The instant the ball left Mike Pagliarulo's bat, a sense of grim inevitability settled like some poisonous vapor on old Fenway Park, on all of old New England, for that matter. Yes, fainthearted Boston Red Sox fans were telling themselves, it was happening again, just as it had 10 years ago. The New York Yankees were going to lay remorseless waste to another September of hope and promise. Indeed, there was Pagliarulo's fly ball sailing through the cool air last Friday night in an obvious home run arc to the seats in rightfield, transforming yet another apparent Red Sox win into a foredoomed loss. But let us set the scene:
The Yankees came to Boston for a four-game series last week 4½ games behind the Red Sox in a tightening American League East race. Sound familiar? New York had been four back when it hit town in September 1978; it then trashed Boston in four straight by a cumulative score of 42-9, took a share of the divisional lead and finally won the pennant, 5-4, in the postseason Fenway playoff game in which Bucky Dent hit his famous—infamous in New England—seventh-inning homer into the net beyond the leftfield wall.
The eerie similarity between the circumstances then and those of last week set Red Sox fans off on a veritable rampage of dread and self-loathing. It was as if they felt only another Boston Massacre could release them from this terrible angel. Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle wrote on Thursday of a recurring nightmare he had been enduring, in which Dent, "this short, beady-eyed guy with the Daytona 500 haircut," stood in the on-deck circle, "a broken bat in his hand and an evil gleam in his eye."
And so, when the Yankees won the first game of the series last Thursday 5-3, driving Sox ace and American League strikeout king Roger Clemens from the mound, Bostonians nodded in miserable acknowledgment of their fate. The Yanks were now 3½ out and closing. If Clemens, who had tossed a one-hitter in his previous outing to break an 0-5 pitching slump couldn't win, what now? Clemens didn't pitch badly, but he was humiliated by a homer and a key double from Pagliarulo, who had been hitting .096 in his last 16 games and, to make matters worse, hails from nearby Medford, Mass. He had also been hurt by a Claudell Washington steal of home made possible, Washington said, by Clemens's habit of ducking his head before going into his motion. Even so, it took five Yankee pitchers, from starter Rick Rhoden to closer Dave Righetti, to finish off the Sox. But then, Yankee pitching had been something of a group grope lately, anyway.
With his ace beaten, Boston manager Joe Morgan turned on Friday night to Wes Gardner, a former reliever and former Met (remember 1986!). Gardner gave up hits to the first three batters he faced—Rickey Henderson, Washington and Don Mattingly—and two runs, but he shut the Yankees down from there until the eighth inning. The New York starter, rookie lefthander Al Leiter, lasted only 27 pitches before retiring with a twinge behind his shoulder blade. The Sox jumped on his successors—Steve Shields, Dale Mohorcic and Lee Guetterman—for seven runs, five of them coming in a riotous fifth inning that included a bases-loaded walk to a rookie, Carlos Quintana, in his first major league at bat. Quintana was hitting for the storm-tossed Jim Rice, who this season had already been given a chilly reception by the Fenway faithful for his tired play, punished for shoving his manager and mocked as he closed in on the league career record for hitting into double plays; then, on Friday, he was hit on the left knee by a Leiter pitch that forced him to the sidelines, out of harm's way. Rice was just one of seven batters, six of them Red Sox, hit by pitchers in the first three games of this bitter series.
Boston had a comfortable 7-2 lead when New York came to bat in the eighth. Gardner gave way to Dennis Lamp after a walk to Rafael Santana and a single by Washington. Dave Win-field scored both of them with a missile off the wall. And when Jack Clark walked, the tying run came to the plate in the suddenly dangerous person of Pagliarulo. Morgan called on his hulking reliever, Lee Smith, who threw one pitch to the Massachusetts Yankee, a fastball "out over the plate," as Pagliarulo described it. Pags connected, and he "knew" the ball was out of the park. "How could it not be?" he asked later. "I hit it better than the one last night."
As the crowd fell silent, Yankee manager Lou Piniella was doing a little dance in the dugout and Sox rightfielder Dwight (Dewey) Evans was retreating, tracking the ball. Then, suddenly, Evans stopped just inches short of the wall, reached up and caught the ball one-handed. He didn't even have to leap. There would be no Yankee sweep this time. And, said Boggs, tweaking a horde of "negative" reporters afterward in the clubhouse, "There'll be no 1978 now. Sorry, fellas."
The fact is that this New York team, for all of its vaunted firepower, is not up to 1978 snuff. The defense is uncertain and the pitching is in disarray. The latest pitching coach, Clyde King, currently in his third term at that job, looks upon his staff much as Bonaparte must have viewed la Grande Armée on its retreat from Moscow. "Our bullpen is worn out," King said after watching a total of seven relievers go to the front Thursday and Friday. "We're using three, four, five guys a game. That's because we have to approach every game as if it were the last of the season. People malign our pitching staff. Well, if you look at the ERA [4.35 through Sunday], maybe it's deserved. But we have guys who, while they're not exactly hurting, are just a little tired."
King has been on the job for only five weeks and is the third Yankee pitching coach of the season; owner George Steinbrenner apparently considers men in this position as expendable as his managers. And in fact King would rather be back up in the front office as special adviser to the boss, the job he held before being called on to help out below. "Heck, since I've been here, I've been everything but owner," says King. That's one job, rest assured, he can forget about.
Both Piniella and Morgan entered this critical if not exactly historic series feeling they had to earn at least a split. Both wanted more, of course, especially Piniella, who looked red-eyed and sorrowful after Pagliarulo's near homer on Friday. Time, he knew, was running out on him. He has only this weekend's three-game series with the Sox in Yankee Stadium to make up the ground lost in Boston. Morgan, who comes across as a funnier, faster talking and certainly more profane Pa Kettle, was as relaxed and cheerful during the weekend as his team's fans were overwrought and fearful. He spent hours before every game regaling newsmen with recollections of his days as a "career minor leaguer."