Fenway Park was awash in a sea of nostalgia Wednesday afternoon when Wade Boggs strode to the plate with 2 outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, trying to keep Red Sox heads above water.
Oakland led Boston, 2-1, in Game 1 of the American League championship series, and everywhere the Red Sox looked, history was conspiring against them.
Dave Henderson, Red Sox home run hero in the playoffs of 1986, had broken a 1-1 tie with a run-scoring single for the Athletics in the top of the eighth.
Carney Lansford, Red Sox batting champion of ’81, had scored that Oakland run after doubling to open the eighth.
Dennis Eckersley, Red Sox 20-game winner of ’78, was trying to close out the victory for the A’s, an out shy of deliverance with Boston runners on second and first.
And then Boggs, Red Sox legend in his own time, stood in the batter’s box, representing the present’s last stand. He took 2 quick strikes from Eckersley, then fouled a third pitch back, but still had a swing remaining, which meant Boggs remained ahead on the count.
Eckersley kicked and dealt a high fastball.
Oakland 2, Boston 1. And so much for current events. The past caught up with the Red Sox Wednesday--passed them, even--and Boston’s future in these playoffs appears that much dimmer. Down, 0-1, in this best-of-7 series, the Red Sox lost their home-field advantage and must win at least once in Oakland this weekend to regain it.
Boston was 0-6 at the Oakland Coliseum this season.
“We feel real good,” said A’s starting pitcher Dave Stewart, who limited the Red Sox to 5 hits and 1 run through 6 innings. “We came in here wanting to split and now we’re in good shape.”
Or better than good, according to Oakland right fielder Jose Canseco.
“Basically, we play well at home,” said Canseco, not wanting to belabor what the A’s 54-27 Coliseum record makes obvious. “And if we take two here, they’re in big trouble.”
Game 2, to be played tonight at 5 (PDT), matches Oakland’s Storm Davis (16-7) and Boston’s Roger Clemens (18-12), so at least the Red Sox have that going for them. And they had better hope that the Rocket’s red glare is brilliant indeed, for not even Bruce Hurst’s 6-hit, 7-strikeout pitching could save them Wednesday.
And for that, in large part, Boggs will held accountable. Boggs, who hit .366 this season for his sixth league batting championship, was 1 for 4 with a single and a sacrifice fly. That’s what the box score will show.
But what 34,104 in the Fenway stands will remember most about this one are the 8 runners Boggs left on base.
With 2 out and the bases loaded in the second inning, Boggs struck out swinging against Stewart.
With 1 out and the bases loaded in the seventh inning, Boggs undercut Rick Honeycutt’s pitch and flied to left field, deep enough to enable Kevin Romine to tag and score from third base.
And with 2 out and 2 runners on base in the ninth inning, Boggs struck out again, on 4 pitches and an 0-and-2 count.
“A freak of nature,” Stewart called his strikeout of Boggs, which was the first of Stewart’s career against the Boston third baseman.
Said Eckersley: “I don’t expect to strike him out again, really.”
Added Oakland Manager Tony LaRussa: “That’s a very tough way to have to beat the Red Sox. I hope that’s the last time in this series we have to go through that.”
Boggs would second that motion. Engulfed by a media mob that grilled him under hot camera lights, Boggs must have felt a momentary kinship with Bill Buckner, the infamous ground-ball goat of the Red Sox’s failure in the 1986 World Series.
“I left guys on base. Sure, it’s frustrating,” Boggs said. “I didn’t drive the runs in and, naturally, they’re going to say I don’t drive guys in.”
Yes, they do say that about Boggs. Despite the batting titles he cranks out with the regularity of birthdays, Boggs has been flayed in the Boston press for a lack of run production in the clutch. This season, in 719 plate appearances, Boggs drove in 58 runs.
“The basic knock on Wade Boggs is that I don’t get hits with guys in scoring position,” Boggs acknowledged. “Well, I drove in 89 runs last year. I’ve got a pretty good average with runners in scoring position and getting guys in with less than 2 outs. I just didn’t get the big hit today.”
But the 2 strikeouts loomed big, particularly after a regular season in which Boggs struck out only 34 times.
And even more particularly with the tying and winning runs on base in the bottom of the ninth.
“It’s just you against him out there,” Boggs said of his duel with Eckersley. “There’s nobody to throw a block for you. There’s nobody to pass a ball to you.
“I was just trying to see the ball and hit it hard. He just changed zones on me--a high fastball, a low sinker. I couldn’t catch up with him today.”
Boggs answered a few more questions, confronted a few second-guesses before his patience began to wane.
“I wish I would come out one year and hit 1.000,” he said ruefully. “Then I’d be perfect. But I’m not perfect.”
In the Oakland clubhouse, the Athletics were grateful indeed for this one.
“That was one of those great confrontations,” LaRussa said. “Eckersley against Boggs. Stewart against Boggs. Canseco against Hurst. This series is going to be filled with these kind of confrontations. That’s what the playoffs are all about.”
The Canseco-Hurst matchup gave Oakland an early 1-0 advantage when Canseco stroked a prodigious home run over the 37-foot-high wall in left-center.
The Athletics greeted the feat with high-fives in their dugout. Red Sox fans greeted it with mocking chants of “Ster-oids! Ster-oids!” a reference to Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell’s recent assertion that Canseco’s 40-40 talents are not 100% natural.
Canseco, who angrily denied the accusation last week, chose this time to respond with humor, teasing the crowd with good-natured flexes of his right arm.
“I was just having fun with it, fooling around,” Canseco said. “By now, basically, I’ve learned to ignore it. My first priorities are to my ballclub.”
Same with Henderson, although his priorities are now with a different ballclub.
In 1986, his home run against Angel relief pitcher Donnie Moore saved Boston from elimination in Game 5 of the playoffs. The Angels never recovered from Henderson’s homer--still haven’t, in fact--and the Red Sox went on to the World Series that fall.
Before the next World Series, however, Henderson was forced out of Fenway, released and later signed by the San Francisco Giants. During the off-season, he moved across the bay and contributed a .304 average and 94 RBIs to the Athletics’ 104-win season.
Wednesday, Henderson contributed to playoff win No. 1, too, by singling home Lansford to break a 1-1 tie in the eighth.
No big deal, Henderson insisted.
“I just expect to do the things I’ve done all year, and that’s drive in runs,” he said. “I’m not out to do anything special or abnormal.
“Today, I was just trying to get the man over. Textbook baseball. I do that every other day. That home run in Game 5, I do that every other 100 years.”
That was one for the ages, as they say. Boggs vs. Eckersley had that same kind of potential Wednesday, or so the faithful at Fenway had anticipated.
Now, they can only hope that Clemens and a few dozen fastballs can purge that at-bat from the Boston consciousness tonight.