CLEVELAND -- If you didn't know seven years had passed and that a surgeon had reached inside Orel Hershiser and reconstructed his right shoulder in the interim, you might've sworn it was still 1988.
Hershiser pitching shutout innings, dominating a lineup anchored by Jose Canseco. But rather than Dodger blue, he wore an Indians uniform, and it was the Boston Red Sox he dominated, instead of the Oakland Athletics. In beating the Red Sox last night, 4-0, he gave Cleveland a commanding two-games-to-none lead in the best-of-five divisional series.
Omar Vizquel hit a two-run double and Eddie Murray bashed a two-run homer, providing Hershiser with more than enough support. The Red Sox fight for survival in Game 3 tomorrow night, resting their postseason existence and their hopes of breaking the Curse of the Bambino on knuckleballer Tim Wakefield. They'll need something, anything from sluggers Mo Vaughn and Jose Canseco, who have combined to go 0-for-20 in the first two games of this series.
The velocity and movement on Hershiser's pitches, he says, are the same now as they were before the surgery. But, as he put it, throwing a sinker for him post-surgery is like playing with a loaded gun: He's always a little unsure of his control.
"The caliber of bullets keeps changing," Hershiser said.
And he threw bullets at the Red Sox last night for 7 1/3 innings. Hershiser was never entirely sure of where he was throwing his pitches, how the radical sink of his fastball would impact its location. But he had great stuff.
"The last time I faced him, he didn't have the velocity. . . he had tonight," said Canseco. "Tonight reminded me of how he threw in 1988. In '88, he could throw a fastball by you whenever he wanted to. Now he's got a lot more movement. His pitches are impossible to track. It didn't seem like he threw two pitches in the same spot all night."
A fact that Hershiser acknowledged, somewhat fearfully. He had no idea, for instance, what he was doing wrong in the second inning, when Boston loaded the bases with two outs, without scoring. He just made up his mind that it wouldn't happen again.
"I don't think I've ever run across anyone who can focus on the job at hand as well as Orel Hershiser," said Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove. "If you asked Tommy Lasorda, he would probably say the same thing. He's a big-game pitcher."
In 1988, Hershiser threw shutouts in the NL playoffs and the World Series for Lasorda, making him the first pitcher to do so. But he suffered a shoulder injury in 1990, after the shortened spring training, derailing his career. For the last five years,
following surgery, Hershiser doggedly attempted to regain the form that allowed him to throw 59 consecutive scoreless innings in 1988.
But the Dodgers were convinced, after the 1995 season, that Hershiser would never be the same pitcher again. His grit was still evident, but he offered little consistency, and the Dodgers let him walk away as a free agent after the '94 season.
The Indians signed Hershiser a week after spring training began this year, and somewhere along the line, the velocity and movement came back. The Red Sox discovered this first-hand.
He struck out seven, walked two. All three of the hits he allowed were singles.
Hershiser walked Luis Alicea on four pitches to lead off the eighth inning, and felt his back stiffen. He got an out an a fielder's choice grounder, and his back tightened again. Hershiser stood behind the mound, looked in and saw John Valentin walking to the plate and Vaughn walking into the on-deck circle, and wondered if it would be better to gut it out or tell Hargrove he wasn't feeling good.
Hershiser waved to Hargrove, calling him to the mound, and walked off to a standing ovation.
Julian Tavarez, Paul Assenmacher and Jose Mesa finished off VTC the Red Sox, retiring the last five Boston hitters in order.
The Indians had taken a 2-0 lead against Boston starter Erik Hanson in the fifth inning, after Hanson walked Paul Sorrento to start the inning. Sorrento moved to second on a bunt. The Red Sox might have stolen the Cleveland signs, because catcher Mike Macfarlane pitched out, in anticipation of the slow-moving Sorrento trying to steal third.
They guessed right. But instead of throwing an easy fastball that Macfarlane could handle, Hanson threw a curveball, hitting Macfarlane in the mid-section. Sorrento was safe at third.
Kenny Lofton walked, and then Vizquel slammed a double into the right-center field gap, the ball rolling almost all the way to the wall. Both runners scored easily.
The Indians padded their lead in the eighth inning. With one out, Hanson pitched carefully to Albert Belle, and walked the slugger. Then Murray, who had tripled earlier, pulled a two-run shot down the right-field line.
Having won his first postseason decision in seven long years, Hershiser admitted to feeling slightly rubber-legged, anxious. "I was nervous as all get out," he said, chuckling to himself.
But as in 1988, nobody else could see it. Least of all, the Red Sox.