This year's league championship series have already produced all the elements of high baseball drama -- great pitching, clutch hitting, incredible last-gasp comebacks, and a succession of ``little guys'' stealing the spotlight from their better-known peers. And some of the most exciting moments may still be to come as the two best-of-seven series now return to Boston and Houston for their final chapters.
In truth, though, it is difficult to imagine anything more pulsating than Games 4 and 5 of the American League playoffs in Anaheim over the weekend.
Trailing two games to one, the Red Sox brought 24-game winner Roger Clemens back with three days' rest in a bid to even the count. The ace right-hander appeared in command, too, entering the ninth inning with a 3-0 lead. California still had three outs to go, however, and as we are finding out repeatedly in these series, those last three are often the hardest ones to get.
A homer by Doug DeCinces and singles by Bob Boone and Dick Schofield finished Clemens, and a double by Gary Pettis on a misjudged fly ball made it 3-2 with runners on second and third. It came down to a two-out, bases-loaded situation, and reliever Calvin Schiraldi was one strike away from saving the game. But he hit Brian Downing with a pitch to force in the tying run, and the Angels went on to win in the 11th on a run-scoring single by another of their long-term veterans, Bobby Grich.
But this was just the warm-up act for Game 5! Now leading three games to one, the Angels went with their own ace, Mike Witt, and he entered the ninth inning with a 5-2 lead. A two-run homer by Don Baylor made things interesting, but with two out and nobody on base, Boston was down to its very last chance for 1986.
Rich Gedman (3 for 3, including a homer and a double) was up, so California manager Gene Mauch brought in southpaw Gary Lucas to face the left-handed hitting catcher. But Lucas threw only one pitch, hitting Gedman, and the tying run was on base. Now Mauch switched to right-hander Donnie Moore, and when the count to Dave Henderson went to 1-2, the Angels were one strike away from the World Series. The crowd of 64,223 in Anaheim was going berserk, the wild celebration of the team's first pennant just an instant away, when Henderson smashed a long drive into the left-field stands.
Ironically, Henderson was only in the game because starter Tony Armas had been injured. And three innings earlier Dave had just missed a spectacular catch, only to have Grich's long drive glance off his glove into the stands for a two-run homer. It wasn't really a ``goat-to-hero'' sort of thing, for Henderson had made a great effort on the ball and couldn't be blamed for not holding it, but still it added to the drama of the whole setting.
The Boston ninth wasn't the ball game, though. After all, California had the bottom of the order coming up -- which in this series means its most dangerous hitters! Indeed, the most amazing thing about the first five games has been the production of these supposedly less dangerous Angels. Boone, a top catcher but a .222 hitter during the season, is leading all regulars on both teams with a .529 average. Schofield, known mainly for his play at shortstop, has seven hits including a tiebreaking homer in Game 3. And speedster Pettis, a fine outfielder but an ordinary hitter with little power (five home runs all year), is batting .429 and smashed the two-run homer that pretty much wrapped up that 5-3 third-game win.
And sure enough, some of these lesser lights did it again. A single by Boone, a sacrifice, and a single by equally unsung Rob Wilfong tied the score. Another single by Schofield and an intentional walk loaded the bases with one out and DeCinces coming up. Again the Angels could almost taste the pennant. Even a long fly ball would do it. But reliever Steve Crawford got him on a fly too short to score the run, induced Grich to hit back to the box, and escaped further damage.
So it was extra innings for the second straight game -- and this time the Red Sox won out, with Henderson again the hero via a sacrifice fly.
California still leads 3-2, and has outhit and outslugged the supposedly more muscular Red Sox. But after pulling this one out, Boston could be hard to stop -- especially with the action returning to Fenway Park.
All the heroics weren't in Anaheim, however, for a continent away in New York there were also some dramatic moments. Trailing 4-0, the Mets struck back to tie Game 3 in the sixth, mostly via Darryl Strawberry's three-run homer. They fell behind again 5-4, then won it when Len Dykstra hit a two-run homer in the ninth.
The Astros retaliated the next day, with star right-hander Mike Scott pitching his second masterpiece of the series for a 3-1 victory that evened the count at two games, ensuring that whatever happened in Monday's Game 5 at Shea Stadium, the series would indeed return to the Astrodome for its conclusion later this week.