Crushing Heartbreak For The 1991 Los Angeles Dodgers

The 1991 Los Angeles Dodgers were only three years removed from an epic World Series triumph in 1988. After a decline in 1989, the Dodgers jumped back up into contention in 1990. For much of the 1991 season, Los Angeles looked ready to return to the postseason. Then late heartbreak against a rising Cinderella story ended the bid.

L.A. demonstrated they were serious about getting back on top when they hit the free agent market prior to the season and signed rightfielder Darryl Strawberry away from the New York Mets. Strawberry did not disappoint, delivering a stat line of .361 on-base percentage/491 slugging percentage, along with 28 home runs and 99 RBIs.

Brett Butler set the table for Strawberry. The veteran centerfielder had an excellent year, posting a .401 OBP and stealing 38 bases. Lenny Harris played well at third base and his OBP was .349. Kal Daniels’ .337 OBP was respectable in left. Mike Sharperson, a versatile infielder, validated the substantial playing time he got off the bench with a .355 OBP. The Dodgers had the third-best on-base percentage in the National League.

But power was sorely lacking, with no help for Strawberry. The Dodgers finished dead last in the 12-team National League for doubles and were ninth in home runs. Eddie Murray, the Hall of Fame first baseman, was 35-years-old and declined badly in 1991. Gary Carter, another aging Hall of Famer, had lost his productivity behind the plate. Carter shared catching duties with another notable name, 32-year-old Mike Scioscia. Scioscia’s .353 on-base percentage was good, but he had little power left.

The Dodgers still ranked fifth in the NL in runs scored. But if they were going to go all the way, it would take pitching. Fortunately, manager Tom Lasorda had a lot of arms.

Mike Morgan had the best year, with a 2.78 ERA in his 33 starts. Ramon Martinez—the older brother of future Hall of Famer Pedro—made 33 starts of his own, as did Tim Belcher.  Ramon won 17 games with a 3.27 ERA, while Belcher’s ERA was a sterling 2.62. Bob Ojeda, the veteran lefty, went to the post 31 times and finished with a 3.18 ERA.

With that kind of quality and consistency, the Dodgers were able to work around staff ace Orel Hershiser missing the first two months of the season. When Hershiser got back, he was still able to make 21 starts and finish with a 3.46 ERA.

And the bullpen was deep. Kevin Gross, Tim Crews and Jim Gott all did solid work in middle relief and setup. Jay Howell saved 16 games with a 3.18 ERA. In late summer, the Dodgers added another arm when they traded for closer Roger McDowell.

All in all, it added up to best staff in the National League for ERA. Los Angeles was going to be tough to beat.

L.A. swept two games in Atlanta to start the season. It seemed like just a couple perfunctory wins over a traditionally bad team, one who had finished in last place a year earlier. Those wins turned out to be more important than anyone might have thought.

The Dodgers were steady, if not spectacular, for the first couple months while Hershiser rehabbed. When they took two of three from defending World Series champion Cincinnati Reds over the Memorial Day weekend, Los Angeles had a 2 ½ game lead in the NL West.

Here’s a good place to step back and remind younger readers that prior to 1994, each league had just two divisions, an East and a West. Only the first-place finisher could go to the postseason. The NL West included current members in the Dodgers, San Francisco Giants and San Diego Padres. It also included the Houston Astros (a National League team until 2013). In a display of geographic madness, the division also included the Reds and Braves. And those eastern interlopers were the teams that were tied for second place. The Padres were lurking at three games out.

Los Angeles played home-and-home series with the St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates in the early summer and heated up. The Dodgers went 14-5 in that stretch. Then they beat the Braves five times in seven tries. By the All-Star break, Los Angeles was sitting on a 49-31 record. They were five games ahead of Cincinnati. Atlanta and San Diego had slipped below .500 and were forgotten.

The Dodgers were in control, but they were mediocre out of the break, going 9-12 against bad teams from the NL East. Then they lost three straight in Houston, once with a blown lead in the ninth inning and two more in extra frames.

Los Angeles had done two things—let a young and surging team from Atlanta back into the race. And miss a chance to stick a knife in Cincinnati, who was also struggling in the late summer. The Dodgers, up 3 ½ on the Braves and 6 ½ on the Reds, went to Cincy for a three-game series in early August.

When Ramon was rocked in Monday night’s opener, a 10-6 loss, the Dodger slide kept going. But Hershiser stabilized the ship the next night, giving six good innings and winning 5-2 behind home runs from Strawberry and Harris. Ojeda came out on Wednesday night and tossed six shutout innings. A scoreless tie was broken up in the seventh when Sharperson ripped an RBI triple and then scored an insurance run on a sac fly.

In Thursday afternoon’s getaway finale, Morgan handed over a 6-2 lead to the bullpen, who closed out a 6-4 win. Los Angeles hadn’t missed this chance to bury Cincinnati. The Reds would not recover.

But the same could not be said for the Braves. The Dodgers failed to sustain the momentum and promptly lost three straight at lowly San Francisco. Los Angeles lost three more in St. Louis at the end of August. By the time Labor Day arrived, the divisional lead was gone. The Dodgers and Braves were in a dead heat.

Los Angeles had battle-tested players. They responded by winning a home series over St. Louis and then taking three of four from eventual NL East champion Pittsburgh. But that ground was given back the following weekend in Atlanta. In the first of two big head-to-head showdowns, the Dodgers lost two of three. After taking Friday’s opener, L.A. lost on Saturday in eleven innings and then watched Ramon get rocked on Sunday. They were a game and a half back and doing the chasing.

But the combination of veterans and good starting pitching again stabilized the ship. By the time Atlanta came to Los Angeles on September 20, the Dodgers had nudged back out to a half-game lead. This NL West battle was the only hot race in baseball this September, so that—along with Atlanta’s story of trying to go worst-to-first—had every baseball fan focused on the Dodgers and Braves.

The L.A. bats were silent on Friday night, a 3-0 loss that dropped them to second place. Time to give the ball to Hershiser. Orel was brilliant, but the still-silent bats had the Dodgers down 1-0 in the bottom of the eighth. Then the Braves showed their youth. Two errors opened the door to the tying run. In the bottom of the ninth, Daniels hit a one-out single and then scored the winning run on Juan Samuel’s triple.

On Sunday, the offense grabbed a couple quick runs when Sharperson doubled, Strawberry tripled and Murray legged out an infield hit. Ramon, given a second chance at a Sunday rubber match, made the most of this one. He tossed two-hit ball for seven innings and the Dodgers won 3-0. They were a game and a half up with two weeks to play.

One thing the Dodgers didn’t control was the half-game and the Braves chipped that lead to down a single game entering the final week.

On Monday and Tuesday, Los Angeles took care of their business against San Diego. They got no help from collapsing Cincinnati, who lost to Atlanta on both nights. Then on Wednesday, the Dodgers lost to the Padres. The Braves completed a sweep of the Reds. The NL West race was tied.

After both teams took Thursday off, the final weekend had the Braves playing at home against the Astros. The Dodgers were in San Francisco, facing an ancient rival who took no greater pleasure than spoiling L.A.’s pennant hopes.

That’s exactly what happened. The Dodger bats were impotent, losing 4-1 on Friday and 4-0 on Saturday. The Braves won both days. The race was over.

It was an improbable ending. A lot of us who watched the pennant race from afar had felt that somehow, Los Angeles would end up pulling this out. We didn’t know that Atlanta was starting a run where it would be 2006 before they failed to win a division again.

The crushing ending for the Dodgers ushered in the ending of a fantastic franchise run that went back to Lasorda’s rookie year of 1977. L.A. fell out of contention the next three years, before returning to give Lasorda one last hurrah, winning a shrunken and realigned NL West in 1995.