What's truly amazing about Mike Scott is not that he was, in 1986, the best pitcher in the National League. Nor that he blew away the powerful New York Mets in that fall's NLCS. Twice.
No, what's truly amazing about Mike Scott is that now, 15 years later, some of you have absolutely no idea what I'm talking about -- mostly because the Astros fell to the Mets in that championship series, and because Mike Scott never pitched quite so well again.
Before we get to 1986, a bit of background ....
Mike Scott arrived in the major leagues in the spring of 1979, eight days short of his 24th birthday, on the strength of a big right wing that could fire a baseball at close to 95 mph. Still, he had never really distinguished himself in the minors. Like a lot of pitchers before him and a lot of pitchers after him, Scott found that merely throwing thunderbolts didn't guarantee success against professional hitters. In his only full season at Class AAA, Scott went 10-10 with a 3.94 ERA in 192 innings, and walked nearly as many hitters (83) as he struck out (93).
After the 1982 season, in which Scott went 7-13 for the Mets, Padres broadcaster Jerry Coleman said, "Looked like an up-and-comer for two years, but slipped badly last year." Mets broadcaster Ralph Kiner said, "He has not improved in the last two years, despite good exposure." And Tim McCarver said, "Inconsistency has been Mike's tag. But he could be a good pitcher someday."
Maybe McCarver was just hedging his bets, or maybe he actually knew something.
On Dec. 10, 1982, the Astros made one of their greatest trades, when they sent outfielder Danny Heep to the Mets in exchange for Scott, a pitcher with a great fastball, a mediocre slider and very little else. Heep had never been, nor would he become, more than a fourth or fifth outfielder. Scott would become something that he had never been: one of the best pitchers in the National League.
How did it happen? Scott went 10-6 for the Astros in 1983, but fell to 5-11 in 1984. At that point, he was almost 29 years old and had won 29 games in the major leagues. As the story goes, it was Astros first baseman Enos Cabell who first suggested that Scott consider learning to throw the split-finger fastball, which might have been the best thing Cabell ever did for one of his teams. Cabell had once played for the Tigers, where pitching coach Roger Craig had taught Jack Morris the splitter to great effect.
Craig was between jobs, and agreed to work with Scott over the winter (for a fee, of course). That trip to San Diego, where Craig lived, changed Scott's life.
"I went down there without having picked up a ball for probably two months," Scott later told author Mike Sowell. "I just kind of got the basics and threw for about a week, enough to where I was good enough to know where I could throw the pitch or not. And it was easy, real easy."
So easy that Scott quickly discarded his slider and his change-up, and became a two-pitch pitcher, which you can get away with if your two pitches are as good as Scott's were. In addition to the superior fastball, he had a splitter that sometimes broke straight down and sometimes veered sideways -- in either direction. In 1985, his first year throwing the new pitch, Scott went 18-8 with a career-best 3.29 ERA.
And that brings us, finally, to 1986. After his seventh start on May 4, Scott was 3-2 but sported a mediocre 4.03 ERA. If I'd been a baseball writer then, I would have said, "See, just another guy who got lucky for six months."
In his next start, on May 9 against the Pirates, Scott permitted one earned run in seven innings. And from there through the end of the season, Scott went 15-8 with a 1.87 ERA. On Sept. 25, he threw a no-hitter at the Giants to clinch the National League West title for the Astros. In his last five starts, Scott struck out 55 batters -- and walked four. At that point, no pitcher was more feared by NL hitters.
And the Mets, though they'd won 108 games in the regular season, were far from immune to that fear. After Scott threw his no-hitter, a reporter asked Mets catcher Gary Carter what he thought about Scott. Carter responded, "It's the consensus around the league that Mike Scott cheats."
Years later, Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden said, "Actually, we knew that Scott was scuffing the ball, but the umpires were letting him get away with it. And that made him impossible to hit."
The Mets were psyched out. The NLCS opened in Houston, and in the first inning of the first game, Gary Carter swung at strike two and asked plate umpire Doug Harvey to check the ball. Harvey examined the ball, and tossed it back to Scott. Carter struck out on the next pitch. He later said of that game, "I'd never felt so dominated by a pitcher." Darryl Strawberry struck out in the second inning and, upon reaching the bench, said, "The guy is unhittable."
And so Scott was, or very nearly so. He did give up five hits. But all of them were singles, and Scott also struck out 14 hitters, an LCS record. The Astros could score only once against Gooden, but it was enough.
|Mike Scott was the most dominant NL pitcher in 1986, and nearly unhittable in the playoffs.|
The Mets won Games 2 and 3, but in Game 4 Scott befuddled the Mets once again. This time he struck out only five hitters but permitted just three hits and a run, the Astros evening the series with a 3-1 victory.
Game 5 featured a great pitcher's duel, Gooden vs. Nolan Ryan. Gooden pitched 10 innings and allowed one run; Ryan pitched nine innings and allowed one run. The Mets finally broke through in the 12th, when Carter's RBI single won it for them.
Then came Game 6, which has been described at least once as "The Greatest Game Every Played." The Astros scored three times in the bottom of the first, and the score was still 3-0 when the Mets came up in the top of the ninth. They scored three to tie, and the game eventually went to extra innings. The Mets went ahead 4-3 in the 14th, but Houston's Billy Hatcher tied the game again, with a homer off Jesse Orosco. The Mets scored three runs in the 16th, and then Orosco allowed two runs in the bottom of the 16th before striking out Kevin Bass to preserve the Mets' victory, clinching the NL pennant.
It was the longest game in postseason history, and made all the more dramatic, for the Mets at least, by the knowledge that if they lost and there were a Game 7, Mike Scott would start for the Astros. As Davey Johnson said after Game 6, "I feel like I've been pardoned. We'd have no bullpen left for a seventh game, and I really don't want to see Scott again until next April."
Gary Carter later told a collaborator, "Mike Scott watched that sixth game from the Astros' dugout, and he haunted us. He stuck in the back of our minds. No, sir, we didn't want to face him the following day for all the marbles ... The man had a power over us even when he was spending the game on the bench."
Mike Scott's power wasn't enough to get the Astros into a World Series. But it was enough to earn him the NLCS MVP Award (and eventually the NL Cy Young). And it was enough to throw the fear of God into the best baseball team of the 1980s.
Rob Neyer is a baseball columnist for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
||Mike Scott watched that sixth game
from the Astros' dugout, and he haunted us. He
stuck in the back of our minds. No, sir, we didn't
want to face him the following day for all the
marbles ... The man had a power over us even
when he was spending the game on the bench. ”
||— Gary Carter