It’s true. It’s finally true. The American League pennant has returned to Fenway Park after an 11-year absence.
Although New England fans were holding their breath, Roger Clemens and the Red Sox made it look easy last night with a resounding 8-1 victory over the California Angels in the seventh and deciding game of the AL Championship Series, a decision that left no doubt about Boston’s supremacy.
With the victory -- which capped their comeback from a 3-1 series deficit -- the Red Sox advanced to the World Series, which will open Saturday in New York against the Mets. And they extended a remarkable season that began with a host of doubts but has proceeded to a pennant party.
It has been a season of peaks and valleys. Few believed the Sox were for real, and even in September, skeptics pointed to history as a sign that the Olde Towne Team would fold in the stretch. The Sox didn’t, capturing the AL East title with a week to play. Still, the doomsayers were out in force again in the ninth inning of Game 5 in the playoffs, when the Sox faced extinction, trailing, 5-4, with one out to go.
But the remarkable revival that began with Dave Henderson’s go-ahead homer and game-winning sacrifice fly Sunday reached its climax last night, when a towel-waving, card-carrying crowd of 33,001 watched the Red Sox overcome the final challenge.
“Yogi’s quote gets better and better,” said Sox manager John McNamara, who will be making his World Series debut. “It’s still never over till it’s over. For me, it is a dream come true to get there.
“It’s been a great season in which we’ve met every challenge. Our total concentration has been on winning this title. Now that we have, we’ll sit down and figure out what we have to do in the Series.”
Clemens turned the climactic game into a virtual anticlimax, allowing only four hits in seven-plus innings as he won for the first time in three series starts. He had been shelled in the opener and he had been deprived of a victory in Game 4 by his defense and bullpen. But last night there was no denying Clemens, who gave the Sox their first victory in the deciding game of a postseason series since 1912.
Clemens rode an eight-hit attack highlighted by home runs from Jim Rice and Dwight Evans, the lone holdovers from the 1975 pennant club. He left the game to a standing ovation after surrendering a single to Ruppert Jones leading off the eighth.
Clemens’ old University of Texas teammate, Calvin Schiraldi, finished up. And he did so in spectacular fashion, despite allowing a single to Doug DeCinces that brought in the Angels’ lone run (charged to Clemens). Schiraldi wound up with five strikeouts in his two innings of work, the icing on the evening for the delirious crowd.
For the most part, the crowd showed deference to the champions, remaining off the field and allowing the Sox to celebrate in relative privacy. It was gesture the players greatly appreciated.
“We were happy that we able to bring the series back to Fenway Park,” said Rice, the Red Sox captain. “We saw how the 64,000 in Anaheim fans boosted the Angels. ‘We consider our 33,000 just as strong as their 64,000. Playing in our back yard was a big help, and it showed because we won.”
Rice had a right to speak last night, because he was among the siege gunners who finally produced. Overall, the little guys -- Marty Barrett (the series MVP with a record-tying 11 hits) and Spike Owen -- dominated the offense.
But in the finale, the veteran sluggers unloaded.
Rice, who didn’t play in the 1975 ALCS or World Series because of a broken hand, announced he was ready for the Mets in the fourth inning. His calling card was a booming three-run homer off the light tower above the left-field wall that highlighted a four-run outburst against Angels starter and loser John Candelaria.
And Evans drilled a solo homer in the seventh that gave Clemens a 7-0 cushion.
But the issue basically had been decided before either blast, because the Angels were never really in this contest after the second, when the Red Sox scored three times.
Rice began the inning with a routine grounder that Angels shortstop Dick Schofield turned into a two-base gift by throwing the ball into the Boston dugout.
Don Baylor, who also will be making his World Series debut, followed with a single, sending Rice to third. Evans walked, loading the bases, and Rich Gedman delivered the first run with groundout. Hemderson was intentionally walked, again loading the bases, and Owne popped to second for the second out.
But Wade Boggs, the AL batting champion, then stroked a two-run single for a 3-0 lead. And after the surge in the fourth, it was smooth sailing for Boston and sheer agony for California.
Henderson opened the fourth by reaching third when Angel center fielder Gary Pettis dropped his Boston counterpart’s deep drive. Then Owen hit a bloop single to right, making it 4-0. With two out, Dave Stapleton -- who had replaced the injured Bill Buckner at first base -- drew a walk, Rice followed with his shot, and celebration time was a virtual formality.
“Coming back like we did in this series was no fluke,” said Baylor. “We did this all year long. We practiced it.
“We watched the Houston-Met game this afternoon, and when we saw the Mets’ celebration, we wanted one too.”
“It was a magical year and a great finale,” said a Clemens.
But in truth, the Sox have one more stop before any finale -- the World Series. The team that began the year as a question mark has earned a champion’s reward.