Carrying the hopes of the nervous citizens of Red Sox Nation, lefthander Kevin Morton last night interrupted his third summer of minor league training and started against the Detroit Tigers in Fenway Park.
The Sox were on the verge of plummeting into third place and Morton was called to rescue Lou Gorman and Co. from the winter folly and summer slump 1990-91.
The kid was more than all right. He beat the Tigers with nine innings of five-hit artistry. He struck out nine and walked only one in a 10-1 victory. It was Boston’s fifth complete game of the season; Roger Clemens has the other four.
Manager Joe Morgan, after months of watching Matt Young and the Restless, sighed and said, “It’s only one game, but you say to yourself, ‘How in the name of God did they ever hit him in the minors?’ “
Detroit manager Sparky Anderson, the high priest of hyperbole, let us down a little. We were expecting the Sparkster to compare Morton to either Koufax or Spahn, but the best Sparky could do was Dave Rozema.
Local expectations were lofty. Morton has been Boston’s top pitching prospect for a couple of years and the Sox could wait no more for the kid to finish his apprenticeship.
The 22-year-old with the crew cut wore No. 43, digits previously worn by Joe Sambito, Tom McCarthy, Dennis Eckersley, Jim Burton, Gary Peters, Tony Muser and (briefly) Frank Malzone. We should add that the immortal Cecilio Guante wore No. 43 in spring training. Burton and Guante . . . heady stuff indeed.
Morton’s first pitch was a strike and his first inning was perfect. He got Tony Phillips on a foul pop, Skeeter Barnes on a fly to right, and caught Travis Fryman looking at a third strike. Fenway fans gave him a nifty hand when he came off. He was at that moment the greatest thing since Mike Nagy.
At the end of six, Morton was working on a two-hit shutout. Another Billy Rohr, perhaps?
Cecil Fielder said hello with a shot into the net in the seventh (”the hardest-hit ball I’ve heard off me” -- Morton), but the rookie was never rattled. He had the ice water in his veins, the ice water that Bobby Sprowl was supposed to have.
Morton is the rarest of the rare. He is a Red Sox homegrown prospect who is also a lefthanded pitcher, and he’s in the big leagues before his 23d birthday.
He works fast and uses a no-windup delivery. He showed some impressive offspeed stuff against the big-swing Tigers. Boston catcher Tony Pena said Morton had the best changeup he’d caught since John Tudor.
“He told me he likes his curveball,” said Pena. “I told him the changeup is his best pitch. Awesome changeup.”
Morton was straight and dry after the game. He’s no Bill Lee when it comes to 20-second sound bites. He uttered every cliche short of the maddeningly meaningless “stay within myself.”
He grew up in Norwalk, Conn. (Yankee country), but said he wasn’t much of a fan. He had never been to Fenway before Thursday. He said he had the game ball in his locker but did not know what he’d do with it. He left passes for 25 people, but said, “I don’t know where they are. I told them that this isn’t like Pawtucket where you can pull up in front and beep the horn.”
Morton threw 103 pitches, 70 for strikes. He worked quickly (2 hours 24 minutes) and kept his fielders busy. His was the first complete-game debut victory by a Red Sox pitcher since Don Aase’s in 1977.
This came at an opportune time for the BoSox. There was serious talk about a plummet into fourth place before the All-Star break. But now Jack Clark is hitting and Clemens pitches today and second place looks secure and . . . the Sox have a young lefty who can pitch a complete-game victory. Life is good again.
The Red Sox through the years have developed quality lefties with the same regularity that MIT has produced Pro Bowl linebackers. There was a mini-glut in the early 1980s, but Bobby Ojeda was dealt for Messrs. Schiraldi and Gardner, and Tudor was traded for Mike Easler. Bruce Hurst was allowed to walk.
Officially speaking, Morton is Hurst’s replacement. The Sox selected Morton with the draft pick they acquired when Hurst went to the Padres. So maybe Lou did have a master plan.
As long as there has been a left-field wall, there’s been a theory that lefties can’t win in Fenway. This myth was repeated so many times that it became fact. Whitey Ford wouldn’t pitch here unless he was threatened with bodily harm.
This space will offer an autographed picture of Gorman to any fan who can list the top six winning lefties in Red Sox history. They are: Mel Parnell (123), Lefty Grove (105), Bill Lee (94), Dutch Leonard (90), Babe Ruth (89) and Hurst (88).
Nice group. Parnell stands as the Red Sox’ best career lefty and he’s remembered as the guy who wouldn’t pitch the 1948 playoff game against the Indians (an oft-told story that Parnell vehemently denies). Grove did most of his winning elsewhere. Lee was dealt for Stan Papi. Hurst walked off a Sox charter and didn’t stop until he got to San Diego. Leonard and Ruth were sold to the Yankees by Harry Frazee.
Ruth made his major league debut, in Fenway, in relief, on July 11, 1914. The Babe picked up the victory in Boston’s 4-3 win and the July 12 Globe headline read, “Southpaw Displays High Class in Game Against Cleveland.”
Substitute “Detroit” for “Cleveland” and the headline still works today.