Look before you leap, Mets and Dodgers, because the road to the 1988 world championship runs through Oakland. Remember the dearly departed Boston Red Sox and remind yourselves once again: There’s still time to get out.
The Oakland Athletics are in the World Series. Which world, though, hasn’t quite been established. Normal, red-blooded baseball teams just don’t do what these A’s did to the Red Sox in the American League championship series, which they clinched Sunday afternoon with a 4-1 victory before 49,406 at the Oakland Coliseum.
These A’s just swept the best-hitting team in baseball, limiting the Red Sox and their .283 club batting average to 11 runs in 4 games.
These A’s opened these playoffs in Boston in inclement weather and against inclement pitching--Bruce Hurst (18-6) and Roger Clemens (18-12) started for the Red Sox--and won both games.
These A’s had one pitcher, 34-year-old Dennis Eckersley, save all 4 games, a postseason record. More than that, Eckersley saved all 4 in a span of 5 days, which may be a record for the human species.
These A’s trailed the Red Sox, 5-0, after 2 innings in Game 3. After 3 innings, they led, 6-5--on their way to a 10-6 victory that Boston shortstop Jody Reed said “took the steam out of us. We thought that game was ours.”
Dave Stewart, pitching on 3 days’ rest, limited the Red Sox to 4 singles in 7-plus innings Sunday. That set the stage for baseball’s first 4-game postseason sweep since 1976, when the Cincinnati Reds defeated the New York Yankees in the World Series.
Jose Canseco, the first major league player to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in the same season, produced 3 home runs in 4 playoff games, including a first-inning shot Sunday off Hurst.
“Jose Canseco is god,” says Oakland first baseman Mark McGwire.
Even the mortal minions on the A’s bench and in the bullpen delivered, time after time, in this series.
En route to the clincher, Mike Gallego, subbing for the injured Glenn Hubbard at second base, turns a bad-hop ricochet shot off the pitching rubber into a critical out in the top of the sixth inning--"one of the big plays of this series,” according to A’s shortstop Walt Weiss.
Stan Javier, defensive replacement for left fielder Dave Parker, keeps a 2-run eighth inning alive with a perfect bunt single.
Middle reliever Rick Honeycutt replaces Stewart with the tying run at first base in the seventh inning and immediately gets Marty Barrett to bounce into a double play.
And now, after a 104-victory regular season, Oakland is up to victory No. 108 . . . and counting.
“I think it’s obvious,” said Boston’s Hurst. “From start to finish, they dominated this league this year--and they beat us very solidly in this series.”
Canseco, looking ahead to the World Series, which is scheduled to begin next Saturday, declared his team the favorite.
“We’re going to be the team to beat,” he said flatly. “We’re going to be the team with the better record. We’re going to have the best balance. Whoever we play, they’re going to have a chore to beat us.”
Any chance the Red Sox had of simply salvaging one game ended by the fifth inning. Down, 3-0, and emotionally flattened by Oakland’s rousing comeback Saturday night, Boston Manager Joe Morgan handed the ball and his team’s slim hopes to Hurst, the left-hander who pitched a 6-hitter in Game 1 but lost, 2-1.
Attempting to pitch on 3 days’ rest, Hurst lasted 3 innings before his left shoulder began to stiffen. One more inning and he was gone, leaving with his team trailing, 2-0, and all but out.
“The last fastball he threw to Parker in the third inning hurt his shoulder,” Morgan said. “I didn’t want to take any chances with him.”
Had Morgan taken too great a chance and pressed his luck by starting Hurst on 3 days’ rest?
“I don’t know about that,” Hurst said. “I’ve pitched on 3 days’ rest before, and it was no problem. It’s part of the job. The shoulder was fine until the third inning. It got sore, and I couldn’t generate any speed after that.”
Mike Smithson replaced Hurst and worked a creditable 2 innings, restricting the A’s to 3 hits and no runs. At the same time, the Boston offense showed some signs of life against Stewart.
Barrett walked to open the sixth and Wade Boggs followed with a single. After an infield out, the Red Sox had runners on first and third and Jim Rice at bat.
Rice hit a line drive back at Stewart that struck the pitching rubber and popped into the air, high over the pitcher’s head. Racing in, Gallego short-hopped the ball and, in mid-stride, fired to first for the out. Barrett scored on the play, but Gallego’s play kept the inning’s damage to a minimum.
Stewart ended the threat by striking out Dwight Evans for the third out.
The score remained 2-1 through the top of the eighth, with Honeycutt providing an inning’s worth of stopgap relief. Who, then, to pitch the ninth?
Oakland Manager Tony La Russa went with the same player he summoned to close Game 1 . . . and Game 2 . . . and Game 3: Eckersley.
“It wasn’t a fair situation,” La Russa admitted. “You’re liable to destroy a pitcher. But before the game, Eck told me he was physically able to pitch one inning. So I made the call and hoped he’d find a way through it.
“As long as you’re not going to hurt him, it was a shot worth taking.”
Eckersley may have been tired from overuse, but the very sight of him on the mound moved Morgan to a desperate measure. He used reserve shortstop Spike Owen to bat for Rice. He had Todd Benzinger bat for Dwight Evans.
Owen drew a walk, but that was the extent of the Boston success. Eckersley retired the final 3 Red Sox hitters in order, and Oakland was headed for the World Series for the first time since 1974.
And Eckersley, voted the AL playoffs’ most valuable player, was headed for a holiday.
“I’m tattered out,” Eckersley said with a sigh. “When I saw that final ball go up in the air (Reed’s game-ending pop fly), I was just relieved. We ended it in 4 and that gives me 5 days off. Now, I can get my arm, and my golf game, back in shape.”
To the victors go such spoil. Making quick work of the Red Sox, the A’s can kick back for a while and await their eventual World Series foil.
McGwire hopes it’s the Mets.
“If we play the Mets, it’ll be the 2 best teams in baseball,” McGwire said.
Still to be determined is the team that is the very best, but McGwire believes that will be settled in a hurry.
“I think everybody in this clubhouse knows who’s the best team in baseball,” he said.