Sunday, December 27, 2015

Henderson's Homer Remembered

Red Sox legend Dave Henderson passed away today at age 57 (NESN)
One strike away.

Two weeks before coming within one strike of winning the World Series, the 1986 Boston Red Sox were one strike away from getting booted out of the ALCS. Little-used outfielder Dave Henderson, a defensive replacement for the slugging Tony Armas, was at the plate. Donnie Moore, ace reliever of the California Angels, was on the mound. There were two outs, two balls, and two strikes--deuces were wild, as Don Orsillo likes to say.

Henderson was fated to be in that situation. He had switched teams for the first time that summer when Seattle, the team that drafted him a decade prior, sent him and Spike Owens to Boston in a late August trade. Though Hendu had been an everyday player with the Mariners, he was relegated to a bench role with the Sox. He played sparingly as Boston cruised to the AL East title, then continued to ride the pine as they went down 3-1 to California in the ALCS.

With the Red Sox trailing 5-2 in the top of the ninth, it looked as though Henderson's first postseason series would end without him making much of an impact. Then Boston rallied, closing the gap to one on Don Baylor's two-run homer off Mike Witt.

Witt got the second out of the inning, inducing Dwight Evans to pop up. But now, after 122 pitches and with Rich Gedman (3-for-3 on the day versus Witt) coming up, Witt was removed from the game. Gene Mauch, a chronic over-manager, substituted Gary Lucas, a southpaw, to neutralize Boston's lefty-hitting catcher once more (Lucas had fanned Gedman the night before).

Lucas, who had not hit a batter in over four years, promptly plunked Gedman with his first pitch. That prompted Mauch to bring in his closer, Moore, to take care of Henderson. Hendu wasn't much of a power-hitter, but Moore had a bit of a home run problem, having surrendered 19 of them over the previous two seasons.

It had all come down to Henderson, seeking redemption after Bobby Grich's fly ball bounced off his glove and over the wall for a two-run homer earlier in the game. The odds were against him, however, as Boston's chances of winning stood at just eight percent.

Moore's first pitch narrowly missed for a ball, but his second pitch zipped in for strike one. Henderson swung and missed badly on Moore's next offering, bringing the Red Sox to their last strike.

After missing wide to even the count at 2-2, Moore came back with a breaking ball, which Henderson tapped foul to stay alive. After a brief delay, Moore reared back and fired a heater, trying to blow Hendu away. He nearly succeeded, but Henderson caught a piece, fouling it straight back to the screen.

While the count was even, Moore was clearly winning the pitcher-hitter duel based on the quality of Henderson's swings. His next pitch caught too much of the plate, and Henderson swatted it into the left field bleachers. Channeling Carlton Fisk, Henderson leapt for joy as soon as the ball cleared the fence. He had turned Boston's one-run deficit into a one-run lead, shifting the momentum of the series in Boston's favor. The resurgent Red Sox went on to win on Henderson's sacrifice fly in the 11th, then routed the Angels in Games 6 and 7 back at Fenway.

Henderson had rescued Boston from the dead, willing them to the World Series the way David Ortiz would 18 years later. He nearly willed them to their first championship in 68 years, too, torching the Mets for 10 hits in 25 at-bats, including two homers and five RBI. His second dinger gave Boston the lead in the 11th inning of Game 6, bringing them to the cusp of breaking the Curse of the Bambino.

One strike away, the Red Sox were.

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