Red Sox try to keep new-found pitching edge Addition of Clark charges up offense

April 05, 1991|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,Sun Staff Correspondent

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- After decades of trying to bash the opposition into submission, the Boston Red Sox discovered that pitching power is the key to baseball success.

They used to hit tons of home runs over the Green Monster at Fenway Park, outscore foes in slugfest after slugfest and win enough games to finish second or third.

If no lead was safe in Fenway, almost every pennant was safe from the Red Sox.

But, in the mid-1980s, the long-ball act began to tone down, Roger Clemens arrived as a force and suddenly, this team was stressing arms and gloves.

The changeover worked. Boston has captured three of the past five American League East titles, last season edging the Toronto Blue Jays because its pitching was unexpectedly effective.

Greg Harris, Tom Bolton and Dana Kiecker came through in a big way, and the Red Sox even overcame a bullpen that was the least productive in the league (4.62 ERA, .281 opposing batting average).

And, although the Red Sox stole a league-low 53 bases and were 13th with 106 homers, they singled and doubled their way into the AL playoffs, where they were swept by the Oakland Athletics.

But some storm clouds have gathered for 1991. The team appears on a backward course -- to the days of fence-busting and hopes that the offense can carry the day.

"I think this is the best lineup we've ever had," said third baseman Wade Boggs. "We don't have many holes in it."

Center fielder Ellis Burks added: "You can't really pitch around anyone and the team plays well together. It's probably the best I've seen since I've been here."

The off-season acquisition of Jack Clark, who says he is happy after a year of controversy with the San Diego Padres, gives the Red Sox the designated hitter and cleanup hitter the team lacked.

When Clark can bat between a top three of Boggs, second baseman Jody Reed and Burks and a bottom five of left fielder Mike Greenwell, right fielder Tom Brunansky, first baseman Carlos Quintana, rookie shortstop Tim Naehring and catcher Tony Pena, it's something special.

But the burning question (again) is how will Boston pitch? Will more surprises step forward to give the Red Sox sufficient strength to fend off the Blue Jays and possibly the Orioles?

"We'll match up our players with Toronto and we think we'll come out on top," said Burks. "If we score enough runs, we'll be all right regardless."

The loss of Mike Boddicker, who signed as a free agent with the Kansas City Royals to be closer to home, could have a ripple effect on the young pitchers, who depended on Boddicker's wisdom and inspiration.

Clemens will be Clemens -- the ace, the stopper and the highest-paid player in baseball history.

He is trying to repair his public image, damaged by a playoff run-in last year with umpire Terry Cooney, being extremely cooperative with everyone this spring.

"What they perceive is what they saw that day," he said. "It was one incident, and you go on. When I'm on the field, I'm very intense. People can hold that against me if they want to, but that's just the way I work."

Whatever Clemens' behavior, the club bends over backward to satisfy him, because the Red Sox are lost without him, as shown by the evaporation of a 6 1/2 -game lead when he was injured.

Closer Jeff Reardon, who last spring had to compete for time with Lee Smith, is recovered from a nagging back injury. He says he feels perky, good news to a staff that needs Reardon for a full season.

But the bridge from Clemens to Reardon is clouded.

The Red Sox are counting on two free agents -- National League ERA champion Danny Darwin and left-hander Matt Young, who has won a total of 14 games the past four years -- to compensate for Boddicker's departure.

Darwin, 11-4 with a 2.21 ERA for the Houston Astros, still throws hard and will challenge hitters, but Young has a history of control problems and does not field his position well.

Still, Boston probably will need an encore from Harris, Bolton and/or Kiecker to reaffirm that it is a better team when the pitching is at least as good as the offense.

Boggs said "they might have to re-wall" Fenway with Clark around, but "the key to any club is pitching. You can't beat people 12-10 every night."

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