Call it that championship feeling. A year ago, it made Fenway Park a special shrine, and the Red Sox a very special team.
The moment lefthander Bruce Hurst took the field yesterday, the magic that carried the Red Sox to the 1986 American League pennant seemed to fill the air for the first time this season. After Hurst left the mound with a two-hit, 3-0 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays, an Opening Day crowd of 33,679 hoped they were seeing the beginning of a grand revival.
After three puzzling losses to the Milwaukee Brewers, the Red Sox were suddenly on track — and against a prime contender in the AL East.
“The way our staff is set up now,’’ said Marty Barrett, “we’re going to go out every game thinking we can’t lose.
“That’s how I felt last year. That’s how I felt today with Hurst. I’ll feel the same tomorrow with (Roger) Clemens.’’
Perhaps over the course of a 162-game season, yesterday’s victory will prove as meaningless as the Red Sox hope the three losses to the Brewers will. Pitching is Boston’s strong suit, at least if Hurst, Clemens and Oil Can Boyd remain happy and healthy. And games like yesterday’s may well be overshadowed by future performances.
But make no mistake about it — this was a gem.
Hurst was brilliant, and solo homers by Jim Rice in the second and Marc Sullivan in the third were more than enough to beat Toronto ace Dave Stieb.
As a bonus, Boston got another run in the fifth on a double by Wade Boggs and a run-scoring single by Bill Buckner.
If you’re looking for a starting point for Boston’s bid to retain its divisional title, this was it.
“It was a superb performance for the first day out,’’ said Sox manager John McNamara. “Opening Day at home; a sellout crowd. It was just superb all the way around. We showed real character.’’
And character is what most of the Fenway Faithful had come to see, along with better pitching than had been on display during the Milwaukee series.
Hurst was the key. In a 103-pitch outing, he faced only 29 batters, two over the minimum. Both Toronto hits were bleeders — a check-swing single by Garth Iorg in the third and a bloop single by Tony Fernandez in the sixth — and Hurst’s control and confidence reminded you that no less an authority than Mr. Roger Clemens had called him the “best pitcher in baseball in September and October.’’
“It’s tough to start a season without your top three pitchers and starting catcher,’’ said McNamara, referring to the spring training injuries suffered by Hurst and Boyd and the holdouts of Clemens and Rich Gedman. “But we deal with what we have. Our three main men just weren’t available, and the guys out there did the very best they could.
“Hurst today got all his pitches over and got them over in a good location. I was only concerned when he was 0-2 to (Willie) Upshaw and then walked him. That’s when I got Calvin Schiraldi up. Hurst then got the double- play ball, and the rest is history.’’
History was all around Fenway. The raising of the first American League flag over the ballpark since 1976 was a big moment. So was the awarding of 32 rings, symbolic of winning the division and league titles.
Then Hurst provided the rest of the memories.
“We needed a well-pitched ballgame and we got it,’’ said Dwight Evans. ‘’In Milwaukee, we couldn’t put it together. But today was a good day.’’
Evans joined in the ring celebration, and wore a smile as big as that of any of his teammates. But afterwards, he admitted he experienced mixed
emotions at that moment. There was another ring Evans wanted more.
“It made me mad,’’ said Evans. “That’s what it did. There should have been ‘World Championship’ on that ring. But it also just made me a little more hungry to go out there.’’
If the Sox are to translate that hunger into the first repeat divisional championships by a team in seven years, they know they must rely on pitching such as Hurst’s.
“Hurst is a great pitcher,’’ said Barrett, “and now with Roger back and Oil Can, I can’t emphasize what a domino effect that is going to have.
“We’re going to have the best No. 1 pitcher, the best No. 2 and the best No. 3 in baseball. And in Bob Stanley and Al Nipper, we might wind up with the best No. 4 and 5. So who knows?
“This was a big game for us. You can’t go ahead and spot teams big leads like that. With our pitching staff intact, we’ll gradually chip away. Give us a month and a half and we’ll be there.’’
Hurst got there quicker than anyone dared expect. On March 9, his season seemed in doubt because of a groin problem. Now he appears recovered. But since he was coming off such a recent injury, Hurst’s sharpness and durability in his debut were remarkable.
“You knew in the second inning that he was sharp,’’ said Sullivan. “You just wondered if he’d get tired around the fifth inning and begin to lose something. That happens a lot with pitchers in their first start, where mistakes creep in. It happened in Milwaukee to some of our pitchers. But it didn’t happen to Bruce.’’
Hurst said there was no magic involved.
“I feel comfortable,’’ he said. “I felt comfortable last year. The game doesn’t change over the winter.
“I don’t think I was surprised. I was looking forward to pitching today
because we needed to get a win. I went out and did my part to keep us in the game. And we were able to get a couple of big balls, some timely hitting and came out with a win.’’
Hurst struck out six and threw with great confidence. But he didn’t exactly consider that a revelation.
“I don’t feel like confidence is something that floats around in the air and bites you, gets tired and goes somewhere else,’’ said Hurst. “It’s something that I have inside. I feel like I can control my confidence. I’m not waiting for people or situations to build my confidence up. It’s going to be something I will carry with me.’’
In essence, this was a championship day for a championship team.
“We didn’t look like a championship team in Milwaukee,’’ said Buckner. ‘’But we know we’re going to live and die off our starting pitching. If we can get those guys rolling, you can win 7-8 ballgames in a row.’’