The ironic twists in this year's World Series are not lost on New York Mets manager Davey Johnson. Seventeen years ago, Johnson played for another supposedly invincible team -- the 1969 Baltimore Orioles. That club, in fact, was the last one to come into a World Series with an even better record than the current Mets (109 regular-season wins vs. 108, and a sweep in the playoffs compared to New York's life-and-death struggle with Houston).
Those Orioles of Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer, etc., were also overwhelming favorites, but after winning the opening game they lost four straight. The authors of that astonishing upset, of course, were none other than the New York Mets.
``I don't want to talk about that,'' Johnson said prior to this year's opener against the Boston Red Sox. ``I don't even want to think about it at all.''
He was even less interested in such discussions, needless to say, after the Red Sox took command in this year's classic by winning the first two games in New York.
Now the best-of-seven series moves to Boston for the middle portion, starting with Game 3 tonight. And while players on both sides had the usual cautious comments, the Red Sox couldn't resist getting in a few digs about how boastful and overconfident the Mets and their fans had been.
``It's a good feeling to be 2-0 . . . since the Mets didn't think we should have even showed up,'' said Roger Clemens.
Indeed, the feeling around New York seemed to be that while the Red Sox had good hitting and starting pitching, they were lacking in too many other key areas -- including speed, defense, and relief pitching -- to offer a serious challenge. In Games 1 and 2, though, it was the Boston defense that made the big plays, while the Mets committed two costly errors. And the much-maligned Red Sox relief corps slammed the door, allowing three hits and no runs in 5 innings.
``The Mets and their fans have been saying that all they have to do is get into the Red Sox bullpen,'' said Steve Crawford, who won Sunday night's game in relief. ``We've proved them wrong.''
Both teams got strong pitching in Game 1, but a miscue by Met second baseman Tim Teufel on a routine ground ball led to the only score in Boston's 1-0 victory.
More of the same was expected in Sunday night's ``dream match'' between Boston ace Clemens and his Met counterpart, Dwight Gooden, but neither turned out to be in top form. It was the Red Sox hitters who took advantage, however, pounding Gooden and his successors for 18 hits, including home runs by Dave Henderson and Dwight Evans, en route to a 9-3 decision.
Clemens, pitching with an unaccustomed three days' rest for a third straight time, was no mystery either. But the defense, which had helped Bruce Hurst out of a couple of tight spots in Game 1, came through even more spectacularly to keep Clemens out of serious trouble.
Batting champion Wade Boggs showed he knows what to do with a glove on his hand too, coming up with fine plays to both his left and right at third base, and making a barehanded scoop of a deflected grounder to turn another possible hit into an out. Two of these plays came at a critical point, stifling the Mets in the midst of a dangerous third-inning rally and enabling the Red Sox to cling to a one-run lead until their bats exploded.
Meanwhile Evans, whose catch of Keith Hernandez' long drive in the right field corner was one of Saturday night's gems, made a diving, tumbling grab of a shot by Len Dykstra leading off the fifth inning -- a play that took on added significance when the next three batters reached base but the Mets wound up with just one run.
Such heroics are nothing new for the veteran outfielder, who made a memorable, game-saving catch in the 1975 World Series. Dwight is the only member of the current Red Sox who played in that classic -- and when asked to compare the two experiences, he left no doubt what could lift this one above the other.
``That first one was a great feeling, a great Series,'' he said, ``but I do remember one thing: the Cincinnati Reds were world champions.''
The Red Sox, on the other hand, have not been world champions since 1918, when a young left-hander named Babe Ruth won two games. Since then their history has been one of frustration, including seventh-game losses in every World Series they reached -- 1946, '67, and '75.
The way they played in New York, they looked like a team determined to change that image. And despite what most observers thought at the beginning, the Red Sox believe they have the ammunition to do the job.
``Not a thing surprised me,'' manager John McNamara said of the first two games. ``People are going to find out we're a pretty good ballclub.''
The Mets can console themselves that other teams have come back from 2-0 deficits to win the Series. And last year Kansas City became the first club ever to go all the way after losing the first two at home.
But this isn't what usually happens, and now for Games 3, 4, and 5 (if necessary) the Red Sox have the advantage of their own park and home crowd plus the designated hitter rule, which was not in effect in New York. That adds Don Baylor (31 homers, 94 RBIs) to the lineup, and eliminates those ``automatic outs'' by pitchers who haven't swung a bat in years.
The Mets, who now must win at least twice in Boston to avoid one of the all-time upsets, know how desperate their situation is as they send ex-Red Sox left-hander Bob Ojeda against Dennis (Oil Can) Boyd tonight.
``These two games have been uncharacteristic of us,'' said Hernandez, who has just one hit and who made a costly error in Game 2. ``But we're not quitters. We didn't get here by being quitters.''
``We need to get some more intensity,'' added Johnson. ``They still have to beat us two more times.''