Tony La Russa, law school graduate who moonlights as manager of the Oakland Athletics, builds a curious case in defense of his latest rookie-of-the-year candidate, shortstop Walter Weiss.
“Walt Weiss did more for this team as a rookie than Jose Canseco or Mark McGwire did for theirs,” La Russa argued in front of the national media before the opener of the American League championship series.
Yeah, sure, Tony. Did the memory suddenly download those 33 home runs and 117 runs batted in that Canseco cranked out in 1986? And weren’t those 49 home runs McGwire mashed in 1987 an all-time record for rookies?
La Russa merely points to the top of the ninth inning of Game 2 Thursday night, Weiss against the hulking form of Lee Smith, scored tied, 2 outs and 34,605 Fenway Park fans screaming for a third strike.
Weiss looks at an 0-and-2 fastball from Smith and calmly swats it back into center field for a single, scoring Ron Hassey from third base and giving Oakland a 4-3 victory over the Boston Red Sox, their second straight win on this foreign field.
Today, the Athletics arrive in Oakland with a 2-0 lead in this best-of-7 series, as unlikely as it now appears insurmountable. The A’s came to Boston, saw Bruce Hurst and Roger Clemens within a 48-hour span and conquered both in dramatic, gut-wrenching style.
And the Red Sox? When they finally stop wincing, they’ll find themselves staring at 3 straight games at the Oakland Coliseum, needing to win at least 2 to remain alive in these playoffs. Boston was 0-6 in the Coliseum this year, 1-14 in its last 15 games there.
“What odds are you going to give us?” asked a glum Joe Morgan, the Boston manager. “Hit me with some numbers. We’re 1-14 there, we’re down 2 games. Boy, you could get some good odds on that one.”
Canseco, who delivered his second home run in as many games, just to make sure the new kid Weiss doesn’t push him into obscurity, assesses the Boston situation bluntly.
“I don’t think we’re coming back,” Canseco said, referring to Fenway, where Games 6 and 7 are very tentatively scheduled. “I’m hoping we finish it in the next 2. I see it going, at the most, 3 games. They haven’t played well in Oakland, they haven’t hit well there. It’s going to be very tough for them.”
Imagine being pushed into such a corner by a 24-year-old novice to postseason pressure, the No. 9 hitter in the Oakland lineup, a short-swinger who finished his first big league season with a .250 batting average, 3 home runs and 39 RBIs. Weiss should’ve been shaking in his cleats at the sight of Smith, the Boston bigfoot who saved 29 games in 1988.
Instead, he shook up the Red Sox to the point, perhaps, of no return.
Smith was trying to finish a tit-for-tat ninth inning--a fly out, a single to Ron Hassey, a fly out, a single to Tony Phillips. Oakland had runners on first and third, but Smith had an 0-and-2 count on Weiss when he let fly with another of his feared fastballs.
Weiss, his confidence boosted simply by La Russa’s decision to let him bat in that situation, lined the the fastball up the middle to score Hassey and break the 3-3 tie.
“There’s something about his composure,” La Russa said, marveling at his newest piece of evidence. “He’s so mentally tough . . . “I never thought of pinch-hitting for him. In fact, I think you saw the respect the Red Sox paid him tonight, having Clemens throw him breaking balls in the early innings. The last time he faced Clemens, he had 3 hits.
“No, he earned that at-bat. He’s one of our best people, if not the best, at getting the runner in from third.”
Morgan simply shook his head and said, “Every time he needs to get a hit, he seems to get it. We held him down to the final gun, we get him down, 0 and 2, and there it goes again. He’s a great little player.”
Weiss called his confrontation with Smith “the kind of situation you dream about being in. I’m in my first year in the league, but I know that is what the postseason is all about.”
He half-expected, though, not to get the chance, considering the heat Smith was throwing and the availability of a seasoned pinch-hitter like Don Baylor on La Russa’s bench.
“It was in the back of my mind,” Weiss said. “I was kind of looking over my shoulder. In that situation this season, he’s pinch-hit for me before. I was just happy to get the at-bat.”
Oakland managed 2 hits through 6 innings against Clemens, who yielded just a bunt single to Luis Polonia and a double to Tony Phillips while striking out 8.
Defensively, Oakland center fielder Dave Henderson made one sensational play--he robbed Ellis Burks of extra bases by flagging down a 400-foot, fourth-inning drive on the warning track--and one costly gaffe. With runners on first and second with one out in the sixth inning, Henderson ran in on a line drive by Jim Rice, got his glove on the ball and then lost control of it.
The ball skipped off the heel of the glove for an error, enabling Dwight Evans to score from second and Mike Greenwell to move to third base. From there, Greenwell scored on a single by Burks, and Boston led, 2-0.
A Fenway split could be salvaged, or so Morgan thought.
“To be honest, I thought it was a shoo-in,” Morgan said. “The way Roger was going, I just knew he was going to shut them out. He had his low fastball back, a dynamite pitch that no one can hit.
“The way he was throwing the ball, I thought there was nothing (the A’s) could do against him. I’ve seen Roger throw like that too many times.”
The shutout, however, would only get as far as the seventh inning.
Henderson opened it with a single to center. Then Canseco stepped to the plate, ears ringing with a new Fenway chant deriding him for his rumored use of muscle-enhancing drugs, which he has denied. Wednesday, it was, “Ster-oids, Ster-oids.” Thursday, it was, “Just Say No.”
Canseco’s response, however, was nothing new.
Just as he did against Hurst, he hammered a Clemens pitch out of Fenway Park. This one, like Weiss’ game-winner, came on an 0-and-2 pitch. This one wound up nestling into the top of the left-field screen, creating an instant 2-2 tie.
Two outs later, Carney Lansford was at third base after reaching first on a fielder’s choice, taking second on a balk and advancing again on a wild pitch.
This indicated a distressing trend for Clemens. Home-run pitches on 0-and-2 counts, balks and wild pitches are not normal parts of his repertoire.
Neither are hits yielded to McGwire. Before the seventh inning, McGwire was 0 for 10 with 6 strikeouts against The Rocket. This time, McGwire, after again falling behind, 0 and 2, lined a full-count pitch into left field for a single and a 3-2 Oakland advantage.
Boston rallied to tie in the bottom of the inning when Rich Gedman pulled a Greg Cadaret pitch into the right-field seats for a solo home run. Morgan went to his bullpen, first calling on Bob Stanley and then Smith, who retired 3 consecutive hitters before Hassey’s one-out single in the ninth.
Minutes later, Smith was asked to throw one final strike past Weiss and keep the game tied.
Weiss was a hero, and La Russa was vindicated. Today, halfway to the World Series. Tomorrow, rookie of the year?