After falling short of the NL East title in 1984 and 1985, the Mets, managed by Davey Johnson, captured first place in 1986 by posting a 108–54 record, 21 1⁄2 games ahead of the second-place rival Philadelphia Phillies. The title was the third in Mets' history and first since winning the 1973 NL pennant.
Meanwhile, Houston recorded a mark of 96–66 to capture the NL West title, clinching the crown when staff ace Mike Scott threw a no-hitter against the San Francisco Giants, marking the first time any team had nailed down a division championship with a no-hitter. It was also the first time the Astros had won a division in six seasons. Houston was managed by Hal Lanier.
The Mets won seven of their 12 regular-season contests against the Astros, taking five of six at home and losing four of six in Houston, including a three-game sweep in July during which New York's Bob Ojeda, Ron Darling, Tim Teufel, and Rick Aguilera were arrested for a scuffle with off-duty cops working as bouncers. Home field advantage, from 1969 to 1993, alternated between division winners, regardless of record. The Mets were to have home field advantage for this series, as the Dodgers (the 1985 NL West Champions) had it the previous year, however, a regular season NFL game between the Chicago Bears and Houston Oilers made the Astrodome unavailable for October 12. Consequently, Games 1, 2, 6, and 7, were scheduled for the Astrodome to avoid conflicts.
New York won the series, 4–2.
Wednesday, October 8, 1986, at Astrodome in Houston, Texas
Game 1 featured a pitching duel between eventual NLCS Most Valuable Player Mike Scott and Dwight Gooden. Scott allowed just five hits and walked one while striking out 14 in a complete-game effort as the host Astros prevailed 1–0. Gooden allowed one run in his seven innings, getting Scott to ground into a double play to end an Astros threat in the bottom of the fourth inning.
Houston first baseman Glenn Davis hit a long home run leading off the second inning, producing the game's lone run. Scott struck out Wally Backman and Keith Hernandez to escape a jam in the top of the eighth. With one out in the top of the ninth, Darryl Strawberry singled, stole second and reached third on a Mookie Wilson groundout. However, Scott struck out Ray Knight to end it.
Thursday, October 9, 1986, at Astrodome in Houston, Texas
Game 2 saw the Mets knot the series at one game apiece as New York scored two runs in the fourth inning and then got three more in the fifth against Astros' starter Nolan Ryan en route to a 5–1 victory.
Lefty Bob Ojeda went the distance on a ten-hitter for the Mets, who were aided by an RBI double by Gary Carter and a sacrifice fly by Darryl Strawberry in the fourth inning. Wally Backman and Keith Hernandez combined for three RBIs in the fifth inning. The only Astros run came on a Phil Garner single in the seventh inning.
Saturday, October 11, 1986, at Shea Stadium in Queens, New York
Game 3 was a back-and-forth contest won by the Mets when Lenny Dykstra hit a two-run, walk-off homer against Astros' reliever Dave Smith in the bottom of the ninth inning, giving New York a 6–5 victory and 2–1 series lead on a Saturday afternoon at Shea Stadium.
Houston broke through with four runs in the first two innings against Mets' starter Ron Darling, highlighted by Bill Doran's two-run home run in the second.
Darling then threw three scoreless frames and the Mets came back by scoring four runs in the bottom of the sixth as Darryl Strawberry's three-run homer off Houston starter Bob Knepper tied the game 4–4.
However, the Astros struck back against reliever Rick Aguilera in the top of the seventh as a throwing error by Ray Knight led to an unearned run that came home when Denny Walling's fielder's choice plated Doran for a 5–4 lead. It was the only error committed by the Mets in the series.
With the Astros still leading in the bottom of the ninth, closer Smith allowed a lead-off bunt single to Wally Backman, who appeared to have run out of the first-base line to avoid the tag of first baseman Glenn Davis, but was called safe by umpire Dutch Rennert despite an argument from Houston manager Hal Lanier. Backman advanced to second on a passed ball, and Danny Heep then flew out to centerfield for the inning's first out. The next batter was Dykstra, who won it for New York by lacing a Smith pitch over the right-field fence for a two-run homer.
Jesse Orosco won the game in relief for New York by working two scoreless innings.
Sunday, October 12, 1986, at Shea Stadium in Queens, New York
Astros' ace Mike Scott, pitching on three days rest, was dominant once again in Game 4. The right-hander went the distance on a three-hitter to earn his second victory of the series in Houston's 3–1 triumph.
Mets' starter Sid Fernandez allowed just three runs in six innings, but surrendered a two-run home run to Alan Ashby and a solo shot to Dickie Thon to account for all the offense the Astros needed.
Gary Carter came to bat as the tying run in the bottom of the ninth, but flew out to center as the Astros tied the series 2-2.
Tuesday, October 14, 1986, at Shea Stadium in Queens, New York
After rain postponed Game 5 to a noon start on October 14, the Mets took a 3–2 series lead as Gary Carter's single off Charlie Kerfeld in the bottom of the 12th scored Wally Backman with the winning run for a 2–1 victory.
Game 5 was a pitching duel between Dwight Gooden and Nolan Ryan as Gooden allowed just one run in 10 innings with Ryan also surrendering a single run on two hits while striking out 12 in nine innings.
With no score in the top of the second, Gooden surrendered consecutive singles to Kevin Bass and José Cruz, putting runners on the corners with nobody out. He then caught Alan Ashby looking on a full count, and induced Craig Reynolds to ground into a double play to escape the jam. However, Craig Reynolds appeared to clearly beat out a double-play ball, thanks to a slow pivot by shortstop Rafael Santana. First base umpire Fred Brocklander called Reynolds out, negating a run from Kevin Bass. Brocklander ruled that Reynolds' foot was above the bag and not on it when Santana's relay arrived to Keith Hernandez.
Surrounded by reporters after the game the umpire Brocklander said "I saw the replay, I go with my call. It was a bang-bang play, as close to a tie as you'll get."
Reynolds criticized Brocklander's response, saying, "If he said he saw the replay, then all I can say is that he missed it twice."
Said Astros manager Hal Lanier: "If it goes our way, we would have won in nine."
Hernandez would reveal in 2011 that he had stepped off the bag as the first baseman in that play. Hernandez would say, "[Reynolds] clearly beat it, but I cheated and we got the call." Had Reynolds correctly been called safe, Bass would have scored from third and the Astros would have taken an early 1–0 lead.
The Astros eventually did take 1–0 lead in the fifth when Alan Ashby doubled, took third on a single by Craig Reynolds, and then scored on Bill Doran's ground-out. However, the Mets came right back and tied it in the bottom half when Darryl Strawberry took Ryan deep for the Mets' first hit of the game and his second homer of the series.
The Astros reached second base in the eighth and tenth innings. However, in the eighth Gooden got Denny Walling to fly out to Mookie Wilson in left field, where Wilson doubled off Bill Doran from second base to end the inning. In the 10th inning, Gooden gave up a single to pinch hitter Terry Puhl, who then stole second base, and walked Bill Doran. He got Billy Hatcher to fly out to right field to end the inning with no damage done.
The game stayed tied until the 12th when with one out Wally Backman got an infield single off Kerfeld. Backman then took second on Kerfeld's errant throw on a pick-off attempt. Houston manager Hal Lanier opted to intentionally walk Keith Hernandez and pitch to Gary Carter, who had been just 1-for-21 in the series, but the catcher came through, lashing a single to center to give the Mets the win and a one-game lead as the series shifted back to Houston.
Jesse Orosco again earned the win for New York by hurling two perfect innings.
Wednesday, October 15, 1986, at Astrodome in Houston, Texas
In one of the most famous games in baseball history, the Mets defeated Houston at the Astrodome 7–6 in 16 innings as Jesse Orosco struck out Kevin Bass on a curveball for the final out with runners at first and second and New York advanced to its third World Series in franchise history.
Houston took a 3–0 lead in the first inning against Bob Ojeda with an RBI double by Phil Garner, plus RBI singles from Glenn Davis and Jose Cruz, giving Astros' starter Bob Knepper an early advantage. They were unable to add more runs as Kevin Bass was thrown out at third base following Alan Ashby's botched attempt to lay down a suicide-squeeze bunt and then Ashby lined out to shortstop to end the inning.
That lead held up for most of the game as Knepper was dominant, allowing no runs through the first eight innings. Meanwhile, Ojeda allowed nothing more through his next four frames, after which Rick Aguilera tossed three scoreless innings.
This set the stage for a Mets' comeback in the top of the ninth that started when Lenny Dykstra tripled against Knepper to lead off. Mookie Wilson singled in Dykstra to cut it to 3–1 and then with one out Keith Hernandez doubled to score Wilson and end Knepper's night as the southpaw was replaced by Dave Smith, who walked Carter and Darryl Strawberry to load the bases. Ray Knight then hit a sacrifice fly to right to score Hernandez and tie the game before Danny Heep struck out swinging with the bases loaded to end the inning.
Roger McDowell then came in to pitch for New York and allowed just one hit through five scoreless innings. Meanwhile, Houston pitchers Dave Smith and Larry Andersen held the Mets hitless until the top of the 14th when Carter singled, Strawberry walked, and with one out Wally Backman singled off Aurelio López to plate Strawberry with the go-ahead run as Bass' throw home sailed high. The Mets still had the bases loaded before Wilson struck out to end the threat.
The Mets were now three outs away from going to the World Series, but with one out in the bottom of the 14th, Billy Hatcher homered off the left-field foul pole against Orosco to tie the game 4–4.
However, in the top of the 16th, Strawberry doubled to lead off against López, followed by Knight's single that scored Strawberry to put the Mets ahead again. Jeff Calhoun then replaced López and threw two wild pitches, the second scoring Knight to put New York up by two. Dykstra then singled in Backman, who had walked, for a 7–4 Mets' advantage.
The Mets needed each of those three runs as Houston rallied once again when with one out, Davey Lopes drew a pinch-hit walk, followed by Doran's single. Hatcher then singled in Lopes to make it 7–5, after which Denny Walling hit into a fielder's choice for the second out. Davis followed with a single to centerfield that landed in front of a charging Dykstra, that brought home Doran to cut it to 7–6. Now with the tying run in scoring position and the winning run at first base, would-be Game 7 starter Mike Scott looming in the dugout, and Orosco on a full count, Orosco fanned Bass to end the series and send the Mets to a World Series duel with the Boston Red Sox.
Orosco pitched three innings for his third win of the series, marking the first time a reliever had ever won three games in a postseason series. The time of the game was 4 hours and 42 minutes and the 16 innings was the most that had ever been played in a postseason contest at that time. Interestingly, the Mets and Astros had played a 15-inning contest that lasted 5 hours and 29 minutes during the regular season, which Houston won 9–8.
In 2011, MLB Network ranked this as the fifth greatest game of the preceding fifty years.
This was the last game in which the Astros wore their "rainbow guts" uniform top, which the franchise introduced in 1975 and became one of the most iconic, if infamous, uniforms in MLB history.
1986 NLCS (4–2): New York Mets over Houston Astros
Astros' pitcher Mike Scott was named the series' Most Valuable Player by going 2–0 with a 0.50 earned-run average, allowing just one earned run on eight hits and one walk in 18 innings. If there was a seventh game, Scott would have been the Astros starting pitcher. Also for Houston, Nolan Ryan went 0–1 with a 3.86 ERA, striking out 17 through 14 innings, and Bob Knepper posted an ERA of 3.52 with no decisions in his two starts. The Astros' bullpen allowed seven runs and took three of the losses in the series as Dave Smith (9.00 ERA), Charlie Kerfeld (8.10), and Aurelio López (2.25) dropped decisions.
For the Mets' pitching staff, lefty reliever Jesse Orosco went 3–0 with an ERA of 3.38 in the series, allowing three earned runs on five hits and two walks in eight innings. Ojeda notched New York's other victory and was 1–0 with a 2.57 ERA in his 14 innings of work. Dwight Gooden went 0–1 with an ERA of 1.06 in 17 innings and Ron Darling had no decisions with a 7.20 ERA with Sid Fernandez going 0–1 with a 4.50 ERA as they each made one start. Right-hander Roger McDowell allowed no earned runs and one hit in seven innings of relief work.
The Astros' offense saw Billy Hatcher bat .280 with three walks, a home run, and two RBI and three stolen bases for the series. Glenn Davis hit .269 with a home run and three RBI, Kevin Bass batted .292 with two doubles and four walks, and Bill Doran had a homer with three RBI. Houston hit .218 with five home runs in the six games.
For New York, Lenny Dykstra batted .304 with a double, triple, home run, and three RBI. Keith Hernandez hit .269 with three RBI and Strawberry homered twice with five RBI to go with 12 strikeouts. The Mets batted .189 with three homers for the series.