Down two games to none in the 1988 World Series, the Oakland A's faced a critical game in the first World Series contest to be played in Northern California since 1974. The A's had had their hearts ripped out in Game 1 of the Series when Kirk Gibson hit his iconic walk-off homer off of future Hall-of-Fame closer Dennis Eckersley. In Game 2, Dodgers' starter Orel Hershiser continued his remarkable run of shutout innings with a complete-game effort in the Dodgers' 6-0 victory.
The mighty A's had cruised through the regular season, winning 104 games, and had swept the Boston Red Sox in the ALCS. Losing the first two games of the World Series was the biggest test the A's had faced the entire season. While Oakland would eventually go on to lose the Series, for one night in that Series, the A's and their star slugger Mark McGwire stood tall.
The game was filled with subplots, as many of the players involved had once worn the colors of the opposing team. Starting Game 3 for Oakland was the late, great Bob Welch, who made his mark in the big leagues with the Dodgers in the late-70s and early-80s. Welch was the headliner in a huge trade between the A's, Mets and Dodgers before the 1988 season. In a deal orchestrated by then-A's GM Sandy Alderson, Oakland acquired Welch and lefty reliever Matt Young. The A's traded 1987 All-Star closer Jay Howell and starting shortstop Alfredo Griffin to the Dodgers and sent prospects Kevin Tapani and Wally Whitehurst to the Mets. The Mets, in turn, sent reliever Jesse Orosco to the Dodgers and received Jack Savage from LA.
Welch was a big part of the A's run of success from 1988-1992. The right-hander won 17 games in 1988 and 1989 and then won the Cy Young in 1990 when he won 27 games. In seven years with Oakland, Welch won 96 games and he had a 3.94 ERA. He would later go on to coach in the A's minor league system, serving as a valued mentor to many current members of the A's organization.
On October 18, 1988, Welch took the mound in a must-win game. He pitched well early and the A's jumped out to a 1-0 lead when the unlikely duo of Ron Hassey and Glenn Hubbard combined for a run in the third inning. Hubbard, the light-hitting middle infielder known for his glove and his mustache, appeared in 53 games for the A's that season and hit .198 with a .296 OBP. So, naturally, he collected the A's first hit of the game, a single to deep left off of Dodgers' reliever Tim Leary. With Hassey at the plate, Hubbard then stole second and advanced to third on a throwing error by current Angels' manager Mike Scioscia. Hassey hit .257 that season for the A's in what would be the last year of his career when he was at least an average hitter. The A's catcher knocked a Leary pitch into left and Oakland had a 1-0 lead.
Welch would hold that lead until the top of the fifth inning, when Franklin Stubbs hit a two-out double to deep right-center that scored Dodgers' third baseman Jeff Hamilton. LA would make a bid to take the lead with the next batter when Mickey Hatcher hit a line-drive back-up the middle. Welch would make the catch, ending the threat.
Welch ran into trouble quickly in the sixth inning. Danny Heep began the inning with a double to left-center. John Shelby followed with a single to left. A's left fielder Luis Polonia held Heep at third with a strong throw home, but Shelby advanced to second, giving LA a second-and-third and no-one out situation. Welch then walked Mike Davis to load the bases. Davis had spent his entire career with Oakland before joining the Dodgers during the off-season before the 1988 campaign. The outfielder hit 22 homers for the A's in 1987, but he struggled for the Dodgers in 1988, hitting only two longballs. He would have perhaps the most important at-bat in the 1988 World Series, however, working a walk off Eckersley ahead of Gibson in the ninth inning of Game 1.
With the bases-load and none out in Game 3, A's manager Tony LaRussa turned to lefty Greg Cadaret. He did his job, inducing a foul pop-out from Scioscia to get the first out of the inning. Cadaret would play an important part in A's history the next season when he was part of a three-player package that netted Oakland Rickey Henderson in a mid-season deal with the New York Yankees. Cadaret was later an in-studio analyst on the A's TV network.
After Cadaret record his out, the ever-reliable Gene Nelson took over, looking to preserve the tie. Nelson is often a forgotten man when talking about those great A's teams in the late-80s, early-90s, but he was the glue that held that bullpen together. The thin right-hander had a 3.06 ERA in 111.2 innings as a reliever for Oakland in 1988. His best season came in 1990 when he had a 1.57 ERA in 74.2 innings. That night, Nelson was on-point. Facing Hamilton, he induced a weak groundball to third baseman Carney Lansford, who threw home for the forceout. Nelson then got former A's teammate Griffin to groundout to McGwire at first to end the Dodgers' threat.
The A's were unable to capitalize on the momentum of that inning on the offensive-side of the ball. Oakland managed only two base-runners over the course of the sixth, seventh and eighth innings. Nelson worked around a hit in the seventh to keep LA off the board. When he allowed a lead-off single in the eighth, Nelson gave way to lefty Rick Honeycutt, who had teamed with Nelson to set-up for Eckersley all season.
Honeycutt was a mid-season acquisition by the A's in 1987 from - who else? - the Dodgers. The A's acquired Honeycutt in exchange for prospect Tim Belcher, who would start two games for the Dodgers in the 1988 World Series. Honeycutt moved around a lot during his 21 year career, but he would spent eight years with the A's and five with the Dodgers. He has most recently been on the Dodgers' coaching staff as their pitching coach.
In Game 3, Honeycutt was efficient, striking out two of the three batters he faced in the eighth and inducing a foul pop-out for the other out. He would follow that up with a quick one-two-three top of the ninth inning.
Going into the bottom of the ninth, the A's were still stuck on four hits and one run. They looked little like the powerful team that had stormed through the American League during the regular season and the ALCS. Dodgers' skipper Tommy Lasorda turned to his closer Howell to pitch the bottom of the ninth. Howell saved 21 games for the Dodgers that season in a comeback campaign for the right-hander, who had seen an All-Star 1987 season go terribly wrong midway through that year.
With the A's hosting the All-Star game in 1987, Howell made the AL squad after saving 15 games and posting a 4.86 ERA. He blew a save on July 12, the last game before the July 14th mid-season classic, and he was greeted rather unenthusiastically by the home crowd when he entered the All-Star game in the 12th inning. Howell allowed two runs in his second inning of work (the 13th) and the AL would go-on to lose the 1987 game, 2-0. Howell would struggle the rest of the season and was shipped off to LA in the Welch deal that off-season.
Howell had a tough task in the bottom of the ninth, but he looked in control when he got Jose Canseco to hit a towering pop-out to second to start the inning. Up stepped McGwire, who had followed up his historic 1987 rookie campaign with a solid year in which he hit 32 homers and posted an 830 OPS. McGwire's exploits that year were overshadowed by Canseco's 40-40 season, but he was still an intimidating presence in the A's line-up. McGwire was scuffling going into that at-bat, however, as he was still looking for his first hit of the series. Howell would battle McGwire to a 2-2 count before giving up a screaming line-drive over the left-centerfield fence. The homerun gave the A's a 2-1 win and got them - at least temporarily - back into the Series.
The walk-off homer would be McGwire's only hit of the World Series in 20 plate appearances. At the time, he would call it the best moment of his life. Unfortunately, the A's were unable to build off of the win. They would lose Game 4, 4-3, in a game started for the A's by former Dodgers' right-hander Dave Stewart. Former A's right-hander Belcher got the win and former A's closer Howell got the save. Eventual World Series MVP Hershiser would throw another complete game to seal the World Series win for the Dodgers in Game 5.
Despite the results of the Series, that walk-off homer for McGwire holds a special part in A's history. It is the only walk-off homer in the A's World Series history and is one of just 15 World Series walk-off homers of all-time.