On a night when the National League's two best teams looked like they were trying to make a training film to send the Russians, Dwight Gooden stood above the pennant-race mayhem like a man among children.
Credit no one but him with the New York Mets' 5-2 victory here tonight. Thank no one but Dr. K for the national buzz that will accompany news that the St. Louis Cardinals' division lead, which was a robust 4 1/2 games last Friday, is now one game with four to play.
As veterans collided and collapsed, ran the wrong directions and threw like their grandmothers, as plays that were routine in June became impossible in October, Gooden watched it all with the bemusement of a wise, blessed child.
Never touched by failure, he seemed immune to memory. As he stood on the mound, one out from his greatest victory, the 20-year-old saw Cardinals on every base. In this moment of extremity, with his team's season and New York City's emotional well-being in his hand, he looked as though the possibility of Tommy Herr doubling to the wall to tie the game, or hitting a grand slam to demolish a year's work, never occured to him. That's because it didn't. Had he ever, from the playpen onward, lost a lead in the final inning of a game? "None come to mind," he said, gold-rimmed teeth flashing.
He never came closer to encountering baseball mortality than he did in the ninth this chilly night. With two outs and not a soul on base, he had a 5-1 lead so secure that 30,000 fans already had formed a quorum in the parking lots.
Cardinals fans had given up, but not the Cardinals. Ozzie Smith walked. Curt Ford walked on 10 pitches. Vince Coleman chopped a single off Gooden's glove to score a run.
And, then, Willie McGee beat out a chopper as Wally Backman and Rafael Santana collided like slapstick goons. Either could have fielded the ball and flipped to the other to end the game.
The Mets bullpen was hot but nobody, certainly not Gooden, thought that the Mets' fate would rest on any other arm. Though he had given up nine hits, including a couple of rockets to the wall, though he had walked four and endured 14 runners, though he had pitched from a stretch to 18 men, he was the child of the hour.
Hadn't he struck out 10? Wasn't his curve ball sharp? Hadn't he snuffed two rallies with Cardinals at third and just one out?
"Get beat with your best," he thought.
So, Herr, the guttiest, clutchest Cardinal with 108 RBI, got fast balls. In a blink, in the time it takes a line drive to streak into a second baseman's glove, the night was over. The scoreboard clock said 10:44 p.m. -- the same minute when Darryl Strawberry's homer hit above that clock and decided Tuesday's 11-inning 1-0 classic.
"Three-quarters of an inch," said Herr later. "If I get the bat head out that much further, it's a gapper to clear the bases and tie the game."
Some day, when Gooden, who is 24-4 this year with an ERA of 1.53, shows signs of mortality, he may have enough doubt tucked somewhere in him to throw his fast ball three-quarters of an inch less swiftly. He almost got that first nightmare this night. "When I saw the ball leave Herr's bat, I panicked for a second," he said. "I thought it was over (Backman's) head."
For now, Gooden's poise is perfect. Twice, he sacrificed. Both men scored. Once, he shocked shortstop Ozzie Smith by beating out what should have been a routine inning-ending double-play grounder as a run scored. "You never run your fastest till you have to," said Gooden.
Once, he threw out McGee with a submarine flip as he tumbled into foul territory.
Aside from Gooden, this was a night of comedy. Yes, Gary Carter got his ninth game-winning hit since Sept. 1 with a first-inning single. Okay, George Foster hit his 20th homer in the seventh. And Mookie Wilson singled home a run in the seventh to knock out 21-game winner Joaquin Andujar.
Mostly, however, what was on display was: an umpire being hit on the back by a good throw to second on a steal attempt (the man later scored); wild throws by both third basemen; a slapstick error by Andujar that led to a run; and base running mistakes and pickoffs by both teams.
No sooner would Darrell Porter triple home the first earned run off Gooden in 50 innings in the second than the Cardinals would strand him. Let McGee have three free bases on a one-hopper to third and what would he do? Get thrown out at home by 10 yards on a grounder.
Now, all of that is dross. The Mets think they're poised for the kill. Asked if he thinks the Mets have the Cardinals where they want them, Gooden said: "Right now, I think so."
Thursday's matchup here -- Denny Cox (17-9) against the Mets' Rick Aguilera (10-6) -- is now desperately important. If the Cardinals lose, they might be convinced that they don't deserve to be champions. If the Mets lose, they would trail by two games with three to play and almost nobody draws to that kind of inside straight.
"I think our chances are as good as not," said Gooden, next scheduled for Sunday's season-finale. "My arm feels great. "I could pitch to one hitter tommorrow."
That would not be fair.