There’ll be no more champagne toasts on the Fenway lawn this season. The 1986 baseball kings will be crowned this weekend in the industrial meadow near LaGuardia Airport.
The New York Mets evened the World Series, 2-2, and regained the home-field disadvantage with a 6-2 victory over Al Nipper and the Red Sox last night. The Mets had opened a 6-0 bulge before the Red Sox picked up two runs in the eighth inning off reliever Roger McDowell.
Somebody will grasp a 3-2 edge in the final Fenway game tonight, but the duel won’t be decided until the teams return to Shea Stadium.
Baseball bards and pastime poets may claim that last night’s game was lost when Sox manager John McNamara named Al Nipper to start Game 4, but Nipper did his job. He was roughed up for three runs in the fourth, but he kept his team in the game for six serviceable innings (seven hits, one walk). It was only 3-0 when Nipper left.
Boston’s batters should carry the weight. The Red Sox managed only four hits and no runs off Ron Darling through seven innings. Even Roger Clemens and Bruce Hurst can’t win without runs. The Red Sox’ two runs in the eighth inning off McDowell were too little too late. Boston has scored a total of four runs in Games 1, 3, and 4 in the World Series.
Nipper was surprisingly effective considering the fact that he has been Boston’s Nowhere Man since the start of October. Prior to Game 4, his last big moment came when he and Roger Clemens butted heads on live television the night the Sox clinched the American League East.
After that, he was gone -- banished to the bullpen where never-used pitchers rust away like skeleton frames of burned-out Chevrolets.
It was sad. Boston’s gutty righthander was reduced to a towel-waving facsimilie of M.L. Carr. He was first out of the dugout with the high fives after victories, but he was the last to get a call when any game was on the line.
His personality changed. He withdrew. Nipper was unable to hide his disappointment when he learned he would not start a game in the American League playoffs. A Boston television reporter lost a bet when Nipper refused to do an interview on the off day in Anaheim.
It’s not as if the man hadn’t learned to live with adversity. His 1986 season was sabotaged when Texas chainsaw Larry Parrish made Nipper’s right knee look like cheap hamburger in a home plate collision in May. He missed six weeks and was never the same after he returned.
In ‘85, Nipper was striken with an anemic ulcer, which was discovered during spring training. Initially, doctors feared leukemia, so the ulcer didn’t seem so bad.
It wasn’t the first scare for Nipper’s parents. When the stocky righty was in college, there was a mixup in identity after a traffic accident, and Nipper’s parents were told he had been killed. Compare that with the news that your son isn’t going to pitch in the American League Championship Series.
Nipper got a World Series shot because McNamara was comfortable with Boston’s 2-0 start and wanted to give aces Hurst, Clemens and Oil Can Boyd their normal amount of rest. The three-man rotation worked nicely in the playoffs, but Clemens appeared tired starting Game 2 of the Series on three days’ rest. McNamara gambled. He named Nipper before the Sox lost Game 3.
It was reminiscent of a special night in June when the Sox pulled Nipper off the disabled list to face the Yankees. Though he hadn’t pitched in six weeks, Nipper beat New York, 5-4, averting the humiliation of a Yankee sweep in Fenway.
Going into last night’s game, Nipper hadn’t pitched since Oct. 4 and hadn’t won since Sept. 29. He’d won only two games since Aug. 14 and hadn’t finished eight innings since Aug. 3.
Pitching on 17 days rest, Nipper was almost perfect early last evening. The flammable hurler with the 10-12 record and the 5.38 ERA walked to the Fenway mound and mastered the Mets for three innings: He gave up only one hit and a walk as the Mets went out on seven grounders and a Gary Carter called third strike.
Then the Mets got him. Wally Backman led the fourth with a single to center, and with one out, Carter hit a majestic first-pitch shot into the left field net. Darryl Strawberry cracked the next pitch to left for a double, then Ray Knight lined a 3-2 pitch to center to make it 3-0.
It was like a flurry of punches, unsafe at any speed. Nipper let his guard down for a brief moment, and the Mets were flying around the bases.
Nipper got out of the fifth when Keith Hernandez grounded to first with Wally Backman on second and two out. In the sixth, Carter led with a double, took third on a long blast that was flagged down by Dwight Evans in right and was thrown out at home when he attempted to score on Knight’s liner to left.
Nipper was backing up on the play at the plate, and he clenched his fist in triumph when Carter was called out by home plate umpire Joe Brinkman.
He didn’t come out for the seventh. Steve Crawford was summoned to finish the job, and Nipper watched from the sideline as the Mets blew it open.
Starting tonight in the 1986 Fenway finale, the World Series will be entrusted to Messrs. Hurst, Clemens and Can, but let the record show that Al Nipper was Boston’s No. 4 start in the ‘86 classic, and he did the job the Red Sox asked him to do.