The Boston Red Sox spent six years on pendulum of good seasons in even-numbered years—a pennant in 1986, and AL East titles in 1988 & 1990—and disappointing seasons the following year. The 1989 Boston Red Sox did their part to keep that pattern in place, as they struggled to an 83-79 record, with only a weak division keeping them in contention much of the year.
Boston’s pitching was in trouble, as lefty Bruce Hurst bolted via free agency. The Sox still had Roger Clemens, a 17-game winner in 1989, at the top of the rotation. Veteran righty Mike Boddicker was a decent #2, at 15-11 and a 4.00 ERA, and John Dopson turned in a respectable year, winning 12 games with a 3.99 ERA. But the depth was lacking. The fourth and fifth spots in the rotation were complete messes, and the bullpen lacked a reliable bridge to get to closer Lee Smith.
The everyday lineup benefitted from an offseason trade that sent first baseman Todd Benziger to the Cincinnati Reds in exchange for Nick Esasky. Benziger was a pretty good player and would continue to be so with the Reds, but Esasky had a big season in 1989. A power righthanded bat, tailor-made for Fenway Park, Esasky hit 30 home runs, had 108 RBIs and was steadily aboard with a .355 on-base percentage.
Four other players had strong years. Wade Boggs continued to churn out hits and the third baseman ended up with a .430 OBP. Mike Greenwell was solid, if unspectacular in left, with a .370 OBP/.443 slugging percentage. Ellis Burks, the talented centerfielder who could do it all, was on .365/.471. And Dwight Evans, now 37-years-old, was still getting it done in right, a .397 OBP, 20 home runs and 100 RBIs.
The problems were mixed in though and they came from name players. Rich Gedman played just 93 games at catcher and hit .212. Jim Rice didn’t age as well as Evans and the future Hall of Famer ended up in a DH role, playing only 56 games and hitting just three home runs. Marty Barrett’s production was woeful at second base. The offense needed to score a lot to cover for its problematic pitching, and this many holes weren’t going to cut it.
Boston was 19-21 on Memorial Day, but the AL East was so putrid that at least as May 21, the Red Sox were actually in first place with a sub-.500 ERA. That’s a bad division under any circumstances, but even worse when you consider that prior to the realignment of 1994, there were only two divisions per league and each one had seven teams. Yet none of the AL East teams could win more than they lost almost two months into the year.
Towards the end of May, the Red Sox swept the Seattle Mariners and at 22-21, they were now virtually soaring in the AL East, up a half-game. But the Sox quickly gave it all back. They lost six of eight, including being swept by the Toronto Blue Jays. The surprising Baltimore Orioles, who just one year earlier set a new standard of incompetence with 18 straight losses to open the year, started to play well and the Red Sox fell in a 5 ½ game hole.
Even being five and a half back, Boston wasn’t in bad shape. No one expected the Orioles or the second-place Cleveland Indians, who hadn’t produced a real contender in decades, to keep up the pace. And the Red Sox were playing the best of the teams considered likely to step into the vacuum.
Boston finally made .500 on the first game after the All-Star break, with Clemens outdueling Minnesota Twins’ ace Frank Viola in the Metrodome, 3-1. It was a battle between the two pitchers generally considered the American League’s best at the time, though this year’s Cy Young Award would go to the Kansas City Royals’ Bret Saberhagen.
The Red Sox again lost ground as quickly as they gained it. They ended up splitting four in the Twin Cities, lost a series in Texas, another at home to the Chicago White Sox and a dug a hole as deep as nine games. Boston chipped it down to four games, when the Orioles came to Fenway for four games that would begin on July 31.
Boston came out attacking in Monday’s opener, scoring six times in the second inning. Eric Hetzel, one of the pitchers who got several chances at stabilizing the back end of the rotation, gave much of it back, but the Sox got 3.2 innings of crucial relief work from veteran Bob Stanley, and they took the opener 9-6.
Tuesday was a doubleheader, and Boston took the opener when Burks broke a 3-3 tie in the seventh with an RBI double. Then the Sox took the nightcap—Esasky ripped a three-run shot in the fourth and otherwise inconsistent Wes Gardner had a strong outing on the mound in a 6-2 win.
In the Wednesday finale, the Sox took a 6-0 lead and the Fenway Faithful could smell a first-place tie. But Hetzel, back on the mound after his short stint on Monday was again hit around and this time Stanley’s relief efforts suffered the same fate in a 9-8 loss. The series was clearly a success and the margin in the AL East only two games. But the Red Sox had given away an opportunity for more.
A four-game series in Baltimore resulted in split, and the whole division continued to muddle along. But Toronto was starting to come on strong. When the Blue Jays arrived in Fenway on August 14 for a three-game series, both teams were 2 ½ games out. And this mid-August series proved to be the death knell of the season.
Boston scored twice early on in the Monday opener, but got only two singles over the last six innings in a 4-2 loss. Toronto ace Dave Stieb kept the bats under control in a 7-2 rout on Tuesday. Clemens got the ball in Wednesday’s finale, and handed over a 3-2 lead to the bullpen. Rob Murphy came on and blew the save, losing the game 7-3.
The Sox and Jays had decisively shifted places. Toronto would eventually chase down Baltimore and win the division on the final weekend. Boston fell hard. They briefly nudged within four games of the lead at the end of August, but a West Coast trip in early September produced a 1-8 record and ended the chase.
Boston’s record was as low as 70-76 on September 13, when they found a closing push. A 13-3 run, including taking a series in Toronto that briefly quelled the Jays’ pennant push, helped the Red Sox finish with a winning record. They ended up six games out of first.
Perhaps the season could have been worse, given the general lack of depth. But sandwiched in between a string of AL East titles, 1989 has the look of one big lost opportunity for the Red Sox.