When Roger Clemens had last won a game, America didn't know Quayle from quail and the Boston Red Sox were in third place in the American League East, 1½ games behind the Detroit Tigers and half a game behind the New York Yankees. That victory came on July 30, with Clemens pitching a complete game and beating the Milwaukee Brewers 3-2 in 100° heat. At the time no one in Dorchester or Otisfield much cared that in the July 30 game and one played six days earlier in equally scorching weather, Clemens had thrown 310 pitches.
The six weeks that followed were less a pennant race than an extended break in the action, during which it appeared that none of the contending teams in the division wanted to win. Amazingly, though Boston was merely .500 over that span, the Red Sox moved into first, 3½ games in front of the Yankees and the fading Tigers—and they did that without even one win from Clemens, who started six games during those six weeks and lost five.
Then, last Saturday, Clemens came back from near heat exhaustion, a back strain, shoulder tendinitis and self-doubt to take a no-hitter into the eighth inning before settling for a 6-0, one-hit victory over the Cleveland Indians. His shutout stretched Boston's lead to 3½ games over Detroit, which was in the process of suffering a four-game sweep by suddenly resurgent New York. The Yankees finished the job in dramatic fashion on Sunday with a two-run homer by Claudell Washington that capped a 5-4 victory in the bottom of the 18th inning. And though the Red Sox fell 4-2 to the Indians on Sunday, they were infused with new confidence brought on by the resurrection of their ace. "Everyone will look at us now and think, They've got the lead, and now they have Clemens back," said Boston second baseman Marty Barrett after Saturday's win.
Indeed, Tiger manager Sparky Anderson had that very thought. "The race is now the Red Sox' to win or lose," he said. "With the lead they have, with their hitters and, most of all, with those pitchers—Clemens, [Bruce] Hurst, [Mike] Boddicker and [Lee] Smith, all healthy—if they don't win, they'll have only themselves to blame. They have the best team."
But they also now have four clubs to beat. In late July it appeared that Boston, Detroit and New York were headed for a three-way photo finish, but in August, when Milwaukee was the only team in the division to win more games than it lost, the Brewers and Blue Jays crept back into the chase.
The main reason for that was the collapse of the Tigers. On Labor Day, as Anderson wrote out the lineup that would face Toronto, his Tigers looked more like pussycats: The starters that day had hit a combined .203 since the All-Star break, with seven home runs. In the four games Detroit had just lost to the Brewers, Milwaukee had more runs (24) than the Tigers had hits (18). To make matters worse, Anderson's pitching staff was breaking down: Jeff Robinson was out for the rest of the year with circulatory ills in his pitching hand; and Doyle Alexander had a tired arm, Frank Tanana a tired shoulder and Eric King a tight and tired back. By the time the holiday sun set, Detroit had lost the divisional lead for the first time in 40 days. And for the first time since 1986, Boston was alone on top.
Labor Day weekend was also when the Brewers reentered the race by sweeping those four games at Detroit before beating the Chicago White Sox 5-3 to move within four of Boston. Because their remaining 21 games were all against Western Division teams, the Brewers not only had to win, but also had to hope that the Eastern leaders would continue to falter. "It's not so much that we charged into this thing as our being in the right place at the right time," said Milwaukee's Paul Molitor. "Now we have to think about winning."
Toronto also saw a ray of hope that weekend, moving within 6½ games of the lead by handing Detroit its fifth straight loss. And even the Yankees, who had looked flatter than the Tigers in August, got fresh life. They rallied to beat the Indians 7-2 behind Rick Rhoden, who became the first New York pitcher in more than a month to win two starts in a row. Said Yankee manager Lou Piniella, "We're fortunate to be breathing, but we have a chance."
The Red Sox had arrived in Baltimore before dawn on Labor Day morning for the last stop on a 13-game road trip. "We said before we left Boston that if we came home within two games of first, we could win it," said first baseman Todd Benzinger. "When we woke up in Baltimore and realized we could go home in first place, all of a sudden, everything felt different."
Manager Joe Morgan wanted to make sure it stayed that way. When a black cat leaped onto the field and headed for the Boston dugout in the first inning that night, Morgan jumped to the top step and screamed until the cat fled. "I'm not superstitious," he said, "but I wasn't taking any chances with a damned black cat."
Then Barrett helped secure a 4-1 victory over Baltimore with some black magic of his own. With the Sox leading 2-0 in the bottom of the second, two Orioles on base and none out, Boston pitcher Mike Smithson fielded Rene Gonzales's bunt and forced Larry Sheets at third. No Oriole took note when third baseman Wade Boggs threw to first, where Barrett was covering, first baseman Benzinger having charged on the bunt play. But all the Sox on the field knew what was going on because they had all come up through the Boston farm club in Pawtucket, R.I., where Morgan managed from 1974 through '82 and where he made sure everyone was familiar with the hidden ball trick. "Whenever Marty takes the throw, I know the play is on by making eye contact," says Smithson. "Marty checks to see if the opposing coaches are watching, then walks back to his position." Smithson fiddled with the resin bag. Catcher Rich Gedman adjusted his mask. And when Baltimore's Jim Traber stepped off second, shortstop Jody Reed cut in behind him, Barrett flipped the ball to Reed, and Traber was tagged out.
Barrett, who learned to hustle growing up in Las Vegas, pulled another wily ploy the next night. He was running with one out and a 3-and-2 count on Dwight Evans, who struck out. "I knew I was out by a mile," said Barrett. Oriole second baseman Billy Ripken took catcher Terry Kennedy's throw, put his glove down in front of the bag and awaited Barrett's slide for the inning-ending out. The problem was that Barrett stopped his slide a couple of feet short of Ripken's glove and stood up. When Ripken lunged forward to tag him, Barrett stepped over the glove onto the bag. Safe. "I learned that from Don Baylor," said Barrett. Instead of having a scoreless first inning, Boston took a 2-0 lead when Barrett's stunt was followed by singles by Mike Greenwell, Ellis Burks and Benzinger. From there, the Sox cruised to a 6-1 triumph.
Although Boston lost its Wednesday night finale in Baltimore, neither Toronto nor Milwaukee gained ground, and the Red Sox headed to Fenway to open a 10-game home stand while the battered Tigers lurched into Yankee Stadium for their four-game set. "It doesn't matter what the rest of us do at this point," said Anderson. "If the Red Sox go 7-3 or 8-2 on this home stand, they can't be beaten."
For the series in New York, Anderson got back his brilliant shortstop and offensive spark plug, Alan Trammell, who returned from a groin injury that had limited him to pinch hitting in the last nine games. But if Anderson was looking for an elixir to revive his fading troops, he would soon find that the Tigers themselves were a remedy; they'd cure all that ailed the Yanks.
Despite having lost 10 of its last 13 games going into the series against Detroit, New York was still only five out. "We have the chance to redeem ourselves," said Yankee cocaptain Willie Randolph. Added third baseman Mike Pagliarulo, "No matter what's been said, there's still a lot of pride—and talent—in this clubhouse. We all know we've got seven games left with Boston."
On Thursday, New York recovered from what could have been a chilling blow—shaky bullpen stopper Dave Righetti failed to hold a 4-1 lead—when Gary Ward beat the Tigers with a two-out, 10th-inning, three-run homer off Guillermo Hernandez. Friday was even more dramatic for the Yankees—and frustrating for Detroit starter Walt Terrell. With the Tigers leading 2-1 in the sixth and Terrell cruising with a no-hitter, rightfielder Dwayne Murphy misplayed Rickey Henderson's routine fly ball into a gift triple. Henderson was then dead at the plate when he tried to score on a ground ball to short, but he jarred the ball loose from catcher Matt Nokes and the score was tied 2-2. Terrell went on to lose—although he allowed only two hits—when Washington led off the ninth with a homer. After two more come-from-behind victories, on Saturday and Sunday, Piniella said, "We have reestablished ourselves. Now we have our task. We have to beat Boston."
The Red Sox, meanwhile, were enjoying their return to Fenway, where on Friday they gave Boddicker—clearly the best pickup of the race—his fifth win since coming over from Baltimore. That 7-4 victory set up Clemens's triumphant return to form. "This one is extremely important for us," Hurst said before Saturday's game. "We've battled with him hurting, but the value of Roger being Roger is immense."
Before he broke down, Clemens was 15-5 and leading the league in earned run average, shutouts, strikeouts and complete games. "I think I simply got worn out," he says. "I felt drained. After that win on July 30, I tried to overthrow in my next start, against the Tigers, and a little pull in my back worsened." He took the loss as Boston suffered an 11-6 thrashing that night, giving up seven runs, all of them earned. "Then in over-compensating for that tear, I hurt my right shoulder. It got so bad I could barely lift my arm. I stopped throwing between starts. I slowed down my work program. And I went back to basics. I told myself, You have to stop thinking about throwing hard and concentrate on perfect mechanics, perfect leg drive, closed delivery. If you do that, you'll be all right. I couldn't worry about strikeouts, complete games and shutouts. I had to think about building back my arm and helping the Red Sox win." His losing streak eventually reached five games and, including a no-decision, he allowed 42 hits and 27 runs in 32⅖ innings over six starts.
That Clemens was at last back on track was immediately evident on Saturday. "The Indians like to hack, so I concentrated on throwing strikes and making them hit," he said. Clemens threw six pitches in a 1-2-3 first, six more in a 1-2-3 second. "He's usually used six pitches to strike out the first batter," said Morgan. By the end of the fourth inning Cleveland had committed three errors, three wild pitches and a balk, and had had no base runners. Clemens seemed to pick up steam—and confidence—as he went along. "He was throwing five miles an hour harder at the end than he was at the beginning," said Indians outfielder Mel Hall. He rolled into the eighth inning with a no-hitter that was broken up when Dave Clark hit a fastball on his fists and looped it into right centerfield. In completing the first one-hitter of his big league career, Clemens threw only 86 pitches, 57 of them for strikes, barely a dozen that weren't fastballs. "If I do things right, I should be completely healthy after two more starts," he said.
All of which had the newly inspired Yankees talking about 1978 and about their four-game Boston Massacre, about the one-game playoff and about Bucky Dent. But with Clemens back and with Hurst, Boddicker and Smith to follow, the '88 Red Sox look more like the pitching-rich '78 Yanks, and the '88 Yankees—with pathetic pitching and lots of pop—look like the '78 Red Sox.
"I think everything's finally falling back into place," said Clemens.
"At precisely the right time," added Boddicker, looking ahead to this weekend's series against the Yankees at Fenway Park.