Homers were flying out of Fenway Park at a clip never surpassed in the American League this season — nine of them — but in the end it was three cheapie singles that decided yesterday’s 9-8 Red Sox victory over the White Sox.
Not to mention that bane of modern baseball — overmanaging.
"I turned around when [Mike Greenwell] hit that ball,’’ said Chicago reliever Roberto Hernandez, "and I thought it was just a routine grounder. I’d thrown him a pretty good pitch and he just went with it. I was surprised to see it got through.’’
Greenwell’s soft bounder with two out and none on in the ninth of a tie game normally would have been a routine grounder to third base. Except White Sox third baseman Robin Ventura was virtually atop the line, the routine strategy for managers seeking to avoid giving up late doubles.
But with a lefty up? At Fenway? Where the left-field stands jut over to the line itself, and maybe only Willie Mosconi could have shot a ball that would get between the third baseman and the bag and still end up in the left-field corner?
"So?’’ said White Sox manager Terry Bevington, when asked about the non-Fenway strategy. "I’d do it again the same way.’’
But in Fenway?
"Sometimes they bounce back off that little wall and sometimes they don’t bounce back,’’ said Bevington. "And if they don’t bounce back, it’s a double. I’d do it again.’’
The Red Sox took advantage of the opening. Lee Tinsley ran for Greenwell and John Valentin bounced another ball toward third — this one more toward the hole — that the street people in Kenmore Square were closer to than Ventura, still rubbing his spikes on the chalk line. "They got three hits off me,’’ said Hernandez, "and they only hit one of them hard.’’
Sort of. Troy O’Leary, 1 for 12 entering the game, then bounced one up the middle that eluded second baseman Ray Durham and drove in Tinsley with the winner. "A cheapie?’’ said O’Leary. "I don’t care if it was a cheapie . . . it was a hit’’, and it was a hit that won the game and kept the Red Sox flickering wild-card hopes alive, if barely. Boston trails surging Baltimore by 6 games.
Now to the fireworks show that was seen on sports highlights shows all across America last night, the nine homers by the teams that might have tied the AL record but did less to decide this game than the White Sox braintrust stationing Ventura atop the third-base line with two out in the ninth.
Chicago’s Frank Thomas took Tim Wakefield deep his first three at-bats ("I’ve never had much success against Wakefield,’’ said the Big Hurt; "I didn’t even take batting practice’’) and was walked intentionally his fourth time up. For which Red Sox manager Kevin Kennedy was roundly booed by his own fans, the 32,452 at Fenway.
"I understand how the fans felt,’’ said Kennedy of his unpopular move in the seventh. "I know they were thinking of four homers [for Thomas], but I was thinking of winning the game.’’ Kennedy’s move of walking Thomas — putting the lead run on base in a 6-5 game — backfired, as the White Sox scored three runs.
More on Thomas’ fifth at-bat later. Before then, though, the Red Sox’ Mo Vaughn watched Thomas’ rockets against Wakefield ("I was inspired by them’’) and decided to emulate his closest pal in baseball, by hitting two of his own, one a monstrous two-run shot in the fifth off Kevin Tapani that landed half-a-league beyond the 420-mark in right center and officially was measured at 468 feet.
Meanwhile, Valentin was feeling so much pain in his left shoulder "that I was thinking before the game to ask out. I didn’t think I could play. That shows you what can happen when you don’t think you can play.’’
Valentin hit two homers of his own, and a home run from Valentin has been as rare recently as an eclipse of the sun. His last had come July 11 and his previous one at Fenway had been June 29, his power seeping from his body because of the shoulder injury.
"I didn’t have my splitter,’’ said Tapani. "I didn’t have any sink on my fastball . . . it was kind of flat, I guess.’’
For certain. Vaughn hit his three-run homer in the first off Tapani, then Valentin homered in the fourth and Vaughn (41st homer, 133 RBIs) hit his two-run shot in the fifth.
Meanwhile, Thomas and the White Sox had constructed a most-unusual scoring line by their fifth, five runs and five hits off Wakefield, all five of the hits home runs (three by Thomas, others by Ventura and Danny Tartabull). Tidy were the White Sox this day.
By the eighth, though, the game was tied at 8 when Heathcliff Slocumb (4-5) was summoned by Kennedy with two out and none on. Slocumb got ahead of Dave Martinez, 0-2, but then walked him ("I was really upset at that walk’’), bringing up Thomas for his fifth at-bat. The Red Sox closer had struck out Thomas in four of the Big Hurt’s five at-bats against him this year "and after I threw him the first fastball,’’ said Slocumb, "I could see he wasn’t too comfortable.’’ Thomas promptly struck out.
Then, in the ninth, with Ventura closer to the chalk than a first-grade teacher, the Red Sox won it with three cheapos. On the scale of the day’s fireworks, only 1-inchers, but they hurt the White Sox — and their wild-card chances — mightily.