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Peter Gammons
September 19, 1988
Boston held a slim lead in the American League East as New York swept Detroit
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September 19, 1988

Off To The Races

Boston held a slim lead in the American League East as New York swept Detroit

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When Roger Clemens had last won a game, America didn't know Quayle from quail and the Boston Red Sox were in third place in the American League East, 1½ games behind the Detroit Tigers and half a game behind the New York Yankees. That victory came on July 30, with Clemens pitching a complete game and beating the Milwaukee Brewers 3-2 in 100° heat. At the time no one in Dorchester or Otisfield much cared that in the July 30 game and one played six days earlier in equally scorching weather, Clemens had thrown 310 pitches.

The six weeks that followed were less a pennant race than an extended break in the action, during which it appeared that none of the contending teams in the division wanted to win. Amazingly, though Boston was merely .500 over that span, the Red Sox moved into first, 3½ games in front of the Yankees and the fading Tigers—and they did that without even one win from Clemens, who started six games during those six weeks and lost five.

Then, last Saturday, Clemens came back from near heat exhaustion, a back strain, shoulder tendinitis and self-doubt to take a no-hitter into the eighth inning before settling for a 6-0, one-hit victory over the Cleveland Indians. His shutout stretched Boston's lead to 3½ games over Detroit, which was in the process of suffering a four-game sweep by suddenly resurgent New York. The Yankees finished the job in dramatic fashion on Sunday with a two-run homer by Claudell Washington that capped a 5-4 victory in the bottom of the 18th inning. And though the Red Sox fell 4-2 to the Indians on Sunday, they were infused with new confidence brought on by the resurrection of their ace. "Everyone will look at us now and think, They've got the lead, and now they have Clemens back," said Boston second baseman Marty Barrett after Saturday's win.

Indeed, Tiger manager Sparky Anderson had that very thought. "The race is now the Red Sox' to win or lose," he said. "With the lead they have, with their hitters and, most of all, with those pitchers—Clemens, [Bruce] Hurst, [Mike] Boddicker and [Lee] Smith, all healthy—if they don't win, they'll have only themselves to blame. They have the best team."

But they also now have four clubs to beat. In late July it appeared that Boston, Detroit and New York were headed for a three-way photo finish, but in August, when Milwaukee was the only team in the division to win more games than it lost, the Brewers and Blue Jays crept back into the chase.

The main reason for that was the collapse of the Tigers. On Labor Day, as Anderson wrote out the lineup that would face Toronto, his Tigers looked more like pussycats: The starters that day had hit a combined .203 since the All-Star break, with seven home runs. In the four games Detroit had just lost to the Brewers, Milwaukee had more runs (24) than the Tigers had hits (18). To make matters worse, Anderson's pitching staff was breaking down: Jeff Robinson was out for the rest of the year with circulatory ills in his pitching hand; and Doyle Alexander had a tired arm, Frank Tanana a tired shoulder and Eric King a tight and tired back. By the time the holiday sun set, Detroit had lost the divisional lead for the first time in 40 days. And for the first time since 1986, Boston was alone on top.

Labor Day weekend was also when the Brewers reentered the race by sweeping those four games at Detroit before beating the Chicago White Sox 5-3 to move within four of Boston. Because their remaining 21 games were all against Western Division teams, the Brewers not only had to win, but also had to hope that the Eastern leaders would continue to falter. "It's not so much that we charged into this thing as our being in the right place at the right time," said Milwaukee's Paul Molitor. "Now we have to think about winning."

Toronto also saw a ray of hope that weekend, moving within 6½ games of the lead by handing Detroit its fifth straight loss. And even the Yankees, who had looked flatter than the Tigers in August, got fresh life. They rallied to beat the Indians 7-2 behind Rick Rhoden, who became the first New York pitcher in more than a month to win two starts in a row. Said Yankee manager Lou Piniella, "We're fortunate to be breathing, but we have a chance."

The Red Sox had arrived in Baltimore before dawn on Labor Day morning for the last stop on a 13-game road trip. "We said before we left Boston that if we came home within two games of first, we could win it," said first baseman Todd Benzinger. "When we woke up in Baltimore and realized we could go home in first place, all of a sudden, everything felt different."

Manager Joe Morgan wanted to make sure it stayed that way. When a black cat leaped onto the field and headed for the Boston dugout in the first inning that night, Morgan jumped to the top step and screamed until the cat fled. "I'm not superstitious," he said, "but I wasn't taking any chances with a damned black cat."

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