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It came in, scratchy and wispy, on hand-held transistor radios that were tuned to WSAR in Fall River, Mass., which carries broadcasts of Yankee games, and someone in the bleachers yelled out the news just as a kid in a Red Sox hat thrust his arms triumphantly heavenward behind home plate. "I was standing there at second, watching the hitter, and all of a sudden I knew someone had gone deep for Cleveland," said Boston's Jerry Remy. "My knees started shaking." Slowly, row by row, section by section, the crowd began to rise until up it went on the scoreboard: Cleveland 2, New York 0. The place exploded.
Early Sunday afternoon, as the Indians' margin mounted, there was a succession of such outbursts in Fenway Park until, in the fifth inning, the Red Sox gave the old master, Luis Tiant, two runs to work with. Then there was an atomic blast of cheering as Bostonians sensed that the team they had given up on was going to have another chance—in a playoff—to win the American League East.
Coming into Sunday's game, the Red Sox, who had been killed two weeks before in New York and buried a week later in Toronto, had won their last seven games and 11 of their last 13. They were playing as well as they had in July, when they led the Yankees by 14 games. They had gone seven games in a row without an error. Their pitchers had an earned run average of 2.77 down the stretch. But it had done little good, because the Yankees, too, were on a tear, having won six straight. "When I went out to my position, I looked up and saw that instead of listing all the American League games, they only had Cleveland at New York on the scoreboard," said Third Baseman Jack Brohamer. "That's when I said to myself, 'This is something special.' But I kept wondering how Cleveland could win. Then I heard that roar from the bleachers, and I thought, 'Damn, tomorrow's going to be the biggest game of my life.' " Brohamer, like all his teammates, never considered the possibility of Tiant losing. But they had not given the Yankees much chance of losing, either, and a Boston win and a New York loss was the only way the season would continue for the Sox.
The Sox' desperate straits were the result of an 18-day stretch that began with the second game of an Aug. 30 double-header and lasted through Sept. 16. During that span Boston had lost 14 of 17. "I've never seen a good team do absolutely everything so poorly," says Manager Don Zimmer. Boston hit .192; Tiant was the only starting pitcher to win a game; the fielders made 33 errors.
The darkest moment came on Sept. 16 with a ninth-inning, 3-2 defeat in Yankee Stadium. It was the Sox' sixth straight loss to New York and left them 3� games behind. Privately, the players conceded the race was over.
The next day Boston's ace, Dennis Eckersley, turned both teams around. With relief from Bob Stanley, he beat the Yankees 7-3, bringing Boston back to some form of life and putting New York's bats into a mild slump that would last five days. Boston went to Detroit and won three out of four, and then had one more dismal moment before the final week. It occurred on Friday, Sept. 22 in Toronto, when the Blue Jays rallied in the ninth for a 5-4 win. Meanwhile the Yankees were in the process of scoring three ninth-inning runs in Cleveland to force their game into extra innings. "It's over," Rick Burleson told Quincy Patriot Ledger writer Bob Finnigan. Then word came that the Indians had won the game. "You'd better not write that for a day or two," Burleson said, and when Tiant beat Toronto 3-1 the next day and the Yankees again lost to Cleveland, the lead was down to one with seven to play. "We've gone from the deathbed to the street in 19 hours," said Sox owner Haywood Sullivan. "From that time on, any player who said he wasn't looking at the scoreboard was a liar or a fool," said Bob Bailey.
If the Yankees thought that these parallel series would give them another game or two of breathing room, they did not realize how well the Red Sox were playing. "Sure, we have to win, but the pressure's on the Yankees more than it's on us," said Eckersley. "When you're in second place, all you can think about is winning. When you're in first and the blue light's flashing in the rearview mirror, you have to think about not losing. There's a difference, as we found out."
In Tuesday's series opener against the Tigers, Eckersley got three runs in the first inning to work with and fired a seven-hit, 6-0 shutout for his 19th win. The next night, with Tiant pitching, the Sox again got three in the first on key hits by Carlton Fisk and Fred Lynn, and Boston won 5-2. Then on Thursday the final missing cog was found. Mike Torrez had been without a win since Aug. 18, an eight-start, six-loss span. With the help of four double plays, he threw a three-hit shutout at the Tigers and ended his slump, 1-0, when Jim Rice hit a home run. Boston had swept the Tigers, but the Yankees had swept the Blue Jays.
That brought it down to a one-game lead, three games to play, with the Indians arriving in New York and the Blue Jays in Boston. The Red Sox blew out Toronto as Stanley came out of the bullpen for his third start of the season and had a no-hitter going into the sixth. The victory was so easy that the time of possession was Boston 77 minutes, Toronto 37. It was 8-0 Red Sox by the third inning. At the end it was 11-0.