The 1988 Los Angeles Dodgers: I Don’t Believe What I Just Saw!

The Los Angeles Dodgers are one of the National League’s proudest franchise, particularly in the timeframe of the late 1970s through the late 1980s. From 1977-85, they won five NL West titles, three National League pennants and the 1981 World Series. That made the slippage of 1986-87 all the more striking, plummeting to a 73-89 record in ’87. The 1988 Los Angeles Dodgers made complete turnaround, with their ultimate World Series title keyed by a moment that has lived on in MLB history.

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It was not an imposing lineup that manager Tom Lasorda had at his disposal. The Dodgers finished sixth in the National League in runs scored, and it’s hard to figure how they even got that high, ranking below the league average in every category of significance. Los Angeles made up for it with pitching.

Orel Hershiser was the ace of the staff and won 23 games with a 2.26 ERA. Hershiser won the Cy Young Award with a dominating stretch of  58 scoreless innings in September, a major league record.  He was backed up by Tim Leary, a 17-game winner with a 2.91 ERA and rookie Tim Belcher won twelve games and finished with a 2.91 ERA.

Lasorda pieced together the rest of the rotation with a mix of veterans, ranging from Fernando Valenzuela, to 43-year-old Don Sutton to John Tudor, along with 23-year-old Shawn Hillegas

The bullpen was anchored by Jay Howell, acquired in a three-team deal with the Oakland Athletics and New York Mets. The Dodgers got another reliever in Jesse Orosco. The cost was high—starting pitcher Bob Welch, who had a strong year in Oakland and it probably wasn’t worth the price. But that doesn’t mean Howell and Orosco didn’t pitch well, with ERAs of 2.08 and 2.72 respectively.

Furthermore, Alejandro Pena and Brian Holton were superb, with sub-2.00 ERAs, and Tim Crews was effective, at 3.14. There were a lot of tools at Lasorda’s disposal to keep games close, and if his team got a lead.

The task of getting leads started with rightfielder Kirk Gibson. The Dodgers signed the one-time World Series hero of the Detroit Tigers in free agency, and Gibson finished with an on-base percentage of .377 and slugging percentage of .483. He was also credited with bringing a toughness and leadership to the clubhouse, so much so that the reputation got him the NL MVP award.

That, frankly, was pushing the leadership point a little too far, but there’s no denying the key role Gibson played in the LA offense. Because the rest of the lineup had no one who stood out. Mike Scioscia at catcher and second baseman Steve Sax had good careers, but were not good at the plate in 1988. Mike Marshall gave modest power in rightfield, but that’s about it.

Alfredo Griffin, another piece in the three-team trade with the A’s and Mets, hit .199 at shortstop. Jeff Hamilton at third base, John Shelby in center and Franklin Stubbs at first base were all offensive disasters. Somehow, Lasorda made it all work well enough to give the pitching staff what they needed.

Los Angeles came out of the gate quickly They started 11-4 including taking three of four from the San Francisco Giants, who had taken the NL West in 1987. The Dodgers maintained a persistent lead throughout the spring and at the Memorial Day turn, they were up 1 ½ games on the Houston Astros—who had won the NL West in 1986—five up on San Francisco and 5 ½ up on the Cincinnati Reds.

The Dodgers took five of six games from the Reds and Astros and stretched the lead to as much as 5 ½ before being swept by the Pittsburgh Pirates just prior to the All-Star break. The Dodgers went into the break up 2 ½ on the Giants, 5 ½ on the Astros and 7 ½ on the Reds.

It was expected the race would stay tight. The Dodgers, after all, had the unimpressive lineup and the 89-loss season the year before. They were being chased by the division’s two most recent champions, and the Reds were generally considered to have the most young talent of any of the West’s contenders. But it was after the All-Star break that Los Angeles made its big move.

The Dodgers went to Wrigley Field and beat the Chicago Cubs five straight times, and their lead would eventually stretch as high as eight games. Then came a scare, as a 13-game stretch with Houston and Cincinnati produced a 3-10 record and saw the lead whittled down to a game and a half. But Los Angeles promptly counterpunched, winning nine of ten and pushing the lead right back to 5 ½. This sequence included taking three of four from San Francisco, who faded hard.

Los Angeles kept its challengers at arm’s length. From September 7-11, they hosted the Astros and Reds and went 3-2. From September 16-20, the Dodgers made return visits and went 4-1. The Los Angeles margin never got smaller than four games and then pulled away one more time down the stretch to a 94-win season and a seven-game margin in a division where five of the six teams finished with winning records.

The Dodgers were still decided underdogs when they faced the New York Mets in the National League Championship Series. The Mets had won 100 games and were two years removed from a World Series title. The series went back-and-forth, with each team stealing an unlikely win. But the Dodgers won the seventh game in a blowout and secured another pennant.

If the victory in the NLCS was surprising, then the triumph in the World Series over the 104-win Oakland A’s was truly stunning. The tone was set in Game 1. Los Angeles trailed 4-3 in the ninth inning at home against A’s closer Dennis Eckersley, the best in the game. Gibson was hobbled badly with a leg injury and hadn’t played. Lasorda sent him up to pinch hit with a man aboard.

Gibson pulled a home run into the rightfield stands to win the game, prompting radio broadcaster Jack Buck to exclaim “I don’t believe what I just saw!”, words that remain a part of MLB postseason highlight montages. Oakland never recovered and Los Angeles completed the upset in five games.

The 1988 Los Angeles Dodgers were the last great moment of the Lasorda era. The team lost close NL West races in 1990 and 1991 and then rebuilding was required. But the memories of the 1988 team provided were more than enough to get the fans through the dry spell.