The night after he finished off the Oakland Athletics, Orel Hershiser was sitting on Johnny Carson's set and singing "Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow...." Even with all of Hershiser's new honor and fame, his Los Angeles Dodger costar, Kirk Gibson, asked an apt question: "Does everyone really appreciate what Orel has done? I don't know if we will ever again see the likes of what he's done through all of this. It may be that no pitcher in history stayed in that kind of groove so long or so well."
The recent accomplishments of Orel Leonard Hershiser IV are every bit as impressive as Gibson suggests. After finishing the season with his unprecedented streak of 59 scoreless innings, he allowed all of three earned runs in three starts and one relief appearance, culminating in a seventh-game shutout, against the New York Mets in the league playoffs. Next came his three-hit shutout of the Athletics in Game 2 of the World Series and, finally, his 5-2 four-hitter in Game 5. Perhaps someone will eclipse the 59 scoreless innings some day, and perhaps someone will top his postseason totals of three wins and a save. (That save, Gibson says, "is unforgettable because it shows how he always places the team above himself.")
But, taken together, what Hershiser did in the final 46 days of baseball in 1988 most likely will never be duplicated: 7 wins, no losses, one save, seven shutouts (plus 10 scoreless innings in a no-decision) and a 0.46 ERA. As if that weren't enough, he tied a World Series record by batting 1.000 in three at bats.
Sandwiched between Hershiser's 19-3 record of 1985 and his 23-8 record in '88 were 14-14 and 16-16 seasons, and fans naturally assume that he was an average pitcher in those two years. But Los Angeles pitching coach Ron Perranoski says, "He was as good in '87 as he was this year, but we didn't have the people like Alfredo Griffin to catch the ball."
October 31, 1988
Don't compare him with former Dodger greats like Sandy Koufax, you say? Koufax's lifetime earned run average was 2.76, Hershiser's is 2.77. Hershiser has been a starter for five seasons, and in four of them he has ranked in the top three in the National League in ERA. The only two active starting pitchers with 1,000 innings whose ERA is less than 3.00 are Hershiser and Dwight Gooden of the Mets (2.62). Over the past four years Hershiser has won 72 games, a total exceeded only by Frank Viola (75) of the Minnesota Twins and Gooden (74). Hershiser's lifetime winning percentage is .629, and yet in three of his five seasons the Dodgers were a sub-.500 team.
"I couldn't figure out why I was missing his pitches in Game 2," said Oakland's Jose Canseco, who was 0 for 8 against Hershiser. "Then I looked at the videos and I saw how much the ball was moving. In Game 5, I got a dose of his curveball, which is in Bert Blyleven's class. Great stuff, great pitcher."
Because Hershiser doesn't put up big strikeout numbers like those of Nolan Ryan or Roger Clemens, there is a tendency to not think of his stuff as being dominant. "The only pitcher I've seen in 30 years with a similar combination of the hard running sinker and deadly overhand curveball was Clem Labine," says Perranoski, referring to one of his predecessors as the Dodgers' bullpen ace. Hershiser's sinker moves so much that the Athletics were convinced he was throwing a spitter. "He gets to two strikes and his ball defies any law of physics," said an Oakland coach. "It's got to be a spitter."
The Dodgers have heard that before. When Hershiser was a rookie, he struck out Claudell Washington, then an Atlanta Brave; as Washington strolled to his position, he told L.A. coach Mark Cresse, "That boy's got a nasty spitter."
"He didn't then, and doesn't now," says Cresse. "But I understand why they think he throws one. I've never seen a sinker dart and run like his."
Few pitchers can claim two pitches that are among the very best in the game, but Hershiser can, with his sinker and curveball. "After the sinker, he changes speed on the curveball," says his catcher, Mike Scioscia. "He has a straight change and a cross-seam running fastball that he gets up and in on righthanded batters. And he can drop down and throw his curveball from a crossfire angle. That's a lot of artillery for a hitter to contend with."
Perranoski points out that Hershiser's rhythm seldom falls out of sync. "It takes a pure athlete as coordinated as he is to maintain that kind of groove for so long," says Perranoski. "It would be like a bowler rolling 300 games every day for six weeks."
Still, it's how Hershiser puts his ability to work that has raised him to his present plateau. He habitually studies videotapes of opposing hitters, and also uses videos to check on his own delivery; he did just that between innings when he struggled a bit early in his seventh-game playoff shutout of the Mets.
"He has the ability to figure out what he's doing wrong while he's on the mound," says Scioscia. "He'll slow down the game, make a few throws to first, talk to the catcher, until he finds what he needs." In World Series Game 5, Hershiser, by his own admission, was "very erratic." The A's were trying to slap his sinker through the middle like a team of Charley Lau disciples. So Hershiser went away from his sinker and threw a lot of curveballs at different speeds and some cross-seamed fastballs up in the strike zone.
Teammates and opponents marvel at Hershiser's pitching instincts. "With National League hitters, he knows their tendencies and knows how to pitch them," says Scioscia. "But with the A's, he made immediate adjustments. I think some of that comes from the fact that he understands hitting." When Canseco came up for a final chance at redemption with two on and one out in the eighth inning of the finale, Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda had his bullpen working. "Normally, I would never throw inside to him late in the game because he's so quick and so strong," Hershiser said later, "but sometimes a surprise is all you need. So I threw Canseco the only inside fastball I'd thrown him in eight at bats." Canseco popped it up. Hershiser then struck out the wallowing Dave Parker on what he called two "55-foot curveballs." The final threat was over. "And I thought he was done," said Lasorda. "He never stops amazing me."
"Don't ever underestimate how tough he is," says the Dodgers' Mike Marshall. "He's the most competitive person I've ever known." And Marshall knows Gibson and John Tudor.
What's most refreshing about Hershiser is that he has perspective on what he has done. Unlike most players, who think baseball was invented the day they signed their first pro contract, Hershiser clearly understands his place alongside the Koufaxes and Drysdales. Still, he's no prima donna; after both World Series wins, he told reporters, "I'll sit in front of my locker all night answering questions if you want me to."
But the bulldog in him came out when, after the Athletics were disposed of, he walked down the hallway to the interview room in the Oakland Coliseum and an A's fan yelled, "You were lucky, Hershiser." A couple of dozen steps later, Hershiser blurted out, "Oh yeah—grab a bat." He wasn't smiling.