BOSTON, OCT. 7 -- Rarely has a baseball game plunged from the sublime to the ridiculous as did the opener of the best-of-seven American League Championship Series Saturday night at Fenway Park. In terms of art, the first six innings were worthy of the Louvre; the end amounted to kindergarten finger-painting.

For six innings, it was two of the greatest right-handed fastballers, Dave Stewart and Roger Clemens, matching pitch for pitch -- almost. Oakland's Stewart made the lone mistake, giving up a fourth-inning, bases-empty home run into the net above the Green Monster to Wade Boggs. But Clemens, who virtually missed September because of a tender shoulder, could not make it to the seventh inning. So much for Red Sox pitching artistry.

Four of the five middle relievers who followed -- Larry Andersen, Jeff Gray, Dennis Lamp and Rob Murphy -- might not be counted on to bail water from a sinking boat, even in shallow water. Their ERAs for the night: Lamp 108.00, Andersen 18.00, Gray and Murphy 13.50. With Clemens on the beach for now, the Red Sox are pretty much out to sea.

A mark of any good team is taking advantage of opportunities, and Oakland did that and more. To a man, the A's were reluctant to say their eyes were smiling when they didn't see Clemens appear for the seventh. But Carney Lansford did admit, "Whenever a pitcher like that leaves the game, naturally there is a boost."

A boost? The previously silent A's lifted off as though from a Florida cape, scoring single runs in the seventh and eighth and a whopping seven runs in the ninth for a 9-1 victory that left Beantown with a queasy feeling.

"It was an unfortunate night for us," Boston Manager Joe Morgan said, "because neither Andersen nor Gray had his best stuff. I figured Andersen would come in and baffle them, {Jeff} Reardon would close the door and we'd win, 1-0."

The Red Sox long have been short on pitching depth. Even as the succession of relievers were being driven from the mound Saturday night, fans by the thousands were driving from the park in dismay.

"A beautiful game turned into a horrible evening, didn't it, at least for the locals?" Morgan said.

The beginning of the evening was the stuff of baseball lore and literature. It was a delightfully warm night for October, 74 degrees, more like a New England August. A three-quarters moon came up over the Jimmy Fund sign in right field, and at least half the park was filled an hour before game time. The anticipation was palpable. The T-shirt of choice selling on the steets: "The Hunt for Red October."

What a dream matchup, Stewart (22-11) against Clemens (21-6). Stewart has won 20 games four straight seasons; he'd beaten Clemens six straight times. Clemens has won two Cy Young awards; despite the late-season shoulder trouble, he intended to beat his nemesis and extend Boston's crazy days of summer.

It was going to be something special -- and for a time it was. The way both Stewart and Clemens fired smoke early, trading 94 mph fastballs, the matchup conjured thoughts of a double perfect nine innings. It was that promising.

Stewart walked Dwight Evans in the second and Clemens walked Jose Canseco in the fourth, but it still threatened to be a double no-hitter for nine. Even after Harold Baines singled in the Oakland fourth and Boggs hit the net in the bottom of the inning, it still could have been merely an epic.

But Clemens threw 97 pitches through six innings and Morgan saw that he was tiring. A double play saved him in the sixth. "He was dead," Morgan said. "He probably couldn't have gotten out of the seventh if he went out there, so I had to make the move."

Morgan said Clemens's shoulder didn't bother him "before, during and after." But the manager wouldn't say for sure whether he would start Clemens in Game 4. "We're not going to hurt him," Morgan said. Clemens was not around after the game and was not seen before tonight's game.

With Clemens offstage, the spotlight shone on Stewart.

An enduring pitcher, the 33-year-old master kept firing fastballs, with occasional forkballs and sliders. The A's strategy had worked: They'd worn down Clemens, and now Stewart only had to be patient to get his runs and extend his domination over Boston.

Stewart is 5-0 with a 1.55 ERA in five starts against the Boston this season, and 9-0 in his last 10 starts against the Red Sox. That includes playoff victories in 1988 as well as Saturday night.

"The bottom line is," Stewart said, "I felt great."

He yielded four hits for eight innings, and was happy to let onetime Boston starter Dennis Eckersley get an inning of exercise.

Speaking of exercise, Jose Canseco stretched his leg muscles to steal third base on Gray before scoring the go-ahead run in the eighth.