The '81 Red Sox are playing more than catch-up

Ever since their 1975 World Series appearance, the Boston Red Sox have made a habit of disappointing their followers -- partly, perhaps, because the expectations for their success were often a bit unrealistic. But now in a classic bit of irony, the revamped 1981 edition is acting like the contender it wasn't supposed to be this year.

It's really too early to tell yet, of course, but so far under new manager Ralph Houk this basically unheralded team has exceeded the hopes of even its most optimistic supporters. Perhaps even more important than the club's winning record, however, is the elan with which it has been playing -- especially when it finds itself behind in the late innings.

In the space of one week, for instance, Boston erased a 6-1 eighth inning deficit at Milwaukee only to eventually lose 10- 7; came right back the next night to wipe out a 6-2 Cleveland lead in the seventh en route to an 8-7 victory; rallied from 3-0 and 3-1 deficits in two other games; then climaxed it all with the most dramatic comeback of the lot on Saturday.

The Red Sox trailed 6-1 in the ninth, but a double by Joe Rudi, singles by Carney Lansford and pinch-hitter Dave Schmidt, a walk to Reid Nichols, and a force-out brought home two runs. By then there were two out, though, and relief ace Rollie Fingers was on the mound for Milwaukee. But Dwight Evans blasted a three-run homer to tie the game, then in the 10th inning Dave Stapleton singled home the run that gave reliever Mark Clear his seventh straight victory.

It was a thriller, all right, and the names involved in the rally say a lot about this year's team. Rudi, Lansford, and Clear all came over in trades; Schmidt and Nichols are rookies; and Stapleton is in his first full big league season. Only Evans, among this group, has been a member of the team for any length of time -- and even he was never one of the big names on a club loaded with stars like Jim Rice, Fred Lynn, Carl Yastrzemski, Carlton Fisk, Rick Burleson, etc.

But this is a year of change for the Red Sox, brought about by the loss of Lynn, Fisk, and Burleson through free agency or the threat thereof. And despite the initial apprehension of the fans, the newcomers have been doing more than their share so far. Add to this a pair of spectacular starts by Evans and Jerry Remy, and it's been enough to keep Boston in the thick of the American League East race up to this point.

Remy, who has been with the Sox since 1978 but has missed much of the last two seasons with injuries, leads the league in batting with gaudy .366 average. Evans, off to the hottest start of his nine-year career, is hitting .328 and is tied for the league lead in home runs (12) and runs batted in (35).

Rice has also heated up after a slow start, and is now hitting .280 with eight homers and 25 RBIs. Yastrzemski, Stapleton, and Tony Perez, while all struggling in the batting average department, have managed to drive in quite a few key runs. And then there are the new faces.

Lansford and Clear, who came over together in one of two big trades with the California Angels, have been the most consistent ones so far. Carney is the league's third leading hitter at .342, while Mark tops all pitchers in winning percentage with a 7-0 record. There's also Rick Miller, who is hitting .280 and doing a fine job replacing Lynn in center field.

Can it continue? Yastrzemski, the "elder statesman" of the team and a member of both its 1967 and 1975 pennant winners, thinks it can.

"There's a good feeling on this club," he said. "During the game you have a feeling that something's going to happen -- and you know that's the mark of Good team.

"The past three or four years we had a real good everyday lineup, but the pitching wasn't that strong. This club doesn't have as much power, but it has much better pitching. And it has more ways to win a ball game.

"We can stay in the race -- no doubt about it. And we have a good shot at winning it."

Those power-packed lineups of the past, of course, were the ones that provided all the unfulfilled expectations. Every year people would read down that imposing list of home run and RBI statistics (forgetting, perhaps, that playing half of one's games in a small park like Fenway tends to inflate such figures) and pick the Red Sox to be right up there. But season after season, something always happened.

One type of disappointment came in 1976, when the defending American League champions finished 15 1/2 games out of first place and just barely over .500. Then in 1977 after signing the league's top reliever, bill Campbell, as a free agent, they did return to some semblance of contention but wound up tied for second place.

But these frustrations, of course, were nothing compared with the big one of 1978. Bolstered by the additions of Remy plus starting pitchers Dennis Eckersley and Mike Torrez, the Red Sox seemed to be running away with the race for the first half of the season only to fizzle out, get caught by the New York Yankees, and eventually lose in a playoff.

Then in 1979 and 1980, with sluggers like Bob Watson and Perez added to an already potent lineup, they went back to the '76 script -- looking like contenders on paper but failing to play that way. As Yastrzemski intimated, however, maybe part of that was because the team in those years wasn't really as good an all-around club as the statistics made it appear to be. And perhaps this year the reverse is true.

"That's what we said in spring training -- that once the New England fans got a chance to see us play, they'd keep coming back," Evans said. "This is an exiciting team, and a together team. It's the kind of team that wins, because when you play together, things can happen.

"I always thought this team was being underrated, and that was fine with me. I like being the underdog.

"What the media thinks doesn't matter. It's what these guys think -- and we think we can win. Not just be in the race, but win it."

Despite the optimism of the players now, however, there are clearly several question marks for the long haul -- beginning with the starting pitching, which has been very spotty. So far the Red Sox have overcome this deficiency via the spectacular work of the bullpen, but that's hardly the recommended procedure for winning out over an entire season.

The catching, with Fisk gone, also has to be listed as a question mark. Gary Allenson, who played some the last two years and got the job more or less by default this spring, is out with an injury right now before having really answered the question of whether he is a bona fide No. 1 receiver. Schmidt and Rich Gedman (the latter called up when Allenson got hurt) are sharing the duties at the moment, and again, neither has played enough to clarify matters, though Gedman has looked very good at the plate in recent games.

The rest of the lineup looks pretty solid, though, and as Yaz says, it does seem to be the sort of team that can find a lot of ways to win games. Whether that will be enough to offset the pitching and catching problems probably depends in the long run on just how serious those problems turn out a be -- and that's something which only time will tell.

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