What can Dennis Eckersley do for an encore now? The ace reliever and his Oakland teammates advanced to the World Series by sweeping Boston 4-0 for the American League pennant. But even the Eck would have to go some to match his record-breaking accomplishment of saving all four victories in the championship series.
Of course, the veteran right-hander had already given himself a tough act to follow heading into the playoffs by saving a major-league high 45 games during the regular season. Amazingly, though, he managed to top that with his magnificent performance against Boston, closing out every game in brilliant fashion to earn Most Valuable Player honors for the series.
In retrospect, Eckersley's biggest save may well have been the first one. Called in to preserve a 2-1 lead, Eckersley breezed through the eighth inning and got the first two batters in the ninth before a double by Jody Reed and a walk brought baseball's best hitter, Wade Boggs, to the plate with the game on the line. The Boston crowd of 34,104 was roaring in anticipation on every pitch, but Eckersley struck Boggs out to end the game.
Game 2 was easier - but not much. This time he came in to pitch the ninth, again with a one-run lead (4-3), and quickly silenced another jampacked Fenway Park crowd by setting the Red Sox down 1-2-3.
After that it was all downhill in Oakland as Eckersley saved a 10-6 victory in Game 3 and the decisive 4-1 triumph in Game 4. Overall, he pitched six scoreless innings, in which he allowed just one hit (Reed's first-game double).
Obviously, he would have to go some to match that performance in the World Series. But whatever happens to Dennis individually, the A's collectively look like a team that will be tough to beat in the best-of-seven classic that begins Saturday night in the National League city.
Oakland's performance in the playoffs came as no surprise, of course. The A's were the winningest team in baseball, with 104 regular-season victories, and they showed why against Boston with an impressive all-around display.
Led by Jos'e Canseco (3 home runs, 4 RBIs) and Dave Henderson (.375, a series-leading 6 hits including a double and a homer, and also 4 RBIs), the A's overwhelmed Boston at the plate with a .299 team batting average, 8 doubles, 7 homers, and 20 runs, against comparable figures of .206, 4, 2, and 11. The defense was sharp, with shortstop Walt Weiss and second baseman Mike Gallego both coming up with spectacular plays in key situations. Even in pitching, where Boston supposedly had the edge, the A's more than held their own. Dave Stewart turned in two strong starts, Storm Davis provided one, the middle relief corps came through in sterling fashion the one time it was needed (when Bob Welch failed as the Game 3 starter), and Eckersley did his thing at the end.
Red Sox fans didn't have much to cheer about, though they could hardly have been blamed for wondering if they were seeing double. For, ironically, the A's got many of their biggest contributions from three players - Eckersley, Henderson, and third baseman Carney Lansford - who had enjoyed some of their best previous years and/or most memorable moments in Boston uniforms.
Eckersley, a starter then, won 84 games in just over six years in Boston, including 20 in the near-pennant season of 1978. Henderson became an instant Red Sox hero with one swing of the bat two years ago when he hit the two-out, ninth-inning home run that saved the day in Game 5 in California and triggered the comeback that led to the pennant. Lansford, who had five hits, scored four runs, and made some sparkling plays in the field in this series, won the AL batting championship with a .336 average while playing for Boston in 1981.
There was even a fourth ex-Red Sox star in the Oakland lineup, Don Baylor, who in 1986 hit 31 regular-season home runs and batted .346 in the playoffs to power Boston to the pennant. His bat was relatively quiet this time, but he did drive in the final run of the series with a bases-loaded sacrifice fly, while providing his usual leadership in the dugout and the clubhouse.
So Boston fans still have a rooting interest of sorts as the A's head on to the World Series, but basically it is Oakland's show now - and most deservedly so.