Every once in a while, the baseball gods deliver a gift to the Red Sox. It usually comes in a disparaging time and bails them out of a hopeless period.
Greg Harris, Jeff Gray and Dana Kiecker have been among the gifts at various times.
Last night, the deliverance was Tom Bolton.
Though the popular subject was the two triple plays the Minnesota Twins made, the most important aspect of last night’s game for the Red Sox was the final score, 1-0. Bolton gave the Sox their first win by a starter since July 2, their first win by a lefthanded starter since June 18 of last year (Joe Price) and just the second in the post-Bruce Hurst era.
Offensively, the Red Sox needed only Tim Naehring’s first major league hit and RBI to take the emphasis off the Twins’ incredible defensive feat.
“How did you like that pitching performance?” sighed Red Sox general manager Lou Gorman.
It was indeed a lifesaver. The Red Sox had dropped out of first place after losing eight of their last nine games. Starters weren’t lasting very long. Relievers were getting whacked. But Bolton’s strong 8 innings, in which he struck out a career-high six, gave way to Jeff Reardon’s 16th save after Bolton walked Dan Gladden to lead off the ninth.
“I just wanted to throw as hard as I could for as long as I could,” said Bolton (3-0), who threw 111 pitches. “I threw a lot of ground balls. I got a big double play in the seventh that really helped. I just feel I’m starting to get stronger now. I’m getting into shape. I’ve pitched about 20 to 30 innings now, and for the first time in a long time I had a good curveball.”
The curveball gave the free-swinging, fastball-hitting Twins fits. If Bolton were Mark Langston or Chuck Finley, the Twins might have had more success.
“If anybody says we should have hit a guy like that, I’d like to see them get a bat in their hands and try to do it,” said Gary Gaetti, the author of the Twins’ triple killings.
Naehring’s second game was far more satisfying than his first. He had gone 0 for 4, had booted a ball for an error and did not handle a sure-thing double-play ball that led to a run Monday.
Things got worse before they got better. The first batter of last night’s game -- Shane Mack -- hit a hard one-hopper to Naehring’s feet that went through his legs for an error. After Bolton walked two, the bases were loaded. Bolton got out of it by striking out Gladden.
If Naehring is 6 feet 2 inches, he felt like a munchkin. In his first at- bat, he grounded out to third, making it 0 for 5 in the majors. The only thing that could have topped this was hitting into a triple play, but Tom Brunansky took that off his hands in the fourth.
“I just thought, if things keep going like this, I wouldn’t have to worry about it too long,” said Naehring. “I’d be back in Pawtucket.”
In the fifth, this beginner’s curse seemed to be lifted. It was as if the Atlantic had offered a refreshing breeze through Fenway on this warm summer evening.
Mike Greenwell reached on an error and Tony Pena singled with one out against Twins starter Scott Erickson. After Billy Jo Robidoux hit into a force at second base, Naehring was up. He lined a single to right-center -- his first major league hit. His first major league RBI. Robidoux was thrown out trying to go from first to third, thanks to a strong throw from Kirby Puckett and a perfect decoy by Gaetti at third, and the inning ended.
“I just made up my mind I was going to go the other way with it,” said Naehring. “You don’t know how good that felt. That took a lot of pressure off right there, and it proved to be the only run, which I’m glad I could contribute.”
Now for the sideshow.
On July 4, 1988, in Kansas City, Jim Rice flied out to Willie Wilson in center field, who threw to second baseman Frank White to double up Greenwell. White then threw to George Brett at first base to get Ellis Burks.
Before that, you’d have to go back to Sept. 4, 1965, in New York. Bob Tillman grounded to Clete Boyer at third base, who started a 5-4-3 double play. First baseman Joe Pepitone then threw to third to nail Tony Conigliaro.
They were all slightly bizarre. A lot has to happen to turn a triple play. Until last night. The Sox had the bases loaded. Brunansky, the team’s clean-up hitter, cleared the bases. He grounded out hard to Gaetti at third, who took a couple of steps and forced the runner at third. He threw to second baseman Al Newman, who threw to Kent Hrbek at first to triple up Brunansky by almost two full steps. Gaetti has been involved in four of the five triple plays by the Twins since 1983. And this had to be among the easiest.
“I thought he’d be going home with the ball,” said Brunansky.
It was just as easy in the eighth.
Naehring had doubled to left-center and Boggs had walked. Reed then grounded sharply to third, where Gaetti stepped on the bag for the force, threw to Newman at second for the force, and Newman then threw to Hrbek at first to get Reed by at least two steps.
“I had the hit-and-run on trying to avoid a double play,” said Joe Morgan. “And so we hit into a triple play.”
Bolton was hoping to duplicate the 7 2/3 innings of shutout relief he spun against the Texas Rangers July 1 in a 15-4 win.
He credits pitching coach Bill Fischer with correcting a mechanical flaw in his delivery. Last night, Bolton got Twins’ hitters fishing for his breaking pitch, which he was keeping down, sometimes in the dirt.
“My stride was 6-8 inches too far,” explained Bolton. “It made me throw the ball high a lot. I needed to find a middle ground.”