Mets Time Machine: October 11, 1986

Shea Stadium had not hosted a postseason game in nearly 13 years by the time the Mets and the Houston Astros got together on this cool gray autumn afternoon for Game 3 of the National League Championship Series. Mets fans had waited patiently for this moment, enduring the franchise's lean years from the mid 70s to early 80s.

Starting in 1984, though, the fans began to see the commitment and experience of new Mets management begin to bear fruit. Through a series of trades (Hernandez, Carter, Ojeda, Knight), and the emergence of the best young talent in the game (Gooden, Strawberry), winning baseball had come back to Shea, and 1986 would be the best year ever.

The first 2 games of this series had been played in the Houston Astrodome, historically the Mets' chamber of horrors. The teams had split those 2 games, with Mike Scott shutting out the Mets 1-0 in the opener and Bob Ojeda coming back with a gem of his own in Game 2, a complete game 5-1 victory over Nolan Ryan to even the series and bring it back to New York. Adding to the importance of this third game was the knowledge that Mike Scott, who the Mets could not touch, would be ready to pitch the next game. That meant Game 3 was a must-win for New York.

Ron Darling, who had compiled a strong 15-6 record with a 2.81 ERA in the regular season, took the mound for the Mets. But Darling immediately got his club into a hole by giving up a 2-run homer to Bill Doran in the first inning. Two more runs scored for Houston in the second, and the Mets were staring at an early 4-0 deficit.

For Houston, 17-game-winning lefty Bob Knepper was their starter. If recent history was any guide, the Mets were in deep trouble, since Knepper had beaten the Mets 3 times already that season. On this day, with a comfortable lead, Knepper cruised through the first 5 innings while Darling and reliever Rick Aguilera quieted the Astros' bats after the shaky start.

Then in the 6th, the Mets came alive. Singles by Kevin Mitchell and Keith Hernandez, followed by an error from shortstop Craig Reynolds on a ground ball, plated one run and brought up Darryl Strawberry with 2 men on base. Straw was simply awful batting against lefthanders, and Knepper was no exception. In 10 regualr-season at-bats against the Houston southpaw, Strawberry was hitless. But this was 1986, where the unexpected became commonplace. So, with the Shea crowd roaring, Strawberry got hold of a Knepper inside fastball and pulled a majestic 3-run homer into the right-field bullpen. Tie game.

But just like that, the Mets gave it right back. In the top of the 7th, the usually reliable Ray Knight fielded a two-out grounder and threw the ball over the head of first baseman Keith Hernandez, allowing the go-ahead run to score from second. On television, the cameras caught a Mets fan holding a sign just seconds after the error which would prove to be prophetic. It said: "Not to Worry."

But it was now the bottom of the ninth, The Astros still had their one-run lead, and Houston's bullpen was called upon to close the door. Their relief ace Dave Smith, who saved 33 games that season, was given the assignment. Wally Backman led off by reaching first safely on a controversial call. The Astros contended that Backman had run outside the first base line to avoid a tag. The umpires disagreed, and the Mets had the tying run aboard. Lenny Dykstra was next, and on the first pitch from Smith, Dykstra lifted a long fly ball that found the loge seats just above the auxiliary scoreboard for the game winning home run.

Although no one could know it, there was an even greater game to be played between these two teams just 4 days later. We'll visit that one next.

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