Mighty Red Sox's fate hangs on pitching

March 10, 1991|By Steve Fainaru | Steve Fainaru,Boston Globe

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The wonder of spring training is that it leaves so little evidence that it actually happened. When the regular season begins in April, it is as if the tropical days of the past seven weeks merge into one hazy memory. The words and numbers that have been compiled are thrown into the trash.

What spring training reveals best are impressions, sometimes false ones, and the impression that is crystallizing now is that this is a team in the classic Red Sox sense -- a powerful lineup, perhaps the best in the game, with an unpredictable pitching staff that will determine just how good the team can be.

The first two games of the exhibition season have only enhanced that image. The Sox have scored 16 runs on 26 hits, 10 for extra bases. In a 6-5 win over the Phillies here Friday, Ellis Burks hit his second home run, a line drive that disappeared into some palm trees, Jody Reed hit a bases-empty shot and rookie Phil Plantier won the game with a two-run, 430-foot blast off Roger McDowell in the ninth inning.

The most heavily scrutinized performance, however, was a choppy two-inning effort by right-hander Greg Harris, one of a few pitchers who probably will determine whether the Sox win the American League East again this year. It appears certain that the Sox will hit (and hit and hit), but the team's fate is held by Harris and the crew that flanks Roger Clemens.

Of the pitchers who fall into this category -- Matt Young, Dana Kiecker, Tom Bolton and the entire bullpen -- Harris may be the most difficult to figure out. On the bus to the game Friday, Mike Greenwell joked to him, "Heck, Harry, everywhere we go there's going to be a friend of yours," a reference to the seven teams for which Harris has played. He was the prototype journeyman until last year, when he was put in the rotation out of necessity and ripped off 12 wins (13 overall), including a hellacious 1-0 shutout of the Blue Jays at the SkyDome in late August.

The year has changed Harris' life. During the off-season, he signed the first multiyear contract of his career, a two-year, $2.8 million deal. "When we just started negotiating, the numbers they threw out there were mind-boggling to me," he said. "When you talk about your career, especially mine, where I've always been in the wrong place at the wrong time, then all of a sudden, we're talking millions -- well, I've never made that much money in my life. I mean, I was satisfied with 720 [thousand] last year, then we're talking a million one -- that's just impossible to comprehend."

Asked if he thought it would change his outlook, he said, "No, because I'm in the game for the game. The money is your reward for doing a good job. I just enjoy the game and I always want be part of it. I don't want to let cash or anything like that ruin it."

Still, the expectations for what Harris should contribute this year are high. Instead of pitching in the middle of exhibition games, when the pitchers and players tend to blur together because of the constant changes, he was out there at the start Friday. Every one of his outings will be analyzed, especially to determine whether he has shaken the problems that caused him to give up 27 earned runs and 60 baserunners -- 44 hits and 16 walks -- in his last six starts last year.

He gave up two hits and two runs in the first Friday; Lenny Dykstra led off the game with a triple and John Kruk later hit a rocket off the right-center-field wall for a double. Manager Joe Morgan said, "He couldn't find his control. He wasn't way off, just off the plate, but it was enough." But Harris said he was happy: "When's the last time I pitched, September? It just feels great to get back out there, even in this situation. I don't have to wait around until the ninth inning, or anything. It's just a great feeling.

"This was really the first big test. It's a lot different when you get out there in a game and the adrenaline is pumping. The knee felt good, the arm felt good and there was no fatigue at all. I'm just hoping that what I did over the winter is going to keep it this strong."

Harris has attributed his rapid drop-off last year to fatigue. He said he was unable to hold a cup off coffee in his right hand without shaking. During the offseason, he said, he regained his strength through a series of weight repetitions and does not expect any problems. He also had minor knee surgery.

Harris' role this year remains slightly less certain, although all indications now are that he will be the No. 4 starter. It appears that Morgan will use the spring to choose his Nos. 4-5 starters from Harris, Bolton and Kiecker. "I've prepared myself for both roles," Harris said. "The way I look at it, now that I'm a full-fledged starter, if I have to go to the bullpen after all this hard work I've done, it's going to be kind of easy. Right now, I'm just preparing me for whatever Joe wants me to do and when he wants to give me the ball."

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