BOSTON -- The Boston Red Sox have been building up to this. They took a weekend series from the second-place Toronto Blue Jays and closed out the regular season with a strong showing against Chicago's 94-win White Sox. But the oddsmakers apparently were not impressed.
The Oakland Athletics will arrive at Fenway Park today a solid 3-1 favorite to win the American League playoffs and move on to the World Series for the third year in a row.
The A's won 103 games during the regular season, 15 more than the Red Sox. The A's won eight of the 12 games between the teams, including four of six at Fenway Park. The A's appear to have a deeper starting rotation, a better bullpen and a more imposing offensive lineup. The only thing the Red Sox seem to have going for them is Roger Clemens in the opening game tonight, and that doesn't carry nearly as much weight against the A's as it might against anyone else.
Oakland starter Dave Stewart has a 6-1 career record against Clemens, and his three victories this year represent half of Clemens' 1990 loss total. Stewart also has won 11 of his past 14 decisions against the Red Sox, which explains why he isn't very welcome at Fenway Park.
The last time he pitched in the playoffs here, Fenway fans in the right-field bleachers showered him with racial slurs while he was warming up in the bullpen. Stewart publicly ripped them afterward, and has chosen not to let bygones be bygones.
"I don't want to," Stewart said. "I choose to feed on that, because it has proven to be a motivating factor for me. If I can use that as an edge, I'm going to."
There are several motivational factors at work whenever Stewart takes the mound against Clemens. It is Stewart who has won 20 or more games four seasons in a row, but it is Clemens who is recognized as baseball's premier starting pitcher. It is Stewart who has led his team to the World Series three straight years, but it is Clemens who has two Cy Young Awards to his none.
"Just knowing that you beat a guy one-on-one doesn't mean you're a better pitcher, at least not necessarily," Stewart said, "but it's an opportunity to pitch against the best, and I've always said that if you beat the best, you are the best."
Clemens might not be at his best, however. He has made only one start in the past month because of tendinitis in his shoulder, and he may have complicated his precarious physical status when he slammed his fist into a door in a clubhouse tantrum Tuesday night.
His poor fortune against the A's is not limited to Stewart. Clemens is 3-10 lifetime against the A's, who have been responsible for nearly 20 percent of his 51 career losses.
"It seems like we give Clemens a hard time," right fielder Jose Canseco said. "We try to get him to throw a lot of pitches -- get him to work hard -- and try to stay away from the high fastball. We're favored, but it's going to be tough. We may be be 3-0 against him this year [actually 3-1], but that doesn't really apply now."
There is room for doubt about Clemens' durability in this series, though he pitched impressively Saturday in a victory over the Blue Jays. The A's could use Stewart as many as three times in the best-of-seven series if necessary, but it seems unlikely that Red Sox manager Joe Morgan would risk putting that kind of strain on Clemens' sore shoulder.
Physical questions loom large for both clubs. Canseco has been in and out of the Oakland lineup with a sore back, Dave Henderson is coming off recent knee surgery and MVP `f candidate Rickey Henderson has been playing with an injured thumb. Boston designated hitter Dwight Evans returned only a couple of weeks ago from a back injury, but played a vital role in the Red Sox's 4-2 run against the Blue Jays and White Sox during the final six days of the regular season.
The A's appear to have sufficient depth to handle any such eventuality, but the Red Sox cannot afford to lose a steady player such as Evans for even a single game.
The opener appears to be crucial for the Red Sox, who cannot afford to cede their home-field advantage to a team that seems to have every other conceivable edge.
"This series is laid out the same as the series was two years ago," Morgan said. "It starts in the same place, and I said the last time that we would have to do well in this ballpark to win it."
The A's swept the 1988 playoffs in four games, defeating Bruce Hurst and Clemens in a couple of one-run games at Fenway before going home to put the series away without serious resistance.
"The shellacking they gave us the last time has no bearing whatsoever," Morgan said. "We're starting all over."
Both teams have undergone changes since the 1988 Championship Series. The Red Sox no longer have Hurst or outfielder Jim Rice. The A's have replaced starter Storm Davis with Scott Sanderson and recently added National League batting champion Willie McGee.
The series is being billed in Boston as the little team with all the heart against the big guys with all the talent, but A's manager Tony La Russa isn't buying it.
"Heart means a lot," La Russa said, "but there's no way Boston won the thing just on caring. I cared a lot when I played, and I was terrible."
NOTES: The Red Sox announced yesterday that pitchers Joe Hesketh and Wes Gardner would not be on the playoff roster. Neither chose to stay with the team through the playoffs, though both would be eligible for World Series play if the club decided to make changes in the bullpen. Injured infielder Tim Naehring also was left off the playoff roster.