NEW YORK — Mass was nearing an end Sunday morning in St. Boniface Church, a Catholic parish in Lunenburg, Mass., a small town west of Boston, when Father Dan Mulcahy reached behind his chair and produced a baseball cap.
A Mets cap.
"I've been waiting a long time to do this," Mulcahy, a New Yorker, said as he stuck the cap upon his head. He then pronounced the benediction, placed the cap on the altar and marched triumphantly down the aisle.
The congregation booed.
On the day after what was arguably the most gut-wrenching loss in the team's history, even church could offer little solace to a Red Sox fan.
But the final benediction on the 1986 season, which was to have come Sunday night, was postponed 24 hours by rain, an appropriate metaphor for the mourning that gripped New England after coming within one more strike of winning their first World Series in 68 years.
"I'm off the hook," Mike Torrez, the Boston pitcher who gave up the famous playoff home run to Bucky Dent of the Yankees in 1978, said to a Boston TV reporter Saturday night after Bob Stanley's wild pitch and Bill Buckner's error climaxed a three-run, 10th-inning rally that gave New York a 6-5 win and compelled a Game 7, which was rescheduled for 8:10 tonight.
So are the Mets, whose golden year of 108 regular-season wins and a dramatic playoff conquest of the Houston Astros came so close to disintegrating at the hands of the underdog Red Sox.
Now, the Mets can call on pitcher Ron Darling, who hasn't allowed the Red Sox an earned run in two Series starts and now will get his full complement of rest, to deliver their first World Series title since 1969.
Sunday night, the Red Sox changed their pitching plans, naming Bruce Hurst to replace Dennis (Oil Can) Boyd as the starter for Game 7.
The baseball commissioner's office and Boston public relations director Dick Bresciani confirmed Manager John McNamara's decision.
"Hurst will be the pitcher," Bresciani said. Hurst, the winner of Games 1 and 5, will be pitching with three days' rest.
According to a source close to the club, McNamara informed Boyd of his decision to start the left-handed Hurst about 9 p.m. EST, after conferring with pitching coach Bill Fischer. Boyd was said to be extremely upset and had to be consoled in the lobby of the team's Manhattan hotel by pitcher Al Nipper, one of his close friends on the club.
"It hurts so bad, but what can I do," Boyd told a reporter. "Bruce is on a roll, and Mac thinks the Mets have a better left-handed lineup. It's just that it was my turn, and after all I've been through, I'm sorry, but my sensitivities are going to show through every time. Nip cooled me down, talked sense to me.
"This hurts more because I was psyched to pitch the one game that means everything. Mac said I'd be the first one out of the bullpen, but I really don't know if the intensity will be there."
McNamara, who said he spent a sleepless night, still was being asked to answer for decisions he had made the night before, two of them involving Buckner.
McNamara let Buckner, batting .143 in the playoffs, hit for himself against left-hander Jesse Orosco with the bases loaded and the Red Sox leading, 3-2, in the eighth inning. The Red Sox manager could have brought in Don Baylor, his premier right-handed power hitter.
Buckner flied out on the first pitch, ending the inning.
"We were ahead at that given point," McNamara said. "Bill Buckner drove in 110 runs for us this season. I hadn't pinch-hit for him all year."
In the 10th, after the Red Sox had taken a 5-3 lead on Dave Henderson's home run and base hits by Wade Boggs and Marty Barrett, McNamara could have replaced Buckner at first base with Dave Stapleton. He didn't, and Mookie Wilson skidded a ground ball through Buckner's legs to bring home Ray Knight with the game-winning run.
"We did not defense for Buckner all season, and I'm not defensing for him now," McNamara said. "He's my first baseman, and he's an excellent first baseman.
"The only time we defensed for him was when he was hurt. And we have not changed the pattern that got us here.
"This is an outstanding second-guess situation. . . . You've got me.
" . . . You don't see Billy Buckner miss those kinds of balls in those kinds of situations. . . . He's the best defensive first baseman I have."
Reporters weren't the only ones second-guessing McNamara, who didn't mention that Stapleton was at first base at the end of all seven of Boston's postseason wins this fall. McNamara also said that Buckner has been hobbling this way all season, when in fact Buckner developed a sore Achilles' tendon during the playoffs to compound his already bad ankles.
"Maybe they should have had Stapleton in there for defense," said Met infielder Howard Johnson. "The infield here is pretty chewed up, and the ball takes funny hops."
Baylor, who arrived at Shea Stadium before the game was called off, a little more than three hours before its scheduled start, said he was disappointed that McNamara didn't summon him in the eighth.