Former Red Sox players Tiant and Gedman recall their late-season dramas

Dan McDonald

Editor's note: Depending on the results of tonight's games, some of the divisional and wild card leads referenced here would change.

A cushy summertime lead over an archrival dwindling to the slimmest of margins as the foliage starts to change.

Southborough resident and former Red Sox pitcher Luis Tiant has seen this before.

In 1978, the Red Sox held a 14-plus game lead over the New York Yankees in mid-July. A late-season swoon, typified by the four-game sweep at the hands of the Yankees dubiously dubbed the Boston Massacre in early September, left Tiant's Sox with no margin for error as the playoffs approached.

To force a one-game playoff with the Yankees, Tiant beat the Toronto Blue Jays 5-0 in the final game of the regular season. It was the team's eighth straight victory.

The Red Sox lost the ensuing one-game playoff at Fenway Park 5-4 - a contest that prompted a generation of New Englanders to swap Yankees shortstop Bucky Dent's middle name of Earl with an unprintable expletive.

``That was the saddest game I ever played in; guys were crying afterwards,'' said Tiant.

In 2007, the Red Sox have seen their May 29th divisional lead of 14 plus games over the Yankees dwindle to 1 1/2 games. The Yankees have a 5 1/2 game lead over the Detroit Tigers in the wild card race.

Despite having the opportunity to make the playoffs as a wild card team - wild cards did not exist in Tiant's playing days - the scrutiny of Yankee-centric Boston fandom remains the same, according to Tiant.

``I know how these guys are feeling,'' said the right-hander from his home. ``I know they're feeling the heat. It seems to be the same pattern year after year.''

Like Tiant, Framingham resident Rich Gedman experienced a late season swoon during his decade as a Red Sox catcher.

``In 1988 we lost our last four games; everyone said we backed into the playoffs,'' said Gedman.

The Oakland As swept Gedman’s team out of the playoffs that year, however the current Worcester Tornadoes manager believes a different fate awaits this year's Sox.

``I think they're a very good team - they're holding it together,'' he said.

However, the looming specter of Red Sox Nation's great white whale - the New York Yankees - did not escape Gedman's late season critique.

``Speaking as a fan, not as a player, that was your No. 1 goal going into the season - to beat the Yankees after finishing behind them for (11) years,'' he said. ``I think it would be disappointing not to get the division.''

Garnering a divisional crown, while a noble goal, is not the end-all nor be-all to the Sox's season, according to Framingham's favorite son and former Red Sox infielder Lou Merloni. The wild card has dulled the importance of winning the division, said Merloni.

``The team is going to make the playoffs whether they win the division or not,'' said Merloni, who played for Oakland's Triple-A affiliate in 2007. ``The goal is to be there, and I'm sure that's the attitude they're taking right now.''

The insatiable Boston sports media does little to dissipate the ``sky is falling'' emotional state of Red Sox Nation, according to Merloni.

``There's no middle road - there's no May, no April,'' he said of the local media. ``They're extremists when you're losing. They take it to another level. They'll say, `They'll never be able to rebound.'''

Former Red Sox catcher Russell Gibson, a Swansea resident and Fall River native, believes the team has to relax.

"It's not good at all, this is a tough lead to blow,” he said. “That's got to be embarrassing. But they've got a good enough club to win it all but it all depends, those Yankees sure are on a roll.

“It really seems they're playing uptight, but it happens sometimes. Let's hope they can get over it soon."

Dan McDonald of The MetroWest (Mass.) Daily News can be reached at (508) 490-7475 or at dmcdonal@cnc.com. The Herald News (Fall River, Mass.) contributed to this report.