If you look at the standings and do the simple but tricky math correctly, you can figure out that the magic number for the Toronto Blue Jays to clinch the American League's Eastern Division title is eight.
That's the same number of pitches Boston reliever Greg Harris needed to walk Randy Milligan and Dwight Evans to force in the winning run in the second game of yesterday's doubleheader with the Orioles. The 6-5 loss, following Roger Clemens' gut-wrenching 2-1 win over Dave Johnson in the opener, sent the Red Sox out of town thinking of a different kind of magic number.
Two. Two plays that led to two losses in the just concluded three-game series with the Orioles that could prove to be the turning point of the season for the defending division champions.
"I'm sure," said manager John Oates, "that if the Red Sox lose this thing they'll look back and wonder how they lost eight games [out of 13] to the Orioles."
And if they look hard enough, the Red Sox will find two plays in the last three games that represent the difference in the loss column today. One took place in the first inning of the first game of the series Monday night, the other in the last inning of the final game yesterday.
When Joe Orsulak threw out Jody Reed trying to stretch a single as the second batter of the series, it didn't seem like such a big deal. But when the Red Sox finished the inning with two singles, two doubles (from the first four hitters) and only two runs, a warning light should have gone off.
Boston scored only one more run the rest of the night and ended up on the short end of a 4-3 score.
In the ninth inning yesterday, Harris was within one pitch of completing a doubleheader sweep. But, with two outs and Chris Hoiles on first via a single, Mike Devereaux hit a 2-and-2 pitch that resulted in the second critical play of the series.
"I've hit some when I've started yelling 'fall in, fall in,' " said Devereaux. "But this one, I just tossed the bat away because I was sure it would be caught."
Devereaux was wrong. Centerfielder Steve Lyons, playing in place of the injured Ellis Burks, had just been waved back about five steps by the Boston bench. The lazy fly was hit in the direction of a strong left-to-right breeze.
The ball, which had more hang time than a hefty Sean Landeta punt, kept drifting away from Lyons and toward second baseman Reed. "When it was hit, I thought Jody would catch it," admitted Oates. "He started back, then took his eye off the ball to see where Lyons was and then I knew he wouldn't get it."
Lyons never came close and the ball nestled into the outfield grass, with Hoiles taking the tying run to third base. At that point, Harris had already pitched three innings and he was the only relief pitcher Boston manager Joe Morgan had used since Monday night. Cal Ripken, who previously had hit his 32nd homer off starter Joe Hesketh, promptly lined a single to left, making it 5-5, and pushing Harris to the brink.
Any question about Jeff Reardon's health was answered when the ace closer didn't even warm up in the bullpen. "He [Harris] was the best I had and I was staying with him all the way," said Morgan.
"All the way" proved to be eight pitches following Ripken's single. The winning run advanced two bases without a bat being swung and the game-winner was driven in by Dwight Evans, who beat his former teammates by looking at four pitches and trotting to first base.
Harris complained bitterly later that plate umpire Vic Voltaggio had a shrunken strike zone. "I was throwing strikes and they weren't being called," said the righthander. "I had a good breaking ball, but I wasn't going to give in and throw it down the middle. I figured if he [Voltaggio] saw enough of them he'd realize they were strikes."
But the walks were almost anti-climactic. "It wasn't the fact he walked guys, it was the ball that fell in that sparked the rally," said Clemens (18-8), who pitched magnificently in the first game.
Lyons agreed. "It was like the first ball I hit [a two-run single in the second inning], just a bleeder. I play where they tell me. You have to respect his power. It would be a lot tougher if he hit it off the wall and the guy scored from first."
The Red Sox had to wait through two postponements to play the last two games of the series. They lost an off-day, had their starting rotation altered, and ended up 2 1/2 games behind the Blue Jays -- one game worse than they were on Monday.
"We played for six hours, and didn't do anything, after waiting around for three days," said Lyons. "It makes it so we didn't do anything."
Lyons was wrong. The Red Sox did do something yesterday. They took two more games off the schedule. Two games that no longer can be used to their advantage.
Toronto's magic number has dwindled to eight (any combination of Blue Jays wins and Boston losses equals a division title). But don't try to tell that to the Red Sox.
Their not-so-magic number this week was two. Two plays, two losses.