Try these Red Sox on for size: the pitching-rich Red Sox. The scrappy Red Sox. The 25-guys-in-one-cab Red Sox.
Incredible as those appellations might have sounded a few years ago, or even back in April, Boston proved them absolutely, positively accurate in a four-game series last weekend in Toronto. The Red Sox took three of four, winning the last three games by World Cup scores of 2-0, 1-0 and 1-0, to put four games between themselves and the second-place Blue Jays. O.K., you knew Roger Clemens would have one of those blankings. But Dana Kiecker, with an assist from Jeff Gray? Greg Harris, with another Gray save? All of a sudden, Boston is deploying pocket Rockets.
Let's back up for a moment to last Thursday, when, in Toronto, the roof of the SkyDome was opened to reveal, ta-da, a pennant race. Only two games separated the American League East-leading Red Sox from the second-place Blue Jays, but even beyond that, this was a very intriguing matchup. It was old franchise versus new, the Wall versus the Roof, we versus me, character versus talent, over-achievers versus underachievers. It was a confrontation aptly characterized by Boston's Dwight Evans, who has seen a few of these races. "We know we're not the rabbit," said Dewey. "We're the tortoise."
Score a big one for the tortoise, and for baseball in general. Even Blue Jay fans had to appreciate these hair-raising (as opposed to hare-raising) games, each of which left the sellout crowds on the edges of their nice new seats. There is more than a month remaining in the season, but in the word of Red Sox manager and Walpole, Mass., native Joe Morgan, this one was a "monstuh."
The Red Sox aren't exactly monstuhs anymore, but they're a lot better than they should be. or better than people thought they would be. Consider that the Sox are next to last in the league in home runs and last in stolen bases, that four of their pitchers have been previously released, that two of their starting pitchers languished in the minors for years, and that their bullpen has become a Gray area. "I've been on lots of Red Sox teams with more talent than this one," says Evans, who first came up to Boston in 1972, "but never one with more character."
Strange words for a franchise that once inspired the "25 guys, 25 cabs" tag. The way the players talk now, though, you would expect to see them all pile out of the same taxi like circus clowns. And they've done their share of clowning this season. In Milwaukee recently, leftfielder Mike Greenwell tried to exorcise a team batting slump by performing an elaborate ritual involving many candles, 30 bats, assorted toy spiders, snakes and insects, a statue of Buddha and a number 13 Red Sox jersey. In Seattle two weeks ago the Red Sox became so caught up in a rally-cap duel with the Mariners that the normally reserved Clemens could be seen on the bench with cap inside out, white towels hanging over his head, shaving cream all over his face and paper cups attached to his ears.
Much of the credit for the new spirit on the team and the blossoming of the staff goes to catcher Tony Pena, who signed as a free agent in the off-season and is a sort of Luis Tiant with face mask. "He's amazing," says Kiecker. "With men on base he'll call for a pitch in the dirt, knowing that the batter's going to swing and miss and that he won't let it get by." Says Mike Boddicker, "Tony's added new meaning to the word understanding. I can't understand a word of his Spanglish when he comes out to the mound, yet somehow I know what he wants and that it works."
As for the Blue Jays, well, they are even more puzzling than the Red Sox. Why has a team so long on talent refused to take over a mediocre division? They're short on fundamentals, for one thing. Their baserunning mistakes are legion and legendary, and they seldom bunt or hit-and-run, not because manager Cito Gaston doesn't want to, but rather because most of his players are incapable of either. Asked what he can do about his team's lack of basics, Gaston says, "Not a damn thing at this level."
Another reason the Jays are treading water is that they have not been able to seize a home-field advantage in their pleasure dome. Their home record of 33-32 is eighth in the league. When the roof is open, they are a particularly dreadful 9-17. Amateur physicists say the ball doesn't carry when the top is down. The pitchers complain about the mound, the outfielders complain about the lights, and reliever Tom Henke complained the other day that the fans aren't loud enough to intimidate the other team.
But then the Blue Jays have been something of a mystery the last few years, averaging 91 wins from 1983 to '89 with nary an American League pennant to show for it. They even inspired a whodunit, The Dead Pull Hitter by Alison Gordon, published last year. Although the book was clearly fiction—for one thing, the Toronto Titans play "in the tough Eastern Division"—one of the characters, first baseman Tiny Washington, hits home when he says, "Seems like there are too many people on this team thinking about themselves.... How 'bout we save [the fighting] for the Red Sox?"
The Blue Jays did save some good pitching for the Red Sox last weekend. But they also took a few pages out of their own book of blunders. The Jays rode the arms of Dave Stieb and Henke to a 4-3 victory in the opener but had to survive two misplays by leftfielder George Bell. In the third, Bell lost Jody Reed's fly ball in the lights and it fell for a double, and in the eighth, he let a fly ball by Ellis Burks drop at his feet. Stieb was visibly annoyed at Bell, but the important thing was that the Jays won, right?
Wrong. Bell compounded his misplays by talking about them. "A $300 million ballpark and it's got the worst lights in the league." said Bell. As for the fans who had booed him, he said, "Toronto fans should be happy they've got a $2 million-a-year player who goes out there and plays every day. Oakland's got a $25 million guy who can't play every day like I can.... They would have only been happy if the ball hit me in the face."
Still, first-place hopes were running high in the SkyDome for the series' second game. But through eight innings, Toronto starter Jimmy Key was matched goose egg for goose egg by Kiecker. After Boston scored twice in the ninth to take a 2-0 lead, Gray retired the Jays in order, two on strikeouts, for his fifth save of the year. The win was typical of the Red Sox season, what with a tiny bit of offense and big performances by two surprising pitchers. Kiecker, born in Sleepy Eye, Minn., the son of a soybean and hog farmer, is a 29-year-old rookie who finally caught Boston's sleepy eye this spring. Gray was released by the Phillies in April and picked up by the Red Sox. A forkballer with only a medium-rare fastball, Gray does not lack for confidence. Asked what he would have said if someone had told him last spring he would be the Red Sox stopper, Gray said, "Great. Let's go."
As good as the second game was, Game 3—Clemens versus David Wells-was better. The tone was set early when Bell took himself out of the game after three pitches from Clemens because he was having trouble focusing his right eye. Gray later said Bell might have had an attack of "Clemenitis." The game came into focus quickly, though, and neither pitcher blinked for the first six innings. In the seventh, Wells threw Evans a low breaking ball, a good pitch, and Evans knocked it over the fence in left. Troubled by back problems, Evans had hit only 11 homers all season, but eight of them had either tied the score or put the Red Sox ahead. So if this game was a whodunit, you could have predicted Dewey dunit.
In the meantime, Clemens, now 19-5 with a 1.95 ERA, gave one of the finest performances of his career, even if it goes down in the books as a mere five-hit shutout. His infielders made three egregious errors, which meant he had to get 30 outs to win the game. In the sixth, seventh and eighth the Blue Jays had a runner on third and left him stranded. "You could see the look in Roger's eye," said Evans. "It was a nasty, Bob Gibson look."
Trailing 1-0 in the bottom of the ninth, the Jays loaded the bases with one out. Clemens got Greg Myers to lift a fly to short rightfield, leaving it up to Manny Lee. On a 1-2 pitch Clemens threw a slider in the dirt—just as Pena had ordered—and Lee swung at it. This, mind you, was with the tying run on third base.
After the game the Red Sox gave a clinic on team unity. "I can't say enough about Roger," said Evans. "Whatever it takes to win, he docs it."
"I can't say enough about Dewey," said Clemens. "He always rises to the occasion." Asked about the errors, Clemens said, "I was thrilled to be able to pick those guys up. They've saved me so many times before. I knew if we lost, they would be the focus of the game, and I didn't want that to happen."
On Sunday, Bell showed up in the Jays' clubhouse wearing glasses, much to the delight of his teammates. He was not suffering from Clemenitis, as it turned out, but from a buildup of fluid behind his right retina. When asked about his eye, Bell, who had obviously read the Toronto papers, said, "Why don't you ask Jeff Gray? He's been in the league a long time." That wasn't all Bell said. "The Red Sox are talking like they've won this thing. I guarantee you we finish two or three games ahead of them."
Bell was not in the lineup, and his wasn't the only bat missing. For the third straight game, both starters—Harris for Boston, Todd Stottlemyre for Toronto—became locked in a duel. It wasn't until the top of the eighth that a run scored—with the aid of another Blue Jay bungle. Tom Brunansky walked, moved up to second when Stottlemyre threw a pitchout past the catcher, Myers, and scored on Reed's two-out single.
Harris, the ex-Met, ex-Red, ex-Expo, ex-Padre, ex-Ranger, ex-Phillie, gave up only two hits in 7⅖ innings of work, and Gray shut the door, striking out John Olerud to end the game. The last time the Blue Jays were shut out three games in a row was in 1981. The last time the Red Sox pitched three shutouts in a row was in 1962, and the pitchers were Gene Conley, Bill Monbouquette and Ike Delock.
Delock, huh? That's what the Red Sox are starting to look like in the American League East.