Do not fold, spindle, or mutilate those programs.
In a September classic for the ages, Mike Mussina, the gifted righthander the Red Sox coveted and lost in last year’s free agent sweepstakes, came within one strike of pitching the first perfect game against the Red Sox in the franchise’s 101-year history.
With 33,734 on their feet and a blizzard of camera flashes firing, pinch hitter Carl Everett broke up the gem when he lined a 1-2 pitch to left off Mussina with two out in the ninth.
“Sure, I’m going to think about that pitch until I retire,” Mussina said, “but I made a hundred and something decisions tonight. A couple of my guys made great defensive plays. Those are the pitches I’m going to think about.”
Mussina, who has never thrown a no-hitter, retired the next batter, Trot Nixon, on a ground out to complete his fourth career one-hitter in a 1-0 victory over the Sox that capped a disastrous three-game sweep by the Yankees in the Fens.
“We don’t have a monkey on our back,” Nixon said. “We’ve got a god-damned gorilla on our back.”
In a duel between two of the finest pitchers of their generation, Mussina bested David Cone, who allowed just a single unearned run in 8 1/3 innings of mastery. Mussina was trying to pitch the first perfect game since Cone did it July 20, 1999, for the Yankees.
“It was surreal and eerie to watch him pitching in the ninth inning, one pitch away,” Cone said. “Part of me didn’t want him to do it because I was the last one. But part of me wanted him to do it because he’s such a great pitcher. I had mixed emotions.”
In an even more surreal ending, Sox pitching coach John Cumberland said he was told after the game by general manager Dan Duquette that he was being reassigned to Fort Myers, a move Cumberland said he would not accept.
The sacking of Cumberland followed one of the most dazzling streaks of three straight starts by Sox pitchers in recent memory. In one of the greatest tragedies of the weekend, Frank Castillo, Pedro Martinez, and Cone combined to pitch 21 1/3 innings against the Yankees, surrendering just one run, 10 hits, and a .139 average - and lost all three games.
The Yankees scored the winning run when Enrique Wilson’s double down the first base line with one out in the ninth drove home Tino Martinez, who had singled leading off. Martinez had gone to third when second baseman Lou Merloni failed to stop Paul O’Neill’s apparent double-play grounder, setting the stage for the final act of Mussina’s drama.
Making certain Duquette’s failure to land Mussina in the offseason forever will be etched in Boston lore, the former Oriole ace struck out 13 and let only a handful of balls get beyond the infield in his masterwork.
“Cone was right there with him, and that’s what’s even more frustrating for us,” Nixon said. “A guy goes out there and battles his [butt] off against his ex-teammates on national television, and on the flip side, you have Mussina doing his thing. It was a well-pitched game on both sides. No one guy deserved to lose.”
The loss was Boston’s eighth straight, the team’s longest losing streak since June 8-19, 1994, and it dropped the Sox nine games behind the Yankees in the American League East and eight off the pace in the wild-card race.
It looked like deja vu all over again. Forget the Labor Day Massacre of 1978. The most recent precedent for this weekend’s disaster unfolded just 12 months ago, when the Yankees stormed into the Hub Sept. 8 with a six-game lead in the AL East, and highstepped out with a nine-game lead after a similarly devastating three-game sweep.
“This was no Boston Massacre,” Cone said. “These were well-played games. They were just a little better in each game. We were beat by champions.”
Before Everett’s single, the closest the had Sox come to a hit was Troy O’Leary’s sharp grounder toward right field leading off the ninth. First baseman Clay Bellinger made a dazzling, diving stop and tossed to Mussina to erase O’Leary.
A batter later, Everett singled. “I’ve come into the ninth inning before [with a no-hitter],” Mussina said. “Maybe it’s just not meant to be.”
Mussina was trying to pitch the first no-hitter at Fenway Park since David Morehead spun one for the Sox Sept. 16, 1965. No one has no-hit the Sox in the Fens since Jim Bunning did it for the Tigers in the first game of a doubleheader July 20, 1958.
The Sox, who have been no-hit 14 times in their history, had not been no-hit anywhere since Chris Bosio shut them down in Seattle April 22, 1993.
As painful as the loss was for the Sox, manager Joe Kerrigan spoke for many of the witnesses.
“Watching a game like that is really a lot of fun,” he said. “That’s what baseball is all about. That’s what the Yankees and Boston are all about, watching a game like that.”
The Yankees had threatened often in the late innings, only to be thwarted each time by Cone until Merloni’s error contributed to the decisive run.
In the seventh, Jorge Posada laced a two-out grounder down the first-base line into the right-field corner for a double. Cone intentionally walked the next batter, O’Neill, to get to Randy Velarde, though the Yankees sent out Nick Johnson to pinch hit. No problem, as Cone fanned Johnson for his seventh strikeout of the game.
Cone faced a tougher challenge in the eighth when the speedy Alfonso Soriano singled leading off and stole second - his 39th of the season - with two outs and David Justice at the plate.
But after Cone walked Justice, he escaped harm when Nixon chased down a 400-foot shot by Bernie Williams at the wall in center.
In the end, though, Cone and his colleagues faced the harsh reality created by their prolonged losing streak.
“We need an unbelievable streak to even have a chance,” Cone said. “The odds are against us right now.”