BOYD PROVED TO BOSTON HE WAS THE CAN WHO COULD

BOSTON — One game for the pennant now. One game left. One more chance for the Boston Red Sox, who, when they needed their steadiest pitching performance of the year, went to their unsteadiest pitcher. Naturally. And true to form in this wacko American League Championship Series, he delivered. Naturally.

“Did you hear them yelling OIL CAN! OIL CAN!” someone asked Dennis (Oil Can) Boyd, after his team stuffed California, 10-4, behind seven strong innings of his pitching, to force Game 7 of this American League Championship Series.

“Yes, I heard them,” said Boyd, with the grin of a man who knows both trouble and elation. “Someone came into the clubhouse and said, ‘They want you to come out.’ So I did. But by the time I got out there, the (eighth) inning had started, and it was no time to tip my hat. I just waited for the end of the game and said thanks.”

How deep was the breath the Sox and their fans expelled when this was over? How much air can a pair of lungs hold? Talk about a tinder box in a child’s hands! No one knew what to expect when Boyd took the mound under warm and humid October skies Tuesday night. No one. Oh, you can listen to John McNamara and you can listen to Boyd’s teammates and you can hear them say they “were confident The Can could get the job done.”

Or you can listen to the facts, the past, the nervous quivers in the voices. The fact is, had Boyd (16-10 this season) gone to little pieces out there, with the thunder of the crowd and the invisible weight of an entire season on his skinny shoulders, few people would have been surprised.

“Can you guys tell when Oil Can is going to be OK?” someone asked second baseman Marty Barrett, who supported Boyd with three hits Tuesday, including an RBI double.

“Well,” he said, laughing, “Dennis gets in his own little world out there. You can tell when he starts daydreaming and looking all over the place. That’s when he’s getting a mental picture of what he’s supposed to do. That’s when you know he’s OK. It’s when he starts noticing the things around him that you have to worry.”

Finding himself in dreams

When he daydreams, he’s concentrating. When he’s concentrating, he’s in trouble. Make sense? Of course not — which is to say it was a perfect crescendo in this non- sensical series, which is all tied up and rounds the final curve tonight.

Boyd, 27, was vintage Tuesday night. He hung from the mound before a pitch like a vulture scoping a desert rat. He moved off the mound in rhythmic circles like a back-up singer for James Brown. He slapped his glove, he looked off into space, and a few times with a runner on first, he looked over his right shoulder and checked out empty center field. We’re still trying to figure that one.

“Were you having fun out there?” someone asked him afterward.

“Very much so,” he said.

Very much so. Naturally. And the crowd ate it up. They roared with his strikes. They cheered him on — even when he gave up two runs in the first inning. They roared when he got Rob Wilfong to pop up with the bases loaded. And when he struck out Reggie Jackson in the third inning, the thunderous approval threatened to move the very bases with its vibration. It was that loud.

No one remembered the crazy year he’d had. No one remembered the tantrums, the strange disappearances. No one remembered the suspension, the voluntary hospitalization, or the two losses when he finally returned. Bad times? What bad times? He was the prodigal son. The black sheep of the family who shows up at Thanksgiving dinner and gives Mom a hug. He was loved and hailed and embraced and celebrated.

Every time Boyd was about to come unlaced Tuesday, he tied himself back in a knot. When he was on the verge of sinking, he suddenly remembered the breast stroke. He rescued himself, and ultimately his teammates, and he has brought them to the brink of what might be the greatest comeback in a championship series in a long time — had it not happened last year with Kansas City. Can Sox beat their history?

No matter. This is the Red Sox, remember? A team whose wheels are destined to come off the cart before the finish line. Isn’t that what always happens? Perhaps. But the teams in the past didn’t play this way. Didn’t have an Oil Can or a Roger Clemens, who’ll go tonight in the finale.

“What do you think about your chances with that?” someone asked Boyd.

“I gotta believe Big Tex will be ready,” Boyd said. “My man Roger can do it.”

We’ll see. When John McNamara came into the interview room, replacing Boyd on the podium, he put a light arm on his pitcher and gave him a pat.

“Nice going,” he said to the “nervous and hyper” man who did not let him down. “You can go home now.”

Game 7. Naturally.

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