The five years from 1986-90 were good for baseball fans in New England, at least by pre-2004 standards. The 1990 Boston Red Sox continued a pattern of even-year magic—the franchise won the AL pennant in 1986, took another AL East title in 1988 and grabbed another division crown in 1990.
Roger Clemens was the biggest reason why. The Rocket’s 1.93 ERA was easily the American League’s best. He won 21 games and finished second in the Cy Young voting. Clemens might have won the award and arguably should have, given his ERA. But the 27-win season posted by Bob Welch in Oakland was too much to ignore.
The rest of the team was well-balanced. There were no obvious stars—Wade Boggs was still a solid player and finished with a .386 on-base percentage, although for this season, centerfielder Ellis Burks was the better all-around player–.349 OBP, .486 slugging percentage, 21 home runs and a Gold Glove. Jody Reed finished with a .371 OBP at second base.
Mike Greenwell wasn’t at his 1988 runner-up MVP level anymore, but the leftfielder was a still a productive offensive threat. Dwight Evans was 38-years-old, had lost his power and relegated to the DH role, but could still get on base. On the other end of the age spectrum, Carlos Quintana finished with a .354 OBP at the age of 24.
The big free-agent acquisition was closer Jeff Reardon away from Minnesota. Reardon was good, but of perhaps more significance is that he made Lee Smith expendable. The Red Sox traded their incumbent closer to St. Louis in exchange for rightfielder Tom Brunansky. The move strengthened the outfield and Brunansky would play his best baseball at this season’s biggest moments.
Boston muddled along to start the season, with a .500 record on Memorial Day. Fortunately, so did the rest of the AL East and the entire division was within five games. The Red Sox picked up the pace in June, sweeping the Blue Jays four straight in Fenway and leading the race by as many as 4 ½ games. Boston slumped going into the All-Star break, but they were still a half-game up on Toronto and those two teams had separated themselves from the field.
Starting on July 30, the Red Sox swept a good Chicago White Sox team in Fenway. Later in August, Boston ripped off a 12-2 stretch against divisional rivals including taking three of four in Toronto. By Labor Day, Boston had a 6 ½ game lead and the race looked close to over. But in pre-2004 New England, no one could ever breathe easy. This year was no exception.
The Red Sox lost three straight to the powerful Oakland A’s and four straight in Chicago. The Blue Jays surged, on the strength of three straight walkoff wins. By mid-September, the race was a dead heat. Boston and Toronto were tied for first with six games to play when they met for a weekend set at Fenway.
Boston took a dramatic opener—the bullpen in front of Reardon was the team’s biggest weakness and reliever Jeff Gray gave up a two-run homer in the eighth to put the Sox in a 6-5 hole. They answered in the ninth, with little-used bench player Jeff Stone lining a base hit into the gap in right center to win it.
Brunansky and Clemens took over on Saturday. The former hit three home runs. The latter threw six shutout innings. The bullpen let it get interesting, but the Red Sox won 7-5. They dropped the finale, but had control with three games left.
The margin was still one game when Boston hosted Chicago in the Wednesday night finale. Brunansky ripped an RBI triple to key a three-run second inning. Mike Boddicker pitched well and handed a 3-1 lead to the bullpen. Reardon came on to try and clinch, but runners reached first and second with two outs.
Ozzie Guillen was the batter for Chicago and hit a line drive headed toward the rightfield corner that looked destined to score both runs. Instead, Brunansky made one of the great defensive plays in the long history of Fenway, a sliding catch that saved the game and clinched the AL East.
That was the last win of the year. Boston was no match for Oakland and got swept out of the ALCS for the second time in three years, scoring just one run in each of the four games. The Red Sox contended again in 1991, this time coming up short to Toronto. Morgan was fired, a decision as unpopular as it was stupid. Boston collapsed in 1992 and finished last. A brief era had ended. But Tom Brunansky and the 1990 Boston Red Sox had carved out a small little place in franchise history.