record by striking out eight times, got New York back in that game with a three-run homer. Then after Houston had gone ahead again, Lenny Dykstra, the Mets' 5'8" centerfielder, hit a dramatic two-run home run in the bottom of the ninth to win it. "That really crushed us as a team," said Glenn Davis, the Astros' first baseman. "It was a shattering blow. Strawberry's home run was the one that really beat us. By the time Dykstra hit his home run, you could just kind of feel it coming, like they were gathering themselves."
With catcher Gary Carter hitting .059 for the series and Strawberry at .214 before the homer, the Mets had been suffering a power brownout at a particularly bad time. After Scott had shut them out in the first game—something that had happened to them only four times all season—the Mets scored in just 2 of the next 14 innings; it was a long gathering process.
The Astros themselves had managed to score only two runs in the two games in Houston, and. were undoubtedly relieved to be going to Shea Stadium tied. Some Astros, though, were happier to be going to New York than others. Dave Smith. Houston's late-inning bullpen ace, recalled having been urinated on from the upper deck earlier this season by one particularly demonstrative Mets fan. "It was the first time I had ever been used for long relief," Smith said. "I don't even know why they rained on my parade. After all, I gave up the winning run that day."
Sometimes you have to take these harbingers where you find them. As Smith walked out to the bullpen at Shea on Saturday, he passed near the batting practice cage where Dykstra had just finished hitting and now stood wringing the autumn chill from his hands. Dykstra's expression was pained, and when he looked up at a smudge of clouds, Smith even heard him mutter, "Brutal." Smith kept his gaze level and continued walking. He knew better than to look up toward the sky in Shea Stadium.
But the Astros finally got the bats off their shoulders in Game 3, striking for two runs in each of the first two innings against 15-game winner Ron Darling. Houston starter Bob Knepper, a lefthander who forced lefties Dykstra and Backman to the bench, had allowed one base runner as far as second through five innings. In the sixth, however, Kevin Mitchell scored when Houston shortstop Craig Reynolds booted Carter's grounder, and then Strawberry, who was 0 for 10 against Knepper this season, uncoiled his tremendous swing into the first pitch and drove it into the rightfield seats. The Astros came right back with a run in the seventh to lead 5-4, but in the eighth Houston manager Hal Lanier decided to bring in righthanded reliever Charlie Kerfeld, which allowed the Mets manager, Davey Johnson, to unleash some of the lefthanded hitters on his bench.
Kerfeld made easy work of the Mets, but in the ninth inning Lanier elected to bring on Smith. "The key for us is to get past their starting pitchers and get to the bullpen," said Backman. "We know we can hit those guys. When we saw Kerfeld and Smith come in, our confidence rose." Backman laid down a bunt just inside the first base line to start the inning, and as Davis fielded the ball, Backman veered out into the grass and dived just past the tag. One out later, Dykstra padded up to the plate. When they had introduced the extra players before the game that day, Dykstra and Backman had looked at each other and, at the same moment, said, "God, I wish I was playing." Now they were looking at each other again, and when Smith offered a forkball "that didn't fork," Dykstra reached out and jerked it toward rightfield. Smith looked up as the ball arced into the Mets bullpen. The sky was falling on him at Shea again.
"That was probably the greatest thrill of my life so far in my short baseball career," said Dykstra, descriptively. He had been told repeatedly this season by the Mets' coaching staff to stay within his limitations, but Dykstra refused to play like a little man. "Last year I was choking way up on the bat," he says, "but this winter I decided that I could go ahead and hold the bat like a man."
Actually, Dykstra had bid farewell to boyhood in the second game of the series, when he felt that Astros pitcher Nolan Ryan purposely threw at him after he had cranked one of Ryan's fastballs into the upper deck, foul. After the knockdown pitch, Ryan froze Dykstra with a curve-ball, but Lenny laced the next pitch for a single, igniting a three-run scoring burst with two outs in the fifth inning that salted away a 5-1 victory. "When he threw the ball at my ear, it had to have some purpose behind it," Dykstra said. "All it did was wake us up. It sure woke me up."
It was clear even before the series began that the pitcher who concerned them most was not Ryan, but Scott. He had already been accused by several New York players of scuffing the ball to make the split-finger sink like a brick. Their suspicions were based in large part on Scott's astonishing progress from a career high of 83 strikeouts just two seasons ago to 306 this year. Scott had actually spent the first seven seasons of an undistinguished career in the Mets' organization, before they cast him into the outer darkness of indoor baseball in 1982, trading him to Houston for Danny Heep. Scott's career continued to sputter in the Astrodome. Even after he had learned the split-finger, it took him a while to learn how to make the bottom drop out of it. "I didn't have any idea at the time that it was going to be the pitch it turned out to be," he says. "Then one day in spring training I was throwing it. and guys were suddenly swinging at balls that were bouncing in the dirt. That's when I said to myself, 'This could work out.' "
It worked so well against the Mets in Game 1 that Hernandez and Carter struck out three times each. Carter, who was still convinced that Scott was reupholstering the ball, became so flustered that he asked home plate umpire Doug Harvey to examine one. Harvey is an umpire of such imposing mien that the players refer to him as "God," and yet even he was impressed with Scott's pitch. "It's like a fastball with a bomb attached to it," Harvey said. He inspected this ordnance carefully and tossed it back to Scott. Carter then took a feeble cut at the next pitch and retired, muttering to himself as he went. "When Mike has his good stuff, guys just really look helpless," says Ashby. "If every pitcher in the league masters that thing, you'll have batting titles won by guys hitting .210."
The Astros had needed all of Scott's guile, several great defensive plays and a 400-foot home run from Davis in the second inning just to win the opening game of the playoffs, 1-0. "It's good to get by Gooden," Ashby said, "but with that team, you keep facing guys who won 15 and 16 ball games."
Actually, the second man in the Mets' rotation was 18-game winner Bob Ojeda, who limited Houston to yet another lone run in New York's 5-1 Game 2 victory. Ojeda confounded the Astros with several kinds of off-speed deliveries, the slowest of which was called the "dead fish" because it never stopped sinking. The Mets were still in a post-Scott daze in that game, as Ryan struck out five of the first nine batters. But in the fourth, they broke out of the trance with two runs as Backman singled, Hernandez singled, Carter doubled and Strawberry hit a sacrifice fly. The next inning is when Ryan serenaded Dykstra with chin music, and the Mets exploded for three runs. If nothing else, the Astros won some sort of distinction by using Aurelio Lopez, the most out-of-shape pitcher ever to appear in postseason play.
After the heroics of Dykstra on Saturday and the mastery of Scott on Sunday, came the rains for Monday. Houston was to have sent Jim Deshaies against Gooden for Game 5, but the postponement meant a matchup of Ryan versus Gooden. Even during the rain delay, the Mets' scuffed ball collection once again became a hot topic. Said Lanier, "If they have balls they're saving over there, and if they're such big fans of Mike Scott, they ought to bring 'em over and he'll sign 'em."