It was a time of change at Fenway Park in 1985. Ralph Houk had ably managed the team the previous four seasons, and produced three winning records in spite of presiding at a time when the team’s roster was mostly in transition. Houk retired after the 1984 season and John McNamara replaced him. The 1985 Boston Red Sox showed the flashes of hope that would ultimately manifest themselves into a pennant a year later, but the ’85 team was done in by an August collapse.
Boston had the third-best offense in the American League in 1985, and unlike previous Red Sox teams, this wasn’t done with power. They had the top batting average in the league, and the top on-base percentage, with third baseman Wade Boggs leading the way. Boggs hit .368 and produced an OPB of. 450.
Rich Gedman, the 25-year-old catcher, was coming into his own, with an OBP of .362 and a slugging percentage of .484. The same was true for Marty Barrett at second, with his .336 OBP. Bill Buckner hit .299 and drove in 110 runs. Jim Rice and Dwight Evans were still producing at the corner outfield spots, combining for 56 home runs and 181 RBIs.
The disappointments on offense were the decline of designated hitter Mike Easler, and centerfielder Tony Armas. The latter had hit 43 home runs in 1984, but ended up sharing time in centerfield with Steve Lyons. Armas hit 23 home runs in 103 games, but his problems getting on base and those at-bats when he wasn’t going deep were just becoming too numerous.
Pitching was generally the problem in Boston through the early part of the 1980s. There were clear signs of progress in 1985. The staff was by no means the team strength, but at sixth in the AL in ERA, they weren’t bad. Oil Can Boyd won 15 games with a 3.70 ERA and young Roger Clemens continued to be slowly broken into the majors, going 7-5 with a 3.29 ERA. Al Nipper, Bob Ojeda and Bruce Hurst were serviceable starters. It was the bullpen that completely lacked depth, with no one recording more than 12 saves.
The season started in the best way possible, a three-game sweep of the New York Yankees at Fenway Park, the last of which saw Clemens get the win and Stanley pitch three shutout innings of relief. In spite of this, Boston still started 16-17, though they were within four games of the Toronto Blue Jays in the AL East. The Red Sox then lost seven of nine to mediocre teams in the Cleveland Indians, Minnesota Twins and Texas Rangers to fall ten back by Memorial Day.
Just when you were ready to write the season off, Boston came surging back. They won 10 of 11, and were within 6 ½ games of Toronto as the Blue Jays came to town for a four-game weekend set. The four days at Fenway rejuvenated hope for 1985.
In Thursday’s opener, Boston trailed 6-2 in the fifth. Boggs hit a two-run homer to cut the deficit in half and then later walked and scored in a rally that pushed the Red Sox to an 8-7 win. On Friday, Boyd scattered 11 hits, going the distance in a 4-1 win.
Saturday’s game was a pendulum of emotions. The Red Sox first coughed up a 5-1 lead in the eighth, then immediately scored twice. The winning rally came thanks to four walks, with Gedman and Barrett drawing free passes with the bases loaded. Boston won 7-5. One more rally was ahead on Sunday. Trailing 6-3 in the eighth, the Red Sox scored four times. Glenn Hoffman, the light-hitting utility infielder, tied it with a two-run single and Evans won the game with a sac fly.
Boston was soaring, within 2 ½ games of the lead. Just when you were ready to say this might be the year, the Red Sox immediately did a U-turn back in the wrong direction.
With ruthless “consistency”, the Red Sox dropped two of three in succession to the Detroit Tigers, on the return trip to Toronto and to the Baltimore Orioles. Boston closed June back in a 7 ½ game hole.
The Red Sox treaded water throughout July, and then collapsed in August. They went 8-21 through the month, including seven consecutive losses to the Yankees. New York and Toronto would battle to the wire for the division crown, with the Blue Jays ultimately winning.
If you were looking for hope though, Boston didn’t quit on their new manager. They played hard through September and went 19-9. Whether that had any carryover effect to the following year is debatable, but it was a good sign that McNamara didn’t lose the clubhouse in the bad times. And the good times were right around the corner.