April 10, 1998, arguably the most memorable Red Sox home opener ever. The Mariners came to town, with both teams off to a 3-5 start to the season. The two teams had already played a three game set in Seattle, with the Mariners taking two out of three. The Red Sox looked to get back at them in the friendly confines of Fenway Park.
Pitcher’s Duel Early
The Mariners sent their ace to the mound, The Big Unit, Randy Johnson. Johnson was coming off a 20 win season during which he struck out 291 batters and posted a 2.28 ERA. He had reasserted himself as the most dominant left-hander in the game after an injury plagued 1996 season. For the Red Sox, top prospect Brian Rose would oppose Johnson on the mound. Rose was ranked as the number 22 prospect in all of baseball before the season by Baseball America.
Both pitchers were cruising early. Johnson struck out the side in the first, navigating around a one out double by John Valentin and a Mo Vaughn hit by pitch. Johnson then struck out two more in the second. Rose struck out two of his own in the second and didn’t allow his first hit until the third. In the bottom of the 4th, with a man on and two outs, Damon Buford took a 3-2 Randy Johnson offering up over the Green Monster for the first Fenway home run of the season. The Red Sox had a 2-0 lead after four despite seven strike outs.
Red Sox Falter
22 year old Brian Rose pitched admirably for the Sox in their home opener. Rose went five shutout innings, allowing just three hits before running out of steam in the sixth. An RBI double by Edgar Martinez to score two runs with just one out in the sixth knocked Rose from the game. An error led to a third Mariners run of the inning and the Red Sox found themselves trailing with the formidable Randy Johnson on the mound. Johnson cruised, striking out two more in the sixth and two in the eighth.
The Mariners scored twice more in the eighth to extend their lead to 5-2. Closer Tom Gordon came on for the Sox in the 9th despite the three run deficit; it didn’t go well. Gordon allowed two more runs while only retiring one batter before being relieved by Rich Garces. The Sox found themselves trailing 7-2 with just half an inning to go.
Randy Johnson was absolutely dealing, striking out 15 Red Sox over his eight innings. However, having thrown 132 pitches, he wasn’t coming back out for the ninth. The Mariners bullpen had been struggling to protect leads in recent seasons, but five runs was a big lead. They started with former Red Sox, the ultimate disaster that was known as Heathcliff Slocumb. If ever the Red Sox were going to make a comeback, facing Slocumb was a great place to start.
Troy O’Leary pinch-hit for Damon Buford with a broken-bat single. O’Leary’s first son had been born the day before and he had not been back with the team for long before the game. Another player just joining the team, Mark Lemke, drew a walk in his first game with the team to put the first two men on base. A run-scoring double by Darren Bragg made Lou Piniella decide he’d had enough of Slocumb. After a bit of gamesmanship, Mike Benjamin drew a walk versus lefty-specialist Tony Fossas and the bases were loaded, still no one out.
Another pitching change brought Mike Timlin into the game. That’s former Red Sox, former Red Sox, future Red Sox for Mariners 9th inning pitchers. Nomar Garciaparra lined a 2-strike pitch into center for another run scored; 7-4. On a 3-2 pitch, Timlin clipped Valentin with a pitch to bring another run home. Another pitcher down, zero outs recorded, and the ever dangerous Mo Vaughn strolling to the plate. Fenway was rocking.
Piniella called upon another lefty-specialist in Paul Spoljaric, hoping to give Mo fits with the lefty look. After all, Mo had struck out three times against Randy Johnson that afternoon. Spoljaric got ahead with a first pitch strike, but he wouldn’t sneak another one past Mo.
Down 7-2 entering the bottom of the 9th, the Sox scored 7 runs without making an out in an incredible comeback capped by perennial MVP candidate Mo Vaughn’s grand slam. Among games from the nineties, this game sticks out as one of the first in my mind. The most memorable home opener I can remember, and possibly in team history.
Featured picture courtesy of Bostonglobe.com