It doesn’t really matter if you’re talking about Jim Rice or Dennis Eckersley. At the plate, or on the mound, when each man performs at his highest level it is a thing of beauty.
The magic was there last night for the Red Sox, and particularly for Rice and Eckersley. They gave the 23,145 on hand a real bargain, and once Rice’s graceful home run swing had been completed in the ninth inning the Red Sox had a 3-0 victory over the Oakland A’s and a sweep of their two-game series. Boston has won four games in a row.
The Eck was in complete control, striking out 12 batters, a career high for him with the Red Sox and the most strikeouts by a Boston pitcher since Luis Tiant achieved the same number against Milwaukee back in 1976. Eckersley limited the A’s to two hits and walked five as he pitched his first shutout since beating Texas, 1-0, in July, 1979.
“The one thing I liked about the ball that Rice hit,” said beaming Red Sox manager Ralph Houk, “was that you didn’t have to wait and see. You knew it was gone. It was a beautiful sight.
“Eckersley couldn’t have pitched any better. He threw well in beating Kansas City, but they got a run. The A’s didn’t get one for nine innings, and I think he could have gone one or two more the way he was throwing.”
The Rice home run - his fifth - was indeed a thing of beauty. His swing was easy and short, and the pitch by loser Brian Kingman simply exploded off Rice’s bat and came to rest in the left-field screen. It followed leadoff singles by Dwight Evans and Carl Yastrzemski.
“He didn’t even swing hard,” observed teammate Tony Perez. “But he doesn’t really have to because he is so strong. Actually, we should all just meet the ball like that, but it is easier said than done when you’re up there with a bat in your hand.”
Rice, of course, was the man up there with a bat in his hand. And with runners on first and second, there was no chance of him bunting, for as Houk said later, Rice is the kind of guy who could advance the runners on a fly ball, and the way things were going the Sox just had to gamble that he wouldn’t hit into a double play.
“I really wasn’t trying for a home run,” said Rice. “In a situation like that, you want to hit the ball hard up the middle. It was an easy swing and that’s one of the problems when you’ve been struggling like I, Tony and Yaz have been lately. There is a danger of overswing, so all I was up there to do was make contact.
“You want to win the game, especially when you get the kind of pitching that we got from Eck. We’ve only had seven complete games all year, so I know he feels good about it and I’m sure it will help his confidence. I feel good about hitting the home run, but a hitter can’t get confidence from one game. He needs four or five.”
There was no question that Eckersley was feeling confidence from his performance. The victory was his fourth of the year, but his first at Fenway Park where he has taken all three of his losses. Of the seven complete games by Red Sox pitching this year, six have been for victories, and the Eck now has three of them.
“I was beginning to wonder about what was happening when I pitched here,” said Eckersley, who hopes this kind of performance will finally establish him as Boston’s No. 1 starter. “People expect a lot of things out of me and guys like Frank Tanana and Mike Torrez. Thus far it hasn’t been happening.”
But it happened for the Eck last night as he mowed down 12 Oakland hitters, all swinging. Houk said that indicated that Eckersley’s fast ball was moving. The Eck agreed, but said it meant something else.
“It meant they were swinging at my pitches,” he said. “I wasn’t overpowering or anything like that. But I struck out the lefthanders with outside pitches after I got them set up with a strike inside.
“I think a partial reason for my success is that the A’s were anxious. They’ve lost eight in a row now and I think they were up there just swinging and trying to get something started. I felt good in the eighth and ninth innings, and that hasn’t happened in a long while. Course, I haven’t gotten to the eighth or ninth inning many times this year, either.”
Actually, Eckersley’s best pitching came in an inning when he didn’t get any strikeouts. With two out, he pitched carefully to Rickey Henderson and Dwayne Murphy, walking each on a 3-2 count. Henderson went all the way to third by stealing bases No. 25 and 26 of the season. Murphy might have done the same thing had not lefthanded hitting Mitchell Page swung at Eckersley’s first offering and hit a mile-high flyball to left for the final out.
Now it’s back to the road for a weekend series with Milwaukee. The club is back to .500 at home and, overall, is four games over .500 at 20-16. The hitting has been timely of late, and now the starters are coming through.
“Lee Stange, our pitching coach came up to me,” said Houk, “and told me, You said that if my starting pitchers went seven innings something would happen. Well, what’s going to happen?’
“I told him that Rice was going to hit a home run and Eck was going to win the ball game.