Spare no superlatives. This was a baseball gem. This 2-1 game -- in this season of baseball with volleyball scores, badminton scores and too many football scores -- was a masterpiece.
Put off your playoff permutations, too. Save them for another day, because if Neil Armstrong can say he was on the moon, the 30,503 fans at Fenway Park last night can say they were close. They savored a rarity of rarities in 1996: awesome pitching, exquisite defense and the classic ending to a baseball game -- a homer by the home team in the ninth.
The Red Sox beat the A’s, 2-1, on Roger Clemens’ classic pitching and Troy O’Leary’s one-out homer in the ninth. It added up to their 17th triumph in 22 starts and their first visit to the .500 mark (64-64) this season, which has thrust them within 4 1/2 games of the slumping White Sox in the American League wild-card scramble.
``To be honest,’’ said manager Kevin Kennedy, ``I didn’t think we’d be able to get back here until Mo [Vaughn] hit that [winning] homer in Baltimore.’’ And that, fans, was the last game before the All-Star break.
But this is a whole new world for the Sox, one in which they seemingly can do no wrong. They won all three games in this series on their last turn at bat, coming up with eighth-inning rallies in the first two. Then Clemens’ scintillating pitching, which produced a 1-0 game until there were two outs and two strikes in the Oakland ninth, and O’Leary’s Pesky poke that grazed the right-field foul pole meshed to make this the most memorable night of Boston baseball this season.
Excitement built from the start. Some 4,500 fans bought tickets the day of the game, the Red Sox’ biggest walk-up sale this season, and Clemens responded to the enthusiasm.
The Boston ace came into the game with a shutout string of 19 1/3 innings, and as Oakland kept flailing, ``I was there in the dugout keeping track of Roger’s scoreless streak,’’ said Kennedy. ``It was awesome to watch.’’
Oakland’s Ariel Prieto was nearly as good, giving up only one run. That came in the fifth when Lee Tinsley walked with two out, took off for second on a 1-2 pitch to Darren Bragg and coasted home as Bragg’s friendly Fenway fly grazed The Wall in left for a double. So the stage was set.
By the eighth, Clemens’ shutout string was up to 27 innings, remotely within sight of Cy Young’s club-record 45 2/3 in 1904. But Clemens was more concerned about ``doing what I always do, going through in my mind the hitters coming up and reviewing what I’d already thrown them.’’
The eighth was the inning that most was on Clemens’ mind. ``I knew that [Scott] Brosius and [Mark] McGwire were coming up, and I knew if I could get through the eighth, I had the little, lower guys coming up in the ninth,’’ said Clemens.
McGwire? He has been chasing Babe Ruth, but not this night, because the A’s slugger came in 3 for 38 against Clemens (.079 on your trusty calculators) and had flied out softly three times before stepping up in the eighth with two out.
``You’re talking to the wrong guy about Roger Clemens,’’ said McGwire, ``because he has it all against me all the time.’’
McGwire fisted a humpbacker over Vaughn’s head for his fourth career hit against Clemens, but it was no threat. Geronimo Berroa struck out -- Clemens had 11 Ks, six of them called -- and the 1-0 gem wound into the ninth.
``I walked out there knowing those little guys [Phil Plantier, Tony Batista and Mike Bordick] weren’t going to hurt me,’’ said Clemens. ``But I also had an idea that they were going to bring in Stairs to try and pop one.’’
So? The crowd was roaring. Plantier struck out. Batista popped to second. And up to the plate stepped a pinch hitter for Bordick, none other than Matt Stairs -- yes, that Matt Stairs, the ex-Red Sox reserve.
First pitch. Strike. Second pitch. Strike. And now Clemens was one pitch away from a 1-0 win.
``It was a good pitch,’’ said Clemens. ``If I had my druthers, I wish I’d bounced it to him.’’ But Stairs pulled the low pitch, tripling to the triangle in right-center. Now came Terry Steinbach, pinch-hitting for Izzy Molina.
Again Clemens threw a pitch he liked, ``a forkball that broke right in on him.’’ But Steinbach fisted a soft liner that dropped over the head of second baseman Jeff Frye. Tie game, 1-1.
Disappointment? Huge. ``But what was on my mind,’’ said Clemens, ``was to keep it even, 1-1, not to let them get ahead.’’ Which he did, inducing Jose Herrera to hit into a fielder’s choice.
Clemens walked to the dugout, and ``the first thing I said when we got to the dugout, he recalled, was, `It’s not going to be easy. We’re going to be tested again.’ ‘’
O’Leary responded to the test. Oakland reliever Mark Acre had come in, ``and the first couple of pitches, I tried to hit them out,’’ said O’Leary. ``He threw me a forkball. I was just trying to fight it off. But I got it up . . . ‘’
The ball hit the pole. A true Fenway homer, to the 301-foot mesh in right, but it was monumental to this team.