A slight touch of fall in the night air, the local colleges about to welcome Generation X back to academia, the Red Sox hinted at turning the Back Bay into an autumnal hardball heaven last night with a 4-3 victory over the Oakland A’s that pulled them within two games of .500 for the first time since the opening week of the season.
Mo Vaughn, the first batter to face lefthanded reliever Mike Mohler in the eighth inning, launched a three-run homer into the screen in left, bringing the Red Sox out from under a 3-1 deficit, carrying them to their 62d win and moving them within 6 1/2 games of the White Sox in the American League wild-card chase.
Vaughn’s blast, before a Fenway Park crowd of 25,094, was the offensive bookend to a brilliant defensive play by right fielder Darren Bragg, who made a graceful, diving, Fred Lynn-like grab of a Jason Giambi fly in the sixth, temporarily freezing the score at 1-1. Sprinting to his left to catch up with the sizzling drive, Bragg timed his dive perfectly, snared the ball in the palm of his glove and bellyflopped across the warning track in front of the outfield box seats. Tony Batista, who had singled, trotted back to first base, his sure run soon to be an LOB.
``I knew I was close [to the track], but you don’t worry about any kind of consequences,’’ said Bragg, who has brought some much-needed spark and grit to the Sox. ``I don’t care if I dive into a wall out there. If that happens, I’ll worry about it when I’m in the hospital, lying in some hospital bed -- that’s if there are any consequences.’’
So there it was, 126 games into this Revere Beach giant roller coaster of a season: a clutch three-run homer and some true grit on defense, not to mention a fine pitching performance by starter Mike Maddux (three runs in seven innings). Maddux almost booted it when former University of Maine star Mike Bordick cranked a two-run homer in the seventh, but by and large, it was a near-perfect win for the oft-struggling, patched-up, mix-and-match Sox.
Vaughn’s killing stroke was a piece of offensive art. After taking Mohler’s first offering for a ball, the big cleanup hitter reached out and muscled the next pitch out of the yard, one of those rising, majestic drives that dotted the twine as if put there by Picasso’s pinpoint brush. One dot in the night sky, one team picked up and delivered.
The excitement was palpable.
``I could feel it, man,’’ said Bragg, ``when Mo hit the three-jack.’’
It was, in contrast to Monday night’s 31-hit tractor pull with the Angels, one fine night of baseball in the Fens.
The sides traded single runs in the first inning and then let Maddux and Willie Adams dominate the stage for much of the next six. One highlight within the show: Maddux twice fanning home run heavyweight Mark McGwire, who both times was caught looking at the third strike.
``Maddux threw great, he really did,’’ said Sox manager Kevin Kennedy, whose club hasn’t been two games under break-even since Game 2 this season. ``He had some runners but he had a great repertoire.’’
Ditto for Adams, who, after the first inning, didn’t allow a Sox runner past first base until Jeff Frye and Tim Naehring opened the eighth with back-to-back singles. Out went Adams and in came Mohler, A’s manager Art Howe opting for the lefty-lefty matchup with Vaughn coming to the plate.
Two pitches later, the game was over the wall, along with logic, strategy and the law of averages. Vaughn fought the law and the Red Sox won.
``I just wanted to be aggressive up there,’’ said Vaughn, whose 36th homer lifted his RBI total to 115. ``It’s a fine line: You want to be aggressive but not too aggressive, and you don’t want to [lay back].’’
``Obviously,’’ said Kennedy, ``you can’t get any more clutch than that. Mo’s the heart and soul of our club. I’m just glad he’s in there every day.’’
The days grow few. The Yankees and Indians look too far ahead to catch. The White Sox sit there in the Midwest, the grandsons of Eddie Stanky, wondering what that faint rumble is in the Eastern sky. Could it be worth their worry?