With the Harvest Moon high in the sky last weekend, farmers across New England were measuring their yields, and Joe Morgan of Walpole, Mass., was no different. "Worst tomatoes I've had in years," said Morgan. "And a groundhog ate my brussels sprouts. Everything else is good."
So it is, because besides nurturing a sweet bounty of peppers, broccoli and eggplant, Morgan, who manages the Boston Red Sox when not tending his vegetables, has cultivated something that people from Bar Harbor to Beacon Hill can sink their teeth into: a pennant race. Eleven and a half games out of first and left for dead in early August, the Red Sox have revived in remarkable style. As of Sunday, they had won 31 of their last 42 games, including two of three from the New York Yankees last weekend, to close to within 1� games of the American League East-leading Toronto Blue Jays.
Pennant races are as common as beans in Boston, and Red Sox fans have observed this season's with considerable restraint. This Boston team is only vaguely reminiscent of the veteran group that began the season favored to successfully defend last year's division championship. Nor is it suggestive of those that have been responsible for so many epic failures in autumns past. To be sure, at the top of the batting order remains Wade Boggs, battling, at .333 through Sunday, for his sixth league batting title. Still leading the pitching rotation is Roger Clemens, whose 17-8 record, 2.43 ERA and league-leading 217 strikeouts at week's end had him rocketing toward his third Cy Young Award. And terminating matters is closer Jeff Reardon, who last week became only the second pitcher ever to accumulate 40 saves in each of three different seasons. (On Sunday he blew a chance to make it 41 this year when he offered up a plump, two-out, two-strike, ninth-inning fastball that New York's Roberto Kelly hoisted out of Fenway to tie at 5-5 a game the Red Sox would later lose.)
But Boston has risen with more than stars. Among those bearing down on the Blue Jays are an assortment of refugees from the waiver wire and a bumper crop of rookies, including two starting pitchers, Kevin Morton and Mike Gardiner, and a pair of brawny sluggers, Phil Plantier and Mo Vaughn. "I think the fans are taking this pennant race tongue in check," says second baseman Jody Reed. "They're having fun with it, but saying, 'We really don't think you guys will actually win it.' "
After a profligate winter spent dispensing fortunes to free-agent pitchers Matt Young and Danny Darwin and designated hitter Jack Clark, Boston management writhed through the season's first few months as its gold turned to dust. Darwin, whose contract was for $11.8 million over four years, was first weakened by pneumonia and then lost for the season in July with a torn rotator cuff. At the time, he had a 3-6 record with a 5.16 ERA. Young ($6.35 million, three years) had no excuses and suffered the cruel fate that comes to men with fat wallets and no control—he became Door-Matt, the local villain. At week's end, Young was 3-7 with a 5.18 ERA. Clark ($8.7 million, three years) was another cipher, hitting only .214 with 29 RBIs through June and embellishing these antiheroics with occasional choleric dispatches. He expressed a wish to be traded (subsequently retracted) and his intention to make kindling of a local sports-writer (mere spleen).
Despite all this, Boston was in first place as late as June 22. Then came a hideous 14-27 spell. On Aug. 9, the Red Sox found themselves in Toronto in third place, 11 games behind the Jays and looking very much dead. Four days and four pummelings of the Blue Jays later, the cadaver became so much palaver. "We had our backs against the wall in August," says Reed, "and the guys came back fighting. What triggered it? Who knows?"
As good an answer as any is Plantier, who was called up from Pawtucket for that series in Toronto. As of Sunday he was unfurling his vicious, uppercutting swing at a .361 clip and had seven home runs and 26 RBIs. Plantier's cigarette girl's waist and stevedore's biceps have also earned him plaudits from female fans in the stands, but Plantier, a soft-spoken outfielder, says he hasn't noticed all the fuss. What does catch his attention is the buffet in the Boston clubhouse. "They call me spread killer," he said while wading through a towering pregame plate of Chinese dumplings last Friday.
The 6'1", 230-pound Vaughn also eats with gusto, at least according to Morton, who should know. He played on the same ball field with Vaughn as kids in Nor-walk, Conn., in college at Seton Hall, in Triple A in Pawtucket and now in Boston. The prospect of competing in a pennant race doesn't faze Vaughn, who at week's end was hitting .413 with men in scoring position since joining the Sox in late June. "I've played in pressure-packed situations before," he says.
Morton, 4-1 since Aug. 9, benefits from this self-assurance. Vaughn likes to stroll to the mound from his position at first base during tense stretches to chat. "He'll say something stupid, and it loosens me up," Morton says.
Morgan's retooled pitching staff also features Gardiner and Joe Hesketh. The twice-released Hesketh's sinker has made him Boston's No. 2 starter, and last Saturday he notched a career-high 11th win over the Yankees. Gardiner, a chunky redheaded 25-year-old from Sarnia, Ont., has given the Red Sox six victories since Aug. 9—he was 9-7 overall through Sunday—and occasional bulletins from Toronto. "Being from Canada, my dad tells me the attitude up there," says Gardiner. "He says they're scared."