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Touching All the Bases

Red Sox Aspire to Repeat '88 Morgan Magic, but Similarities to '96 Squad Are More Apparent

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Given that I may or may not have once written a 12,348-word thesis titled Most Unfairly Overlooked Potential Red Sox Utilityman: Arquimidez Pozo '96 vs. Chico Walker '81, it probably goes without saying that I can never resist a good eras-bridging comparison of Red Sox players and teams.

Or even a bad one. Fortunately, reader Aaron K. gives us a great one regarding the 2014 Red Sox and ... well, let him explain:

Now, this is not the first past Red Sox team that comes to mind when trying to gauge whether the current Red Sox' recent surge -- they've won 8 of 9 after last night's 14-1 thumping of the Hays -- is sustainable, the sign of good things finally to come.

The Morgan Magic squad of 1988 is the most hopeful comparison, and as Bill Ballou pointed out in the Worcester Telegram Monday, there are genuine similarities:

The greatest Sox comeback to reach the postseason happened in 1988. It happened with Boston out of the playoff race by nine games, it happened starting with the first game after the All-Star break, and it happened with the Kansas City Royals at Fenway Park as the opposition.

Ballou goes on to note that the circumstances aren't quite the same -- the Sox were actually 9.5 out at the break this year before trimming the margin in the AL East to the current 7.5-game deficit (6 in the wild card).

It's enough to stir some optimism, though the greater effect is that you're left marveling at what those '88 Red Sox accomplished: they won their first 12 games -- and 19 of 20 after the break, which coincided with the firing of the miserable John McNamara and the promotion of astute longtime minor league manager and coach Joe Morgan.

Even with that remarkable stretch of player through the summer -- from June 25 through August 13, the Red Sox won 24 in a row at Fenway en route to a 53-28 home record. And yet winning the division title did not come easy. The Red Sox finished 89-73, a game ahead of the Tigers and two up on the Blue Jays and Brewers. Maybe that Milwaukee near-miss is what caused Bud Selig to cook up the idea of the wild card.

A repeat of '88 is obviously the ideal for the '14 Sox. But it's requesting a repeat of the implausible -- 24 in a row at home! -- is probably asking too much, even if you're already mentally casting Mike Carp as Todd Benzinger, Jon Lester as Bruce Hurst, Burke Badenhop as Dennis Lamp, and ... all right, I'll stop now. Shoulda quit before Lamp.

Anyway, that's the long way of saying reader Aaron's comparison of this year's Red Sox to the 1996 edition is more apt and realistic than hoping for a repeat of '88.

That stretch of incredible play is something that just doesn't happen again.

Of course, that could also be said for the beginning of '96 -- but only if you swap out the word incredible for horrible or some other suitable adjective to describe an April of such inept baseball that it would be unfathomable if it weren't so real.

The 1996 Red Sox lost their first five games, 12 of their first 14, and 19 of 25. To this day, whenever the Red Sox lose a couple in a row to start the season, I inevitably think, well, at least they're probably not going 6-19. That was a much-hyped Red Sox team, with Kevin Mitchell and Wil Cordero joining sluggers Mo Vaughn and Jose Canseco as well as dependable holdovers Mike Greenwell, John Valentin and Tim Naehring in a lineup that was supposed to wreak havoc on the American League. Instead, for the first month, it just reeked.

It was an excellent lineup. The Red Sox. coming off an AL East title, scored 928 runs, or 5.73 per game, good for fourth in the league. Vaughn hit 44 homers and drive in 143 runs. Canseco added 28 homers in just 96 games, while catcher Mike Stanley hit 24. Reggie Jefferson batted .347 with 19 homers, including a .351/.387/.616 slash-line against righthanders.

One problem. Two, actually. Pitching. And defense.

The pitching staff gave up 921 runs -- or 5.69 per game -- which was the fourth-most in the league. No. 2 starter Tom Gordon went 12-9 ... with a 5.59 ERA and 358 baserunners allowed in 215.2 innings. Of their four pitchers to make 11 starts or more, Tim Wakefield had the second-best ERA ... at 5.12. The not-so-vaunted Vaughn Eshelman had a 7.08 ERA in 39 appearances, including 10 starts. Jamie Moyer, 33 and really just beginning his career, went 7-1 with a 4.50 ERA before he was traded to Seattle, where he would win 145 games over the following 10-plus seasons.

And that defense -- with (im)Mo(ble) Vaughn at first, brick-handed Cordero at second and a Three-DH outfield of Greenwell, flash-in-the-pan Dwayne Hosey, and Mitchell -- was so abysmal, it's probably not even fair to the pitching staff to call it a defense. If UZR had been invented then, this crew would have broken it. I'm not sure all of them actually wore gloves.

In terms of skill, the 1996 Red Sox and the current model don't have much in common; this team fields fairly well, has a high-quality rotation and bullpen, and, at least until last night's encouraging outburst, fielded a lineup that would struggle to score four runs against ... well, against 1996 Vaughn Eshelman.

In terms of what's possible this year, I'd say '96 is where we should search for a similarity despite the glaring differences in the teams' construction. After all, the '96 Red Sox faced a more daunting task than any this year's team has faced. They were 17 games out of first -- and 12 back of Seattle in the wild-card race -- on August 1. Their 47-59 record was the second-worst in the league. Only the historically terrible Tigers (36-72) were worse, and were the Sox ever grateful for them: they went 12-1 against Detroit that season with a 108-50 run-differential.

From that point on, though, the Red Sox were as impressive as manager Kevin Kennedy's mustache. They went 38-18 (a .679 winning percentage) down the stretch, with a parade of Dan Duquette's favorite misfit toys -- Jefferson, Troy O'Leary, Jeff Frye, Darren Bragg -- thriving where bigger names had failed.

There is one obvious personnel comparison between the two rosters that is unavoidable right now: The ace pitcher was in his walk year.

I've often said that Jon Lester sounds like Roger Clemens. This year, he's pitching like him, if not in style (or for that matter, with the same arm), but certainly in regard to results. Here are Lester's numbers over the last calendar year:

And that's excluding his dominant postseason performance in which he won four of five starts, pitching 34.2 innings while allowing just six earned runs (1.55 ERA). One more time: Pay. The. Man.

In '96, Clemens was three years older than Lester is now and considerably more accomplished (at least in the regular season). While he has been maligned for the way his Red Sox career ended -- he did not appear to be in the finest condition of his career and went 10-13 during that final season-- he actually put on a pretty impressive contract drive his own right. He delivered his second 20-strikeout game that September against those hapless Tigers, and while he was complicit in the slow start, he was exceptional during the second-half charge:

Clemens, ever the geography whiz, bolted for Toronto as a free-agent after saying he'd leave Boston only for his native Texas.

Eighteen seasons later, the Red Sox' immediate priority is beating Toronto and scaling those standings before the baseball calendar runs out of days.

It's a formidable challenge, but look at it this way: If the 2014 Red Sox can play their final 63 games at the same .679 clip their '96 brethren did during that aforementioned 38-18 stretch, they'd finish with 90 wins.

I think that would get them into the postseason. It might even be enough for the division title.

It's also a lot to ask. Probably too much to ask. Even with the stellar late play in '96, the Red Sox never got closer than 6 games out in the division and 2 back in the wild card, which was their standing on August 28. Mike Greenwell's nine-RBI game against the Mariners September 2 felt at the time like a jolt that might keep the run going. Instead, it was a last hurrah, not just for the Sox, but for Greenie, who was playing his final month of major-league baseball.

The '96 Red Sox ultimately fell three wins shy of Baltimore in the wild-card race. I suspect this year's charge, presuming we are witnessing the advent of such an event now, ultimately falls short as well.

That's the chief reason this ending will be more similar to the "It's Too Late, Baby" Red Sox of '96 than to the seemingly unrepeatable magic of '88.

But based on their recent lively play, at least it looks like we'll have some suspense on the way to the ending.

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