Monday, March 21, 2011

M.U.M.'s The Word (Most Underrated Mets): Roger McDowell

In 1982, the Mets selected three right-handed pitchers in the June amateur draft with their first three picks. In the first round, they chose a high school kid from Tampa who would become one of the franchise's all-time best pitchers (Dwight Gooden). In the second round, they selected Gooden's high school teammate who would become one of the prospects coveted by the Expos in the deal that brought Gary Carter to New York (Floyd Youmans).

When it came time for the Mets to announce their third pick, they took a skinny college kid from Bowling Green State University in Ohio (the same school that produced Orel Hershiser three years earlier). Although not as highly touted as Gooden and Youmans, the young right-handed starter worked his way to AA-Jackson in 1983, where he won 11 games. The following season, he suffered an elbow injury that limited him to two starts. Because of the injury, he had to come up with a new way to deliver his pitches and in doing so, developed a signature pitch that would help him make it to the major leagues.

For most pitchers, a severe arm injury in the minor leagues usually spells the end of their major league dreams. For Roger McDowell, his injury caused him to reinvent himself, and when he did, he became one of the best relievers in Mets history.

Roger McDowell was all about fun and games off the field, but on the mound, he was all business.

Despite missing most of the 1984 season and never pitching above the AA level, Roger McDowell impressed manager Davey Johnson so much during Spring Training that he became part of the 1985 Opening Day roster. It didn't take McDowell very long to reach the win column, as he was credited with the victory in his major league debut after pitching a one-two-three inning in relief against the St. Louis Cardinals on April 11, 1985. Two days later, he pitched two scoreless innings against the Cincinnati Reds to claim his second victory. The original 1962 Mets played 14 games before earning their second win. It took Roger McDowell three innings to do the same.

After appearing out of the bullpen in his first five appearances, the Mets decided to allow McDowell to start two games. That experiment failed miserably, as the righty allowed nine runs in 10 1/3 innings over the two starts. After suffering his first defeat in a 14-2 loss to the Reds on May 4, McDowell was sent back to the bullpen, never making another start in the major leagues. It ended up being one of the most important decisions the Mets made during their mid-80s heyday.

Once McDowell was relieved (no pun intended) from his starting role, he became virtually unhittable. For the remainder of May, the Jolly Roger pitched 21 scoreless innings, giving up six hits (all singles) and three walks. Statisticians needed a microscope to find his opponents' batting average against him (.088), a number that is comparable to Al Leiter's career batting average. During his Bob Gibson-esque month, McDowell earned three wins and three saves, dispelling any thoughts that his stint as a starting pitcher would affect him negatively.

With the Mets and Cardinals fighting tooth and nail for first place in the NL East, McDowell did not wilt under the pressure of his first pennant race. During a three-week stretch in September, McDowell held opponents at bay, allowing only one run in 20 2/3 innings (0.44 ERA). Alas, the Mets would fall to the Cardinals, who clinched the division title on the penultimate day of the season. Still, the Mets finished the 1985 season with a 98-64 record, which represented the second-best record in franchise history.

For the year, McDowell had six wins and 17 saves to go with a sparkling 2.83 ERA. His rookie season did not go unnoticed, as he finished sixth in the voting for National League Rookie of the Year. If 1985 was the year Roger McDowell hit the big scene, 1986 was the year he relished in it.

Just like the rain, Roger McDowell's sinker couldn't help but fall towards the ground.

After a slow start to the 1986 season, Roger McDowell went on a tear for two months. From May 4 to July 1, McDowell was undefeated (5-0), with six saves and five holds in 25 appearances. Over the two-month span, his ERA was 1.07. In 50 2/3 innings, McDowell gave up 35 hits (31 singles, four doubles), holding opposing hitters to a .193 batting average and a .215 slugging percentage. In addition to keeping his own runners from scoring, he was incredibly adept at stranding other pitchers' runners, allowing only one inherited runner to score in two months. (McDowell inherited 11 baserunners during that time.)

When the regular season ended, McDowell had set the franchise record for appearances (75) and wins by a reliever (14). His numbers almost resembled that of a starting pitcher (14-9, 3.02 ERA, 128 innings pitched). McDowell, along with Jesse Orosco, became the first teammates to save 20 games apiece in the same season, with Roger leading the team with 22 saves and Jesse finishing with 21. On a team that featured a starting quartet of Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling, Bob Ojeda and Sid Fernandez, it was McDowell who received the most votes of any Mets pitcher for the 1986 NL MVP Award, as he finished 17th in the voting.

McDowell carried his highly successful regular season into the League Championship Series against the Houston Astros. He made his first appearance in the NLCS in Game 4, coming into the game in the seventh inning after Sid Fernandez had fallen behind by three runs to eventual Series MVP Mike Scott. McDowell retired all six batters he faced, but the Mets fell short to the Astros, who had "the right scuff" with Scott on the mound. When he pitched again in Game 6, McDowell delivered one of the most crucial performances by any reliever in team history.

With the Mets trailing the Astros in the ninth inning of Game 6, they mounted a furious rally off starting pitcher Bob Knepper and closer Dave Smith, scoring three runs to tie the game. Roger McDowell was called upon to replace Rick Aguilera (who had pitched three scoreless innings in relief of starter Bob Ojeda) in the bottom of the ninth inning. McDowell was no stranger to multiple innings of work, pitching two innings or more in 36 of his 75 regular season appearances. The experience of all those multiple-inning performances paid off in Game 6, as McDowell pitched five near-perfect innings. The only baserunner he allowed (a 12th inning walk to Kevin Bass; more on him later) was quickly erased on a failed stolen base attempt.

The Mets took the lead in the top of the 14th inning, putting McDowell in line for the pennant-clinching victory. However, with Jesse Orosco now in the game for the save, Billy Hatcher hit a long home run that hit the left field fair pole. As the ball slid down the screen, so did McDowell's chances for the win. The Mets eventually won the game and the pennant in a frenetic 16th inning, where they scored three runs in the top of the 16th, only to see Orosco give up two runs in the bottom of the inning before striking out Kevin Bass to end the threat and the game. It was the second time Orosco struck out Bass in the game, as he got the Astros' rightfielder to swing at strike three to lead off the 15th inning.

McDowell's final line in the 1986 NLCS was nothing short of brilliant. In seven innings, he faced the minimum 21 batters, allowing no runs and no hits, walking one and striking out three. However, because Orosco failed to hold the lead in the 14th inning of Game 6, McDowell was denied the opportunity to secure the victory in a pennant-clinching game. The same could not be said for the World Series.

Although Roger McDowell did not pitch as effectively against the Boston Red Sox in the World Series, allowing ten hits and six walks in seven innings of work, none of his outings cost the Mets any games. McDowell did give up the go-ahead run in the seventh inning of Game 6, but that run scored on an error by Ray Knight, who later made up for his gaffe in the memorable tenth inning by driving in Gary Carter with a base hit and then scoring the winning run on Bill Buckner's error.

In Game 7, McDowell was called upon to pitch the seventh inning after the Mets had tied the game with three runs in the bottom of the sixth. Roger responded by retiring the Red Sox in order. The Mets took the lead in the bottom of the seventh inning, with the key blow coming on Ray Knight's tiebreaking home run. The Red Sox did score two runs off McDowell in the eighth inning, but this time Jesse Orosco was able to hold McDowell's lead. When Orosco struck out Marty Barrett to end the game, McDowell was given credit for the victory, joining Jerry Koosman as the only pitchers in club history to win a World Series-clinching game.

Roger McDowell would return to the postseason in 1988, but not before having a down year in 1987. He began the season on the disabled list, after having hernia surgery in late March. The Mets' bullpen struggled in McDowell's absence and the team did as well, losing 17 of their first 31 games before Roger returned on May 14. His return, which had originally been expected to be on June 1, was pushed up due to the fragile state of the pitching staff.

McDowell was not very effective upon his return, with an ERA just under 6.00 after his first 14 appearances. But as McDowell turned his season around, so did the Mets. For the next three months, McDowell was back to his old self. Over his next 35 appearances (spanning from June 12 to September 6), Roger won four games and racked up 17 saves. His ERA over the three months was 2.89. The Mets had gone from a fifth-place, 14-17 team before McDowell's activation from the disabled list, to an 80-59 team that was only 1½ games behind the St. Louis Cardinals on September 11. Then, with one swing of Terry Pendleton's bat, McDowell's resurgence was all but forgotten.

Roger McDowell gave up 22 regular season home runs as a Met. If only it had been 21...

With the Mets one inning away from pulling to within half a game of the first place Cardinals, Roger McDowell was beginning his second inning of work. He had ended the eighth inning by getting the speedy Vince Coleman to ground into a rare double play. After the Mets failed to extend their 4-1 lead in their half of the eighth, McDowell was left in the game to record the final three outs. After issuing a leadoff walk to Ozzie Smith, McDowell retired the next two batters to face him. With a three-run lead and one out to go, it appeared as if the Mets had wrapped up their 81st win of the season. But then the bottom fell out for McDowell at the same time that his sinker stopped sinking. First, Willie McGee drove in Smith with an RBI single. Then Terry Pendleton, who hit hit only ten home runs before that fateful night, drove a long fly ball over the 410' sign in center field. The Shot Heard 'Round Flushing had unexpectedly tied the game, and the Mets would eventually lose the game in ten innings.

Although the Mets had plenty of chances to catch the Cardinals over the final three weeks of the season, it was the home run by Terry Pendleton off Roger McDowell (everyone seems to forget the walk-off home run by Luis Aguayo off Jesse Orosco on September 30 that essentially put the nail in the coffin for the 1987 Mets) that served as the beginning of the end of the Mets' title defense. Still, despite the poor ending to the season, McDowell finished the 1987 season with a career-high 25 saves, which at the time was tied for the third-highest single-season total in franchise history.

In 1988, McDowell began the season healthy and it showed in his performance. He finished the season with his lowest ERA (2.63) as a Met, to go along with five wins and 16 saves. The Mets rolled to another division title in 1988, but once again, a home run given up by McDowell, this time in the NLCS, was crucial in defining the Mets' season.

McDowell pitched in four games of the seven-game series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, allowing three runs in six innings of work. However, the only run he will be remembered for was the one he gave up in the 12th inning of Game 4. The Mets had already blown a two-run lead in the ninth inning. Similar to Terry Pendleton's game-tying ninth inning homer in 1987, another unlikely source of power had erased a 4-2 ninth inning Mets lead, as Mike Scioscia (who had hit just three home runs during the regular season) connected for a game-tying blast off starter Dwight Gooden.

The game continued into extra innings, where Roger McDowell escaped an 11th inning jam by retiring Tracy Woodson on a groundout with the go-ahead run in scoring position. The Mets failed to score in their half of the 11th and McDowell was left in the game to pitch the 12th, retiring the first two batters to face him. That brought up eventual 1988 NL MVP Kirk Gibson to the plate, and he launched a long home run to right-center that gave the Dodgers the lead. Although the Mets mounted a rally in the bottom of the 12th, loading up the bases with one out, the two men who finished directly behind Gibson in the MVP vote (Darryl Strawberry and Kevin McReynolds) both popped out to end the threat and the game. It would be McDowell's only loss in 11 postseason appearances for the Mets.

The Mets were a different team going into the 1989 season. Jesse Orosco had already left prior to the 1988 season, winning a World Series ring with the Dodgers in '88. Wally Backman was traded to the Minnesota Twins during the off-season to allow Gregg Jefferies to play every day. Co-captains Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter were coming off their worst seasons as Mets and lost playing time to Dave Magadan and Barry Lyons, respectively. As a result of this transition, the Mets struggled out of the gate, and were around the .500 mark for most of the first half of the season. However, despite their slow start, the Mets found themselves only a game behind the first place Chicago Cubs when they woke up on Father's Day (June 18). Mets' Vice President Joe McIlvane felt that for the team to make a prolonged push to the top of the division, they needed an upgrade in the offensive department. Well, he succeeded in the "offensive" part, but not in the way he expected.

On June 18, general manager Frank Cashen orchestrated the trade that effectively ended the 1986 World Series after-party. He sent Roger McDowell and Lenny Dykstra to the Philadelphia Phillies in exchange for Juan Samuel, who was now going to be playing center field for the Mets.

We gave away Roger McDowell and Lenny Dykstra for this guy? Juan Samuel wasn't fit to wear Ed Kranepool's jock strap, let alone his uniform number!

From 1984-1987, Samuel was one of the most complete players in the National League, averaging 35 doubles, 15 triples, 20 home runs, 50 stolen bases, 102 runs scored and 80 RBI per season. However, in 1988, Samuel's numbers dropped across the board. He finished the season with career-lows in batting average (.243), on-base percentage (.298), triples (9), home runs (12), RBI (67), runs scored (68) and stolen bases (33), while striking out 151 times. Of course, Mets' management thought moving him to center field and making him the club's new leadoff hitter was going to turn the team's fortunes around. Epic fail.

Samuel struggled after his trade to New York, batting .228 in 86 games. After finishing the 1987 season with 28 HR and 100 RBI, Samuel was a different player on the Mets, hitting only three home runs and driving in 28 runs in 1989 for New York. Meanwhile, McDowell and Dykstra flourished after the trade to Philadelphia, with McDowell registering a 1.11 ERA for the Phillies in 1989 and Dykstra going on to become one of the premier leadoff hitters in the game, helping the Phillies to an unexpected National League pennant in 1993.

Roger McDowell was one of the most beloved Mets in team history. With an effervescent personality to go with his killer sinkerball, McDowell was all play in the clubhouse but all business on the mound. At any moment, McDowell would burn a teammate with a cleverly placed hot foot, then burn an opponent by inducing ground ball after ground ball with his sinker.

Over his 4½ year tenure with the Mets, McDowell was 33-29, with 84 saves and a 3.10 ERA. At the time he was traded, McDowell was third on the franchise's all-time leaderboard with those 84 saves (he is now sixth), trailing only Jesse Orosco and Tug McGraw. His 3.10 ERA as a Met is lower than every other pitcher except for five (Tom Seaver, Jesse Orosco, Johan Santana, Jon Matlack, Jerry Koosman). Only 28 Mets pitchers have won more games than McDowell's 33, but none of them accomplished their victory total with as few innings as Roger's 468 1/3. In addition to the above, Roger also ranked in the Mets' top ten in winning percentage (.532, 9th), games pitched (280, 5th) and games finished (189, 3rd) at the time of his trade to the Phillies.

When Roger McDowell was traded to the Phillies, he was the team's all-time leader in saves for a right-handed pitcher. He also led the team in Hubba Bubba consumption and hot foots given.

Roger McDowell is still in baseball, serving as the pitching coach for the Atlanta Braves, but no matter what he does in the game, he will always be remembered for his time on the Mets as the club's top right-handed reliever and resident prankster. Whether he was wearing his uniform upside down, lighting firecrackers in the dugout or appearing as the second spitter on "Seinfeld", McDowell's antics off the field were just as fun to watch as his performances on the mound.

Simply stated, Roger McDowell was a big kid playing a kid's game. For four and a half years, he excelled at that game as a member of the Mets, yet he was always overshadowed by Jesse Orosco and his glove-flinging celebrations. McDowell may never have been the guy on the mound when the Mets were celebrating two division titles, a National League pennant and a World Series championship, but he was one of the guys who helped get them there.

Underrated? Yes. Underappreciated? No. Anyone who remembers McDowell solely for the Terry Pendleton and Kirk Gibson home runs missed out on what was truly a great Mets reliever and personality. Those who didn't appreciate his contributions to the Mets should stand on guard. There may be a hot foot coming your way.

Note: M.U.M.'s The Word is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting some of the best Mets players of all-time who never got the recognition they deserved because they weren't the biggest names on the teams they played for. For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:

January 3, 2011: John Olerud
January 10, 2011: Sid Fernandez
January 17, 2011: Jon Matlack
January 24, 2011: Kevin McReynolds
January 31, 2011: Bobby Jones
February 7, 2011: John Stearns
February 14, 2011: David Cone
February 21, 2011: Rusty Staub

February 28, 2011: Rick Reed
March 7, 2011: Ron Taylor
March 14, 2011: Turk Wendell

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

why does rog hate gays so much?