BOSTON -- From Walter Johnson's showdowns with Smokey Joe Wood to Sandy Koufax's battles with Juan Marichal to Tom Seaver's confrontations with Steve Carlton, baseball always has come to a standstill for certain symbolic pitching matchups between the best of the best.
Tuesday night, the sport held its breath again for one of those continuing sagas. And the verdict? Dave Stewart, the man with the game's biggest heart, still has a hex on Roger Clemens, the pitcher with the game's best arm.
Now, after the 6-2 A's victory, it's six head-to-head wins in a row for Oakland's great Smoke over Boston's intimidating Rocket Man -- three of them this year. Last time these two met here in Fenway Park, both were at their best. Stewart won, 1-0. This time, both were vulnerable. But Clemens self-destructed with six walks, a run-scoring wild pitch and two ugly throwing errors. "I cut my own throat," he said. Stewart fought out of five jams in his eight innings.
Suddenly, with a pennant, perchance, in the balance, nobody can miss the import of baseball's weirdest whammy. Why? Because a month from now, these combatants figure to be back here in the American League playoffs.
These right-handers -- probably the best two pitchers in baseball in recent years -- will surely face each other in the opening game of the league championship series. They might square off three times before the AL playoffs are over.
Clemens, who may win the triple crown of pitching this year. Stewart, who wants to be the first since Jim Palmer to win 20 games four seasons in a row.
Of course, no Red Sox or Athletic would dare admit looking a month into the future, despite their big division leads. But for the 1990 American League season to reach a true dramatic peak in October -- that is, for the Red Sox to have any realistic chance to beat the world champions -- Clemens has to be able to beat Oakland.
And that means beating Stewart. Because if Oakland Manager Tony La Russa has breath in his body, that's who he's going to send to the mound for the biggest games, even if Bob Welch wins every start the rest of the year.
At the moment it doesn't look as if Clemens is up to the Stewart task. In fact it's starting to look as if the Oakland right-hander with the menacing, imperturbable mien may be weaving a jinx of legendary proportions around the more spectacularly gifted Clemens.
Against Stewart this season Clemens is 0-3 overall, 0-2 in Fenway Park. Against the rest of the AL, Clemens is 20-3 and 10-0 at Fenway.
Warren Spahn couldn't beat the Brooklyn Dodgers. The jinx lasted his whole 363-victory career. So don't be too quick to say that Clemens, 3-9 against Oakland in his 115-51 career, is just saving up his good karma to drop on Stewart when it matters most.
If Clemens does reverse his fortunes against the A's in October, then, of course, all Tuesday evening's wisdom will go out the window and hindsight will simply tell us Clemens was due for a mortal performance. After all, in his previous eight starts, he'd been 8-0 with a 0.80 ERA, four shutouts, 65 strikeouts and just five walks in 67 innings.
Stewart wisely walks on eggshells when he talks about his mastery of Clemens, a man who may win pitching's triple crown by leading the league in wins, ERA and strikeouts. "You have to give him the respect that he's due," said Stewart. "I don't have Roger Clemens's number. I have the Boston Red Sox' number, if anyone's. Roger Clemens has nothing to be ashamed of."
But he, and the Red Sox, certainly have plenty to think about.
Boston Manager Joe Morgan, delighted as he is with the Red Sox' recent 10-game winning streak, knows the true state of affairs between his team and the juggernaut that just added Willie McGee and Harold Baines to its de facto all-star team.
"They have more speed than us, more power, more bullpen. It just goes right down the line," Morgan said before this game. "But that don't mean we can't beat them."
If Clemens can beat Stewart.
Morgan, like every lifelong Red Sox fan, can't figure out the dynamic between Stewart and Clemens. "Stewart against us has been a shaky pitcher the first two or three innings," Morgan said. "But we never get the key hits. Then he settles down and kills us. I don't know how he does it. . . . No, he bears down is how he does it."
With that, Morgan picked up a sheet of career batting averages -- the Red Sox vs. Stewart and the A's vs. Clemens. Most Red Sox were over .300 against Stewart; most A's were under .200 against Clemens.
"That's damn good hitting against a guy as good as Stewart," said Morgan. "And the A's off-speed hitters -- which is most of them -- can't touch Clemens's fastball." Morgan just shook his head.
Clemens was a rattled man Tuesday evening. In a two-run first inning, he walked three men, gave up a double off the Green Monster to Baines, then allowed a run when he threw a ball far over Wade Boggs at third.
In the fifth inning, Clemens, whose ERA is still an amazing 1.98, walked McGee, sent him to third with a wild pickoff throw, then wild-pitched him home.
After the game, Clemens avoided direct references to any competition with Stewart. However, Boston coach Al Bumbry laughed and said, "Come on, what do you think? It has to be there."
Hereabouts, dreams of a Red Sox world title never entirely die, although they are coated over with generations of cynicism. What New England especially loves, and finds itself titillated by, are unexpected, underdog Red Sox teams -- like the ones of 1967 and 1975 -- that come out of nowhere, catch the spirit of a magical season and wake up one day to find themselves in the seventh game of the World Series.
If the Red Sox ever do actually win that first Series since 1918, surely it will happen in just such a silly wonderful fashion. After all the Red Sox' failures from winning positions, a true Boston champion would have to be built around a pitching rotation that includes Tom Bolton (8-2), Greg Harris (12-5) and Dana Kiecker (6-7) and a bullpen "anchored" by utterly unproven rookie Jeff Gray. Still, the Boltons and Kieckers in baseball annals seldom make history if there isn't a Clemens to lead and calm them.
Euphoria met reality in Fenway Park Tuesday night. Euphoria took the guise of a Red Sox team -- short of power, speed and proven picthing depth -- that has amazed itself by leaving the addlepated Toronto Blue Jays in the dust with a 24-10 push.
Harsh reality took the form of the A's and Stewart.
Do the A's and Stewart really have Clemens's number? Or is this all one huge setup for a Red Sox date with destiny?