Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
The Los Angeles Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals are two of the oldest franchises in baseball, but this year’s National League Championship Series is only the fourth meeting of the two in the postseason. That’s if you don’t count the time they met in 1946 in a best two out of three tiebreaker series to decide the pennant (Joe Garagiola and Enos Slaughter led the Redbirds to victory).
They faced each other in the 2009 National League Division Series, a Dodger sweep highlighted by a muffed fly ball in left by the Cards’ Matt Holliday. Five years earlier, the Cardinals beat the Dodgers in four games behind a powerful lineup that featured Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, Larry Walker, and Scott Rolen. St. Louis would go on to fall victim to the Boston Red Sox’s first world championship since 1918.
But it was in 1985 that these two teams played a series for the ages.
The Cardinals survived a year-long scrap with the New York Mets to win the National League East title. They won 101 games – the Mets won 98. The Dodgers were in fourth place as late as June 18th before catching fire and ultimately topping the Cincinnati Reds by 5.5 games.
The Dodgers had won the World Series four years earlier, in the strike-shortened season of 1981. Several players were left over from that team, including OF Pedro Guerrero, 2B Steve Sax, and LHP Fernando Valenzuela.
Guerrero had a big year in ‘85, batting .320/.422/.577 with 33 home runs. RF Mike Marshall hit .293/.342/.515 with 28 homers and 95 RBIs.
LA’s pitching staff was deep. Already a veteran at age 24, Valenzuela went 17-10 with a 2.45 ERA and a whopping 14 complete games. He was joined by 26 year-old Orel Hershiser, who, in his second year, went 19-3 with a 2.03 ERA. Veterans Bob Welch, Rick Honeycutt, and Jerry Reuss rounded out the starting five. The bullpen was anchored by Tom Niedenfuer, Ken Howell, and Carlos Diaz, all of whom struck out better than 8 batters per nine innings.
The Cardinals were built on speed. They played on a 120-degree Fahrenheit parking lot with deep fences and a thin layer of green plastic they used for grass. Manager Whitey Herzog built his team to win that version of Busch Stadium. They pounded the ball off the Astroturf and ran like blazes while the ball appeared to accelerate (and sometimes gain altitude) as it hopped.
They had five players in their starting lineup with over 30 stolen bases: 2B Tom Herr (31), SS Ozzie Smith (31), CF Willie McGee (56), RF Andy Van Slyke (34), and rookie LF Vince Coleman, who led the league with 110.
They relied very little on the home run ball. 1B Jack Clark led the team with 22 dingers, followed by Van Slyke with 13 and McGee with 10. In a statistical anomaly, Herr managed to rack up 110 RBIs while hitting only 8 home runs. McGee had a great year, winning the MVP while hitting .353/.384/.503 with 18 triples.
On the mound, they had shut-down talent bolstered by an air-tight defense. LHP John Tudor pitched out of his mind in 1985, going 21-8 with a 1.93 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, and 10 shutouts. While always a good pitcher, he never matched that success before or after that season.
When the Dodgers and Cardinals met in the 1985 NLCS, there was no doubt that the two best teams in the Senior Circuit were fighting for a berth in the World Series.
Behind the one-two punch of Valenzuela and Hershiser, the Dodgers jumped out to a two games to none lead. LA won Game 1 by a score of 4-1, then Game 2 by a score of 8-2.
But when the series shifted to St. Louis, the Cardinals seemed like a new team. They jumped out to a 4-0 lead off of Welch, and went on to win 4-2. Before game four, however, they lost their leadoff man, Vince Coleman, in a bizarre accident.
The decision was made to roll out the tarp because of light rain. The automatic tarp roller (a feature in some artificially-sodded fields) popped out of the ground and rolled over Coleman’s leg, ending his season. McGee moved to the leadoff spot, and Tito Landrum replaced Coleman in the outfield. Landrum would go on to have a great postseason.
Despite the absence of Coleman, the Cards put up a 9 spot in the second inning to chase Reuss. The Redbirds never looked back, winning 12-2.
It was back to Valenzuela for the Dodgers in Game 5, but the screwballer walked McGee and Smith in the first inning, then allowed a 2-run double to Herr. LA tied the game in the fourth on a 2-run homer by Bill Madlock.
The score remained 2-2 until the bottom of the ninth. Niedenfuer entered the game and got McGee to pop out, then faced Smith. The Cardinals’ shortstop was known for his incredible glove. The Wizard of Oz, as he was known, had a career year with the bat in 1985, also. He set career highs in batting average (.276), on-base percentage (.355), and slugging percentage (.361), and home runs (6). Still, he wasn’t known as a power threat.
Batting from his weaker, left-handed, side, the switch hitter took a Niedenfuer offering over the right field wall to give his team a walk-off win. Jack Buck’s play-by-play call of the home run, which he punctuated with a “Go crazy folks! Go crazy!” is one of the most replayed in baseball history.
Back in Dodger Stadium, things didn’t go much different. The Dodgers had a 4-1 lead going into the seventh, but the Cardinals scored 3 runs off of Orel Hershiser and Tom Niedenfuer to tie the game. The Dodgers regained the lead in the eighth on a solo shot Mike Marshall. But Niedenfuer faltered once again, this time, surrendering a 3-run bomb to Jack Clark to give the Redbirds a lead they would not relinquish. Ken Dayley nailed down the save 1-2-3 to give the Cardinals the National League Pennant.
Oddly enough, a team that was not known for hitting home runs hit two big ones in games 5 and 6.
It was one of the most memorable playoff series of all time. Now, 28 years later, the Dodgers and Cardinals meet again in the NLCS. And if it’s half as exciting as the last NLCS these two teams played, there will be plenty of reason to go crazy.