It was still 19 days until summer, but on this early June night with Fenway Park packed, beach balls fluttering in the bleachers, the popping noise of a Roger Clemens fastball and a six-game lead in the American League East, the Boys of Pre-Summer made it a sweet summer baseball night in Boston.
And it’s one John Valentin -- 5 for 5 with three solo homers and 15 total bases -- will never forget.
“It’s a dream come true,” said the Sox shortstop following Boston’s 6-5 win in 10 innings. “I’ll enjoy it tonight and then let it slip away.”
It probably will be frozen in Red Sox folklore. The last time a player had more than 15 total bases was Fred Lynn, whose 16 against the Detroit Tigers in 1975 tied an American League record. It was Valentin who began the winning rally when the emerging star (fitting nicely as the Rico Petrocelli of the ‘90s), doubled to start the 10th off Salomon Torres. After an intentional walk to Mo Vaughn and a botched sacrifice bunt by pinch hitter Steve Rodriguez, Mike Greenwell brought the house down with an opposite-field single to left that scored Vaughn with the winning run.
“The fans made this possible,” said Greenwell. “They were into it, really into it.”
Valentin’s third home run of the game in the eighth inning, a high, towering blast that cleared the net and likely landed across Lansdowne Street, had brought the Sox to within a run. Then the hysteria continued when Mike Macfarlane smacked his eighth home run with one out in the bottom of the ninth to bring the Sox back to a 5-5 gridlock.
“It was a huge crowd and they were rockin’,” said Macfarlane. “They were electric. This is such a contrast to Kansas City -- even though the organist was playing ‘Michael Rowed the Boat Ashore’ -- that it sets quite a tempo for the players.” Five of the catcher’s last six homers have been hit from the seventh inning on.
But for most of this one, it didn’t appear the Sox were going to make it a happy homecoming. They had gone 6-3 on the West Coast swing and were showing signs of being more a road team (12-6). They had lost their last three games at home against the Cleveland Indians in their worst moment this season.
Clemens was feeling the effects of an old calf strain by the fifth inning, when the Mariners scored four runs and the pregame electricity seemed to wear off. He left after five innings trailing, 5-2.
“The ball was taking off on him,” said Macfarlane. “He’s not 100 percent right now. That’s obvious, but it’s not something to be concerned about. I saw some good signs that he can be effective.”
Neither Clemens nor manager Kevin Kennedy made reference to the calf strain. Kennedy, in fact, went out of his way to praise Clemens’ effort, though he did admit he thought of pulling him sooner.
“I thought about taking him out in the fifth, but I wanted him to leave the game on a positive note,” said Kennedy. “I thought he pitched well for four innings. His arm looked great and we’re happy to have our ace back. But it’s not going to be that he’s going to have to carry the club. One guy doesn’t have to do it on this team.”
While he threw mostly fastballs, his usually effective forkball was tagged for key base hits. He maxed out at 94 m.p.h. on the radar guns, but Clemens’ other stuff was lacking. He threw 84 pitches, 11 short of what was planned. While on rehabilitation, he was concerned about the number of Sox hitters who were being hit with pitches, and he hoped to do something about it when he returned. But he didn’t expect to hit three Mariners, including the innocent Chad Kreuter twice.
“He was pumped up,” said Macfarlane. “It was only his first start back. He’s going to be fine.”
This was a game pitting two hurlers -- Clemens vs. Chris Bosio -- who had accomplished major feats against their respective teams. Clemens threw a major league record 20 strikeouts at the 1986 Mariners, while Bosio tossed a no- hitter against the Red Sox seven years later, in April 1993.
That seemed a distant memory to Clemens in the fifth, when a lined single to right by Edgar Martinez knocked in a pair, as did Jay Buhner’s deep shot just below the flagpole in left-center field that just made it over the fence.
Trailing, 5-2, there seemed little hope. There were a few boos in the crowd. But suddenly Valentin started cranking and the Sox were again impersonating the Cardiac Kids of 1967. The bullpen racked up five scoreless innings.
Is this pennant fever in June? Or is this just a dream?
“It’s June,” reasoned Macfarlane. “The pennant isn’t decided in June. But it’s fun. It’s a lot of fun.”