Just as it almost always does in postseason action, pitching has dominated the early games of this year's baseball playoffs. Mike Witt's masterful five-hitter gave California the jump on Boston in the American League series, while Bruce Hurst's clutch hurling enabled the Red Sox to square matters in Game 2. But the pi`ece de r'esistance was the National League opener, in which Mike Scott's 14-strikeout brilliance led Houston to a 1-0 victory over Dwight Gooden and the New York Mets. That duel in the Astrodome also gave a nationwide TV audience a view of baseball as the game's true connoisseurs like to see it played -- good pitching on both sides, sparkling defensive plays, and plenty of dramatic moments. In fact there was more excitement in this one contest than in both games in Boston, with their 20 runs pouring across the plate. All of which might give a few second thoughts to those who say the public isn't happy unless it sees a lot of offensive fireworks.
The allure of a matchup like that of Scott and Gooden is, in fact, as old as baseball itself. And this one was a classic: the veteran who has finally come into his own against the amazing 21-year-old who already is being compared to the game's all-time greats.
Scott, who led the majors with 306 strikeouts, pitched a no-hitter in late September, and flirted with another in his final regular-season outing, is considered by many observers to be the game's premier hurler right now. And he certainly looked the part Wednesday night.
The master of the split-fingered fastball mowed down the Mets most of the way, and racked up many of his strikeouts in key situations against the heart of the lineup (he fanned Gary Carter and Keith Hernandez three times each, though one of the latter was on a very questionable call, and whiffed Darryl Strawberry twice). He rose to the occasion in the late innings, too, striking out Wally Backman and Hernandez with two on in the eighth, and getting Ray Knight on strikes to end the game with the tying run on third.
Gooden also pitched well, but Glenn Davis drilled one of his fastballs into the centerfield stands in the second inning, and that turned out to be the ball game. Both teams had chances thereafter, but clutch hurling and sharp fielding kept the door closed.
There was plenty of good pitching in Boston, too -- especially considering that the games were played in a much smaller park and with the designated hitter beefing up the batting orders. The same can hardly be said, though, about the fielding -- particulary in the second game, which looked like something out of an old Abbott and Costello movie.
Game 1 was all California, with Witt mowing down the Red Sox while his teammates jumped on 24-game winner Roger Clemens for four runs in the second inning and coasted to an 8-1 decision. But Boston turned it around with a 9-2 win the next day thanks largely to an incredible array of actual errors, mental miscues, and just plain weird plays.
One Red Sox run was set up when a potential double play ball bounced crazily over shortstop Dick Schofield's head. Another scored when Schofield and second baseman Bobby Grich did an Alphonse-Gaston act on a popup. And three more came home when Schofield, Grich, and third baseman Doug DeCinces all committed errors in the same inning. The Red Sox made two actual errors plus some mental ones, both sides committed baserunning goofs that you wouldn't expect from a Little Leaguer, and in general -- even making allowances for a tough late-afternoon sun that contributed to some of the miscues -- the game looked like something that would have even been an embarrassment at a company picnic.
The best-looking hitter in the early games was California's Wally Joyner, who again looked like the sensational rookie of May and June rather than the youngster who had cooled off later in the season. Joyner was 4-for-8, including two doubles and a home run, and he just missed another homer on a spectacular catch by Boston right fielder Dwight Evans. Boston's Marty Barrett led all hitters in the first two games with a .556 average, while California's Brian Downing had four RBIs.
Jim Rice, getting his first crack at postseason play (an injury kept him out of the '75 playoffs and World Series), was hitless in Game 1 but had a single and a homer in Game 2. At the other end of the spectrum, Reggie Jackson, appearing in his 11th playoff, went 0-for-4 in Game 1 and sat out Game 2 against left-hander Hurst. That move of manager Gene Mauch's might seem strange, considering Reggie's ``Mr. October'' nickname, but this reputation was really built in the World Series. In his previous 10 playoffs, in fact, Jackson hit only .234 -- and in his two with the Angels he is now batting .091.
The best-of-seven AL series moves to Anaheim for Games 3, 4, and 5 this weekend, then back to Boston if necessary. It's Oil Can Boyd on the mound tonight for the Red Sox and John Candelaria for the Angels, then probably Al Nipper and Don Sutton respectively in Game 4, with Clemens and Witt given their full rest before reappearing in Game 5 -- though either manager could conceivably change his mind and come back with his ace earlier in hopes of getting three games out of him.
The Mets and Astros, who played Game 2 Thursday night, have a travel day today, with the next three games set for New York on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday before the series returns to Houston if necessary.