The Oakland Athletics and Boston Red Sox had considerably different resumes when they came into the 1988 ALCS. The A’s had dethroned the defending World Series champion Minnesota Twins in the AL West, won 104 games and were the favorite to win it all. The Red Sox had fired a manager in midseason and crawled to the top of a weak AL East, winning the division with an 89-73 record.
The results of the American League Championship Series were predictable—an Oakland sweep—but the Red Sox made each game competitive and the ALCS was filled with could’ve, should’ve moments that might have altered its course.
Homefield advantage was determined on a divisional rotation basis, and it was the East’s turn, so in spite of the records, the series opened in Fenway Park on the first Wednesday afternoon of October. Dave Stewart, a 21-game winner, got the start for the A’s, while the Red Sox went to lefty Bruce Hurst, who was about to be voted MVP of the 1986 World Series before a certain infamous two-out rally and ground ball got in the way.
Stewart and Hurst each pitched well, and no one scored until the fourth, when Oakland’s MVP leftfielder Jose Canseco hit a solo home run. In the bottom of the seventh, the Red Sox tied it. Jim Rice drew a one-out walk, Stewart hit Jody Reed with a pitch and Rich Gedman singled to load the bases.
Lefthander Rick Honeycutt was summoned to face Wade Boggs. The third baseman hit it hard, a line drive to left, but it was caught. The tying run was still able to score.
Even though Boston had tied it, the opportunity for a big inning with Boggs at the plate had been missed. Oakland immediately made it hurt. Carney Lansford led off the top of the eighth with a double down the left field line and Dave Henderson promptly slapped a single the other way to right. A’s closer Dennis Eckersley came on, and with two outs in the ninth, Reed doubled and Gedman walked. Boggs had another chance, but struck out, ending the 2-1 game.
The Red Sox hoped Roger Clemens could win what was close to a must-win game at Fenway Park on Thursday night in Game 2. The A’s went with Storm Davis, and once again, both starting pitchers were sharp. No one scored through five innings.
It was Boston who broke through with two outs in the sixth. Dwight Evans and Mike Greenwell each walked, and then Rice’s line drive to centerfield was muffed by Henderson. It called to mind key outfield errors made by the A’s when these same franchises met in the 1975 ALCS. The Red Sox had the game’s first run and a base hit by Ellis Burks made it 2-0.
Once again, Oakland not only responded, they did it within two batters. Henderson singled to start the seventh and Canseco homered to tie the game. Dave Parker singled. After a ground ball force out put the faster Lansford on the bases, he took second on a balk, third on a two-out wild pitch and scored on a single to left by Mark McGwire.
The Red Sox had their own response, getting a Gedman home run to wrap around the Pesky Pole in right field and tying the game 3-3. The game would go into the hands of the closers, Eckersley and Boston’s Lee Smith.
With two outs in the ninth, Smith was ready to give his lineup a chance, but three rapid singles by Ron Hassey, Tony Phillips and Walt Weiss scored the go-ahead run. The lightest hitters of the Oakland lineup had beaten one of the game’s better closers. Eckersley—the game’s very best closer, slammed the door on the 4-3 win.
The ALCS shifted west for an early evening local start in Game 3 and Boston didn’t show any signs of quitting against A’s starter Bob Welch. The top of the first began with consecutive singles by the Red Sox’ Killer B’s—Burks, Marty Barrett and Boggs. Greenwell cleared the bases with a double and a 3-0 lead. One inning later, Burks doubled, was bunted over and scored on a Boggs sac fly. Greenwell, who finished second to Canseco in the MVP voting, came through again, with a solo home run.
With a 5-0 lead and Mike Boddicker, the MVP of the 1983 ALCS for the Baltimore Orioles, on the mound, it would have seemed Boston was ready to get back in the series. But Oakland wiped almost the entire lead by the time the second inning was over.
McGwire led off the bottom of the second with a home run. Hassey singled, and then scored on a two-out double from Weiss. Lansford homered and it was 5-4. In the bottom of the third, Boddicker again got two outs but couldn’t finish. McGwire singled and Hassey homered, and the A’s had the lead by the time the game went to the middle innings.
Welch had been removed and reliever Gene Nelson got out of two key jams. In the third inning and fifth innings, the Red Sox had runners on the corners with one out. Both times, Nelson got a double play grounder. In the fifth, the combination of McGwire and Hassey again delivered, and with two outs. A single and double from the duo made the game 7-5.
An Oakland mistake helped Boston pick up a run in the seventh, when Boggs was able to take second on a two-out single due to another Henderson error in the outfield. Evans picked up the RBI with a base hit. But the notion of a shutdown inning was something the Red Sox staff just couldn’t pull off. Parker doubled with one out in the bottom of the seventh and Stan Javier drilled a two-out single to widen the lead back to 8-6.
The ball went to Eckersley who set down six straight Boston batters and a two-run homer by Henderson stripped whatever drama was left in the 10-6 final.
A comeback by the Red Sox looked hopeless, and there wasn’t even a 2004 rallying cry to invoke at this time. Not to mention, Stewart was on the mound for Game 4, ready to make three starts in this ALCS if necessary. Hurst would try and extend the series for Boston.
Hurst pitched reasonably well, but he fell behind early. Canseco got him for an opposite field home run in the first, and Henderson hit an RBI double in the second. Hurst settled in and kept the game at 2-0 and the Red Sox tried to rally in the sixth.
Barrett worked a leadoff walk and Boggs followed with a single. Boston picked up a run with productive ground ball outs from Greenwell and Rice, but once again, the chance for a crooked number at a time when it was badly needed was missed. Stewart was removed in the eighth after surrendering a leadoff single to Burks, but Honeycutt promptly got a double-play ball from Barrett.
Eckersley, the Mariano Rivera of his day, was ready for the ninth, so a 2-1 lead seemed insurmountable. But in case there was any doubt, the A’s tacked on two more runs in the bottom of the eighth. Eck slammed the door for his fourth straight save to clinch Oakland’s first pennant since 1974.
The 1988 ALCS MVP went to Eckersley, for his four saves, encompassing six innings and zero runs. It was the right pick, as his ability to close out games while Smith struggled and gave up three runs in 3.1 IP, was the single biggest difference in this series.
But it was far from the only difference. Nelson worked 4.2 IP of shutout ball, including the key moments of Game 3 when Boston was in its strongest position. Canseco hit three home runs, all of them significant. The only Red Sox performer of note was Boggs, who hit .385.
The biggest surprise was not that Oakland won this ALCS, or even that they swept it. It’s that they only had one more win ahead of them. The A’s were heavy favorites against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series, but a stunning loss in Game 1 that has a unique place in MLB history, got the ball rolling the wrong way and Los Angeles won in five games.
But whatever happened in the World Series, the A’s were entering a three-year run of dominance in American League Championship Series play. They won three straight pennants from 1988-90 and their record in those series was 12-1. That’s dominance and it started in 1988.