Monday, March 20, 2017

The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of the Mets: Jesse Orosco

In 1964 and 1965, the Mets finished at the bottom of the National League standings, losing a total of 221 games between the two seasons.  The team would not suffer through back-to-back last place finishes again until 1977 and 1978.  But between 1965 and 1977, New York posted seven winning seasons, raised two league pennants and claimed one miraculous World Series title.  Jerry Koosman, who was on the mound as the Mets were clinching that title, was also around for the team's regression in '77 and '78.  But following the club's second straight losing campaign in 1978, Koosman was given his walking papers.

Wanting to play in his home state of Minnesota, Koosman was dealt to the Twins in December 1978 for former Southern League Pitcher of the Year Greg Field and a player to be named later.  It took nearly two full months for that player to finally be named.  It took another seven years for that player to repeat one of Koosman's signature moments for the Mets.

Jesse Orosco was just a baby when he became a Met in 1979.  (B. Bennett/Getty Images)

Jesse Russell Orosco had only pitched in 20 rookie league games in the Twins' minor league system when he got the call in February 1979 that he was traded to the Mets.  Less than two months after being dealt to New York, Orosco found himself on the mound at Wrigley Field for his major league debut.  Injuries to left-handed pitchers Bob Myrick and Kevin Kobel left the team with a dearth of southpaws, which forced the club to promote Orosco much earlier than expected.  Orosco pitched to one batter in his debut and retired him on a fly ball.  The batter's name was Bill Buckner.  It would not be the last time Buckner and the Mets crossed paths.  It would also not be the last time Orosco stepped on a major league mound.  Not by a long shot.

After his successful first appearance on Opening Day 1979, Orosco slumped to a 5.73 ERA by the end of May.  In early June, manager Joe Torre moved Orosco from the bullpen to the starting rotation for two games before Orosco was ultimately sent back down to the minors.  Orosco bounced back and forth between Double-A and Triple-A for two-and-a-half seasons, waiting for a return trip to the majors.  He finally got that opportunity during the last month of the 1981 campaign and showed great improvement in his eight late-season appearances, posting a 1.56 ERA and 1.096 WHIP.

In 1982, Orosco completed his first full season in the majors.  Orosco lost ten out of 14 decisions, but two of the defeats came as a starting pitcher.  In those starts, Orosco allowed nine earned runs in 9⅔ innings.  Orosco excelled as a reliever, however, posting a solid 2.17 ERA in just under 100 innings.  His pitching coach, Bill Monbouquette, noticed the stark difference between Orosco's starts and relief outings, and decided that Jesse should not start again.

"He'd go four innings and his (velocity) would drop into the 70s," Monbouquette said.  "We thought Jesse should be a relief pitcher, and we could see Jesse was pitching defensively.  It wasn't exactly fear of the bat, but he was nibbling.  You're not going to get the calls from the umpire that way and you're not going to finish off the batter that way.''

Monbouquette and new manager George Bamberger eventually had a discussion with Orosco about his inconsistent first half (3.49 ERA, 1.341 WHIP), hoping to get the reliever to be more aggressive on the mound.

"We dug into him," Monbouqette said.  "It wasn't exactly an ultimatum, but we told him he could be a good relief pitcher if he learned to attack the hitters.''

After the talk with his pitching coach and manager, Orosco became one of the few bright spots in the bullpen, pitching to a 1.92 ERA and 1.063 WHIP after the All-Star Break.  Even more impressive was that Orosco pitched so effectively despite having to deal with the sudden passing of his father in August.  The death of the Orosco patriarch caused Jesse to focus more on honing his craft, not just as a tribute to his baseball-loving father, but because he wanted to support his family financially, which he would only be able to do if he became a mainstay in the bullpen.  Orosco responded by posting one of the greatest seasons by a Mets' reliever in franchise history.

Prior to June 15, 1983, Neil Allen had been the Mets' closer, with Orosco serving mostly as a set-up man.  But once Allen was traded to St. Louis for first baseman Keith Hernandez, Orosco received the bulk of the save opportunities.  Orosco finished the year with a 13-7 record and 17 saves in a career-high 110 innings.  He also posted an incredible 1.47 ERA, which to this day remains the lowest single-season mark for any Mets pitcher who threw at least 100 innings.

Not Doc.  Not Tom.  Not Kooz.  It's Orosco who has the lowest ERA of the 100-plus inning pitchers.

Orosco's efforts did not go unnoticed, as the reliever became an All-Star for the first time in 1983.  He also finished third in the race for the Cy Young Award - Orosco even received a first place vote - and was 17th on the MVP ballot, four spots ahead of Hernandez.  In doing so, Orosco became the first Mets pitcher not named Seaver or Koosman to finish in the top three of the Cy Young vote and the fourth (after Seaver, Koosman and Tug McGraw) to receive any MVP consideration.

''It's nice to have a good year,'' Orosco said.  ''Now, if I can go out and have two more years like this, I'll prove that I'm for real.''

It was clear that Orosco had arrived as a top-notch reliever in 1983.  It was also clear that he was on his way to proving he was "for real".  But the Mets had still not followed suit, as the team suffered through its seventh consecutive losing season in '83.  That was about to change, and Orosco played a key role in the club's long-awaited return to playoff contention.

The Mets lost five games in 1983 when they led going into the ninth inning and blew leads in 37 games overall.  A big reason for that was Neil Allen, who was charged with seven losses and two blown saves in 21 appearances before his trade paved the way for Orosco to take over his role in the bullpen.  In 1984, the Allen-less Mets lost just once when they held a ninth-inning lead and suffered 29 defeats in games where they once had a lead.  With Orosco and fellow reliever Doug Sisk combining for a 2.35 ERA in 110 appearances, the bullpen became one of the team's strong points.  In addition to Orosco's team-leading 1.057 WHIP (which was lower than N.L. Rookie of the Year Dwight Gooden's 1.073 mark), the closer became the first reliever in team history to reach the 30-save mark, notching 31 on the season.  He was also named to the All-Star team for a second consecutive year, becoming the first Mets reliever to be selected to multiple All-Star squads.

For only the second time in team history, the Mets won 90 games in 1984.  They looked to improve upon that in 1985 and did, winning 98 contests, although they fell short in their quest to qualify for the postseason.  Once again, Orosco was called upon to hold late-inning leads for the team's blossoming starting rotation, but this time he had a partner.  The success of right-handed rookie Roger McDowell allowed manager Davey Johnson to use either reliever in save situations depending on the pitcher-batter matchups.  As a result, both Orosco and McDowell finished the season with 17 saves.  The closing partnership continued into the 1986 campaign, a year in which the club finally had the season its long-suffering fans had been waiting for.

In 1986, the Mets won a franchise record 108 games, with Orosco and McDowell becoming the first - and only - pair of Mets teammates to each record 20+ saves in a single season.  That wasn't the only oddity the two relievers shared during the team's magical season.  They also relieved each other multiple times during a brawl-filled game in Cincinnati in July.

The game at Riverfront Stadium on July 22 appeared to be over without incident when Keith Hernandez lofted a fly ball to right field with two outs in the ninth inning.  But right fielder Dave Parker - the proud owner of three Gold Gloves for defensive excellence - dropped what would have been the final out of the game, allowing the tying runs to score.  In the tenth inning, Eric Davis, pinch-running for Reds' player-manager Pete Rose, slid hard into third base and received a fist to the face courtesy of Ray Knight.  Benches emptied, fights broke out all over the field and there were ejections aplenty.  In fact, there were so many players tossed that the Mets were left without a third baseman and an outfielder in the extra-inning affair.  (Right fielder Darryl Strawberry had been ejected earlier in the game for arguing balls and strikes.)  So Davey Johnson was forced to improvise.  He moved Gary Carter from behind the plate to the hot corner.  And he played musical chairs in the outfield by rotating Orosco and McDowell between the mound and right field.

For five innings, when one pitcher was on the mound, the other was in the outfield spot least likely to have a fly ball hit to it.  McDowell pitched three scoreless innings between his multiple trips to the mound and fortunately did not have any fly balls hit in his direction when Orosco was pitching.  Orosco, who contributed two zeroes of his own, wasn't as fortunate, as future Hall of Famer Tony Perez lifted a fly ball in his direction in the 13th inning.  But unlike Parker four innings earlier, Orosco got to the ball, used two hands and made sure he held on to it for the out.

"I squeezed it so hard," Orosco said after the game, "the stuffing could have come out."

Jesse Orosco, Ball Squeezer.  (Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

An inning after Orosco's defensive "gem", Howard Johnson made sure his pitchers would not have to play in the outfield much longer.  Johnson's three-run homer off reliever Ted Power gave the Mets the lead and a couple of insurance runs.  Orosco didn't even have to move in right field as McDowell proceeded to retire the Reds in order in the bottom of the 14th on three routine ground balls.

"It was fun," Orosco said of his outfield debut.  "I was laughing out there.  But I'd better stay on the pitcher's mound.  I'm less nervous out there."

Fun was what the Mets had during their regular season ride to a division title.  Nervous was what the fans were during the team's tightly-contested postseason games.

In the NLCS, the Mets and Astros played four one-run games, with the Mets emerging victorious in three of the four affairs.  All three victories were credited to Jesse Orosco, who became the first pitcher in club history to win three postseason games in the same series.

Orosco earned the win in Game Three after Lenny Dykstra blasted a walk-off two-run homer against Dave Smith in the bottom of the ninth.  Orosco helped keep the game close, pitching two shutout innings.  Three days later, Orosco hurled two more scoreless frames in relief of Dwight Gooden, who had tossed ten innings of one-run ball.  Orosco would get credit for the win in Game Five once Carter singled home Wally Backman in the bottom of the 12th inning.  And then came Game Six in the Astrodome.

After playing a dozen innings in New York the previous day, the Mets appeared lifeless in Houston for the first eight frames in Game Six.  But a spirited rally against starter Bob Knepper and the now hittable Smith tied the game and sent it to extra innings.  Again.  The score remained tied until the 14th, when a single by Backman drove in Darryl Strawberry from second base.  Orosco was then called upon to finish the Astros and deliver the pennant to New York.  But Billy Hatcher had other things in mind.

Hatcher, who had hit just eight home runs in parts of three major league seasons, delivered a blast that hit and rolled down the netting attached to left field foul pole.  With the game tied once again, Orosco settled down and retired the next two batters to send the game to the 15th.  After the Mets failed to score in their half of the inning, Orosco had a stress-free bottom of the 15th, striking out Kevin Bass and Jose Cruz before getting Alan Ashby to ground out to end the inning.

In the 16th, the Mets finally broke through against the Astros' bullpen in a big way.  New York used two singles, a double, a walk, a well-placed sacrifice bunt (by Orosco) and two wild pitches to push three runners across the plate.  It appeared as if the Mets had punched their ticket to the World Series.  But as the saying goes, everything's bigger in Texas.  So are rallies by the home team.

Houston refused to begin their off-season quietly, as Hatcher once again drove in a run against Orosco in the bottom of the 16th.  Two batters later, Glenn Davis cut the Mets' lead to a single tally with a base hit of his own.  Up strolled Bass, with the tying and winning runs on base.  Orosco ran the count full, then paused as first baseman Keith Hernandez came over to him to offer some words of encouragement.

"Jesse, you throw another fastball, we're going to fight."

And with that, Orosco threw a slider to Bass, who went fishing for the pitch and missed.  The only fighting Orosco did that evening was in an effort to free himself from the avalanche of teammates who had descended upon him to celebrate their National League pennant.

This would've been a great shot of Jesse Orosco if not for his photobombing teammates.  (Ray Stubblebine/AP Photos)

As good as Orosco was against the Astros in the NLCS (0.875 WHIP, 10 Ks in 8 IP), he was even better against the Boston Red Sox in the World Series.  Orosco pitched in four of the seven games, earning two saves.  He struck out six batters, walked none and allowed just two base runners in 5⅔ innings.  In Game Three, Johnson brought in Orosco to record the final four outs of the game.  He ended the eighth by retiring future Hall of Famer Wade Boggs on a groundout and the ninth by striking out another future Cooperstown enshrinee, Jim Rice.  Game Six saw Orosco face just one batter, but it was one he was quite familiar with, as it was Bill Buckner, the first batter he ever faced in the major leagues.  And just as he retired Buckner seven years earlier in his debut, Orosco coaxed the first baseman to fly out to end a scoring threat in the eighth.  Two innings later, the Mets turned a scoring threat of their own into the most memorable rally in team history.

After the events of Game Six, the Mets needed to win just one game to cap their greatest season since they won it all in 1969.  Once again, the team came from behind, turning a 3-0 sixth-inning deficit into a 6-3 seventh-inning lead.  But McDowell struggled to hold the lead in the top of the eighth, allowing two runs and exiting with the tying run on second base.  In came Orosco, hoping to save the Mets' season.  He proceeded to retire Rich Gedman on a liner, Dave Henderson on a strikeout and Don Baylor on a groundout, preserving the slim lead.

Four months earlier, Orosco found himself in an odd position - right field - and it worked out well for him and the team.  On this chilly night in late October, Orosco found himself in another unusual place; the batter's box.  After Strawberry had given the Mets a two-run cushion with a majestic home run, the Mets put two more runners on base which brought up Orosco's spot in the batting order.  Not wanting to take out his most dependable reliever, Johnson allowed Orosco to hit for himself and he discovered that Orosco was not only good at putting out fires, but he was equally adept at providing insurance.

"It was a 35-hopper up the middle," Orosco said of his Game Seven at-bat.  "Only my teammates remember it, but I like to remind people."

Indeed, Orosco shocked the Red Sox by grounding a ball past pitcher Al Nipper and into center field, scoring Knight from second base to give the Mets their second three-run cushion of the game.  Given some breathing room, Orosco proceeded to retire Ed Romero, Wade Boggs and Marty Barrett in order in the ninth inning to give the Mets the ultimate thrill of victory.  Gloves were flying, fans were crying and a 17-year championship drought was dying.  The Mets had won the World Series.

In 1969, Shea Stadium celebrated its first title with Jerry Koosman on the mound.  Seventeen years later, the man who came to the Mets in return for Koosman rejoiced on the hill as the team won its second championship.  It was perfect symmetry for a team that had come full circle from the time Orosco first pitched for the Mets in 1979.  But Orosco's time at the top was short-lived, as everything came crashing down for him and the team in 1987.

The Mets failed to repeat as world champions in 1987, as the entire starting rotation missed significant time due to injuries or rehabilitation.  The bullpen faltered as well, as McDowell posted a 4.16 ERA in 56 appearances and Orosco's ERA ballooned to 4.44 in 58 outings; nearly two runs higher than the 2.48 ERA he posted from 1979 to 1986.  Orosco's lifetime WHIP was just 1.178 entering the '87 campaign.  Orosco couldn't keep opposing hitters off base in 1987, posting a 1.416 WHIP and allowing more hits than innings pitched for the first time in his career.

Orosco lost nine games in 1987 while saving just 16.  His final loss came on September 30, when he allowed a walk-off homer to the Phillies' Luis Aguayo that all but ended the Mets' faint hopes of repeating as division champions.  (The Cardinals officially clinched the N.L. East title the following day.)  It was the second game-ending home run allowed by the southpaw on the season; he served up Tom Herr's walk-off grand slam in April.  It was also the final straw for Orosco in a Mets uniform.

Orosco wore the script uniform in 1987, just as the writing was on the wall for his departure.  (Dunn/Getty Images)

Two months after the conclusion of the 1987 campaign, the Mets sent Orosco to the Los Angeles Dodgers as part of a three-team, eight-player trade.  The deal was a relief to Orosco, who had been the team's co-closer for three seasons and was set to lose more playing time due to the emergence of fellow lefty Randy Myers.

"I have no regrets," Orosco said after the transaction was finalized.  "Since 1985, I knew it was a lost opportunity for me.  Once Roger came up, I could see I was doomed.  He seemed to get more opportunities than I did.  Now, it's just time to move on."

With Orosco going west, three young pitchers were making their way east.  To complete the trade, the Mets received pitcher Jack Savage from the Dodgers and pitchers Kevin Tapani and Wally Whitehurst from the Oakland A's.  Of the three, only Whitehurst produced any results in a Mets uniform, although his "results" amounted to 11 wins in 33 decisions as a starter and reliever in four seasons with the Mets.  Savage and Tapani were traded to Minnesota in 1989 for Frank Viola, but by the early '90s, both Viola and Whitehurst had pitched their final games in New York.  Meanwhile, Jesse Orosco was only halfway through his career.  And he had another World Series ring to go with it.

In 1988, the Dodgers used several players to close out ballgames.  Right-handers Jay Howell (21 saves) and Alejandro Peña (12 saves) split time as the ninth-inning relievers, while Orosco, as the sole left-hander of the group, saved nine games.  Manager Tom Lasorda also began using Orosco in shorter outings, as Orosco made 55 appearances but pitched just 53 innings.  Lasorda's stellar bullpen (Howell, Peña, Orosco and Brian Holton combined for a 2.03 ERA) was just as key to the Dodgers' success as N.L. MVP Kirk Gibson and Cy Young winner Orel Hershiser were.  The Mets found out just how good their bullpen was when they faced Los Angeles in the NLCS.

With all eyes on Hershiser, it was pitchers like Peña (one win, one save, one hit allowed in 4⅓ IP), Holton (one save, three base runners allowed in 4 IP) and Kiner's Korner devotee Ricky Horton (no runs allowed in 4⅓ IP) who kept the Mets at bay in the late innings.  But one of the biggest moments of the series came when Jesse Orosco took the mound at Shea Stadium to face his former team in Game Four.

The fourth game of the 1988 NLCS is the one that shifted the momentum of the series in the Dodgers' direction.  First, it was Mike Scioscia who delivered the game-tying homer off Dwight Gooden that sent the game into extra innings.  Then, it was Kirk Gibson who put the Dodgers ahead with a 12th inning blast of his own.  In the bottom of the 12th, the Mets put two runners on base before Lasorda summoned Orosco from the bullpen to face Hernandez and Strawberry.  A walk to Hernandez loaded the bases with one out, but Orosco induced a weak pop-up from Strawberry when a longer fly ball would have tied the game.  His job done, Orosco was removed for Hershiser, who retired Kevin McReynolds to end the game.  The Dodgers won the pennant three games later and went on to defeat the other team involved in the three-way trade that netted them Orosco, taking the Fall Classic from the Oakland A's in five games.

Jesse gave us thrills in the Mets jersey in '86 and agony in the Dodgers uniform in '88.  (Sandy Huffaker/NY Times)

Orosco had now won two championships in three seasons with two teams.  Although he never played in another World Series, he did become accustomed to changing teams.  Following his title with the Dodgers, Orosco played three seasons in Cleveland followed by three years in Milwaukee.  He then played four full seasons in Baltimore from 1995 to 1998, leading the American League with 65 appearances in 1995; the only time in his lengthy career that Orosco led the league in any pitching category.  Orosco's time with the Orioles also reunited him with manager Davey Johnson, who led Baltimore to back-to-back postseason berths in 1996 and 1997.  Orosco pitched 12 times for the Orioles in the playoffs, matching the number of postseason appearances he made for the Mets and Dodgers combined.

From 1999 to 2003, Orosco bounced around from team to team, pitching for the Orioles, Cardinals, Dodgers (again), Padres, Yankees and Twins.  He also made his way back to the Mets, as he was traded to New York in December 1999 for reliever Chuck McElroy.  But after some photo-ops in a Mets uniform and some appearances in Grapefruit League games, Orosco became the casualty of a crowded bullpen and was traded to St. Louis for utility man Joe McEwing before the 2000 season began, not getting the opportunity to make a victorious return to the Shea Stadium mound as a member of the Mets.

"We had too many lefties and somebody had to go," Orosco said.  "I'm glad it wasn't a pink slip."

After becoming a peripatetic pitcher for the last five seasons of his career, which included a cup of coffee with the team that originally traded him to the Mets, Orosco tried to hook up with one more team in 2004, signing with the Arizona Diamondbacks.  By then, the 46-year-old Orosco had already pitched 24 seasons in the big leagues and had appeared in a record 1,252 games.  But he never got a chance to make his 1,253rd appearance, as he announced his retirement from the game he loved prior to the start of Spring Training.

"To take it a quarter-century - I never imagined that," Orosco said.  "It's a sad day that I have to call it quits.  But it's a great day, too, for the fact I fulfilled my dream."

Jesse Orosco grew up as one of seven children in his household.  The son of a baseball-obsessed father, Orosco lived out his dream - as well as his dad's - by making it to the major leagues.  He was a part of two championship teams and made the playoffs with a third club.  And by the time he hung up his uniform for the last time, he had worn it on the field more often than any other pitcher in the history of the game.

As a member of the Mets, Orosco was a two-time All-Star and one of the better relievers in club annals.  His 2.73 ERA in eight years with the team is lower than every other pitcher to wear a Mets uniform other than Tom Seaver.  Orosco also ranks in the team's top five in games pitched (372) and saves (107).  In the playoffs, Orosco was even better, striking out 16 batters while walking only two in 13⅔ innings.  He posted a 1.98 ERA, 0.659 WHIP and earned three wins and two saves.  And of course, Orosco tossed two gloves up in the air; one to celebrate a pennant and one to fete a World Series title.

"We didn't have anything going on in the early '80s, took our licks the first few years," Orosco said upon his retirement.  "That was great, that was very memorable, to go from the worst to the best."
The Mets were regularly brought to their knees in surrender by their opponents when Orosco first played for the team in 1979.  Seven years later, Orosco falling to his knees became the symbol of a championship season.  To long-time Mets fans, there's no greater thrill of victory than that moment.

Victory!  (Focus On Sport/Getty Images)

Note: The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of the Mets is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets players and personnel who experienced the best of times and the worst of times with the team.  For previous installments, please click on the names below:

January 2, 2017: Tom Seaver
January 9, 2017: Mike Piazza
January 16, 2017: Wally Backman
January 23, 2017: Daniel Murphy
January 30, 2017: Frank Cashen
February 6, 2017: Ed Kranepool
February 13, 2017: Doug Sisk
February 20, 2017: Joan Whitney Payson 
February 27, 2017: John Franco and Armando Benitez 
March 6, 2017: Dwight Gooden
March 13, 2017: Bobby Valentine


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