Three of the most meaningful games most Boston players have ever been involved in will take place at Fenway Park, starting tonight. It is ironic that the Red Sox and the Toronto Blue Jays -- with short-term and long-term histories of late-season spills -- will meet to decide supremacy in the American League East.
"Obviously, this is the biggest series in baseball," said Boston leftfielder Mike Greenwell. "It's tense. It's fun. It's nerve-racking. It's everything it's supposed to be."
The Red Sox won in Detroit last night, 3-2, to move into a tie for first place with the Blue Jays. There is no way the two teams can leave this weekend's series tied.
Last night's victory ensured that best-of-three scenario. The Red Sox got a solid starting performance out of Tom Bolton (10-5), but the Tigers made it interesting when Cecil Fielder hit his 49th homer in the eighth off Dennis Lamp to make it 3-2.
So the stage is set for the Boston-Toronto series that probably shouldn't have mattered. The Red Sox let a 6 1/2 -game lead over the Jays melt over a 15-day period. They will be reminded of that often and sometimes ruthlessly if they lose the divisional title. There will be lots of directions to point fingers. Certainly, the injury to Roger Clemens will be considered the biggest factor. What Clemens proved beyond a reasonable doubt is that he is the team's most valuable player. Without him, the Red Sox are almost leaderless and spiritless. With him, they feel they can win.
The finger will be pointed at Lou Gorman for not acquiring a starting pitcher throughout the season. With Clemens' health still very much in question, a fresh arm would have fit neatly into the Red Sox' starting rotation now. The front office -- from the farm department to John Harrington -- will be blamed for not recalling Mo Vaughn, considered the only offensive threat in Pawtucket who could have made a difference.
Yet with all the problems, beating the Blue Jays and winning the division would inspire extreme satisfaction for many Red Sox.
"This would be the most personally satisfying win in all my years with the team," said Dwight Evans. "Toronto has more talent than we do. I truly believe that. But they don't have other things that we might have. We're a close-knit group here. We've had to overcome one blow after another. We lose [Jeff] Reardon. We lose Clemens. And with all the problems I've had physically, what's happened so far this year is very special to me. I'm proud to be a part of this team."
The aging veteran with few chances left to win a championship would like to be a key player in this series. He has come up with big hits intermittently, between bouts of pain as a result of a tightly lodged bone spur in his lower back.
"We respect the Blue Jays very much," said Evans. "We know how good they are, but we know what we're capable of. We can beat them."
Greenwell has experienced three pennant races. He was a rookie in 1986 and barely a part of that success. He was a big part of the 1988 team, and in the second half this year, Greenwell has been Boston's best hitter. After he was criticized for his poor first half and finally fessed up to an ankle injury, a combination of a cortisone shot and an ankle brace have allowed him to excel again. Since the All-Star break, he has a .323 average, 12 homers, 46 RBIs, 91 hits and 43 runs, team highs in each category.
"I want to be one of the guys who leads this team," Greenwell said. "The only scary thing about this is the failure side. Then we'll have to hear and answer the questions about how we choked or the jinx. No matter what happens, it's exciting for the players, the fans, the media. Hopefully, we won't look back and say we lost.
"There's no doubt it means so much for the fans of New England. If we could win a championship, it would be the most incredible thing that's ever happened. I know Boston is a great city for being fans of basketball and hockey and football. But I think they're even greater baseball fans. The Red Sox are the talk of the town. I can be at a gas station and the attendant will start talking about whether we can do it. When the Boston Red Sox win the championship, I want to be on that team. Could you
imagine being the one who wins Game 7 of the World Series in Boston?"
To dream . . .
The subject at hand is the Blue Jays. Greenwell feels the key to beating them is to do the same thing the Sox did in winning three of four games at the SkyDome Aug. 23-26 -- hold down Kelly Gruber and George Bell. The two combined to go 0-for-24 as the Red Sox won three straight shutouts. The Sox have beaten the Blue Jays in eight of 10 games this year. The Jays are hitting a paltry .217 against Boston and only .239 at Fenway. The Sox are hitting .315 against Toronto at Fenway.