The Boston Red Sox are one of 1983's big early surprises - partly because they've been battling for the American League East Division lead all spring, but even more so for the way they have accomplished this feat.
As any longtime Red Sox watcher knows, it's the same story year after year at Fenway Park: Everybody takes aim at that short left field wall and the runs come pouring in. Unfortunately, the same thing usually happens when the opposing team is batting too.
This year it looked like the old familiar scenario once again. With a lineup featuring Jim Rice, Dwight Evans, Carl Yastrzemski, Tony Armas, Dave Stapleton, and Wade Boggs, few doubted that Boston would do its share of run-producing. But who on that nondescript pitching staff was going to get the other guys out?
Indeed, the question was a reasonable one. A rotation that listed Dennis Eckersley (13-13) as its ''ace,'' and went on from there to such non-household names as John Tudor, Bruce Hurst, Bob Ojeda, and rookie Mike Brown hardly looked like pennant-contending material. And although Bob Stanley and Mark Clear headed up a better-than-average bullpen a year ago, the overall mound picture still looked pretty grim to most observers.
But take another look at this year's statistics. The 1983 Red Sox have been both outhit and outslugged by their opponents. They rank only ninth in the league in batting average, behind such non-awesome clubs as Cleveland and Toronto. They're also just ninth in homers - again beating out only the weakest teams. They certainly aren't winning on speed: their pitiful total of seven total bases compares with 49 already for both Oakland and Seattle, 42 for Toronto, 39 for Kansas City, etc.
Ah, but now look at the pitching. Eckersley (3-1, 3.29) has looked more like the big winner of the late 1970s than the .500 pitcher he's been the last three years. Tudor, the team's best hurler in 1982, has been sharp again. Ojeda, one of last year's major disappointments, seems to have recovered his spectacular 1981 rookie form. Brown (4-3) has been more than anyone had a right to expect from a first-year man. And Hurst has rebounded from a 3-7, 5.77 ERA performance last year to emerge as one of this spring's aces with a 4-2 record, including a three-hit shutout of Chicago in his latest start Wednesday night.
In the bullpen, Stanley has been immense again in his dual role of long and short reliever, and Luis Aponte has also been strong - offsetting a slow start by Clear.
All of this surprises a lot of people, but not Manager Ralph Houk.
''Very few people are close enough to a team to really know much about its overall pitching strength,'' Houk explained. ''All they talk about are the veteran pitchers - but good young ones can make such a difference.
''Our starting pitching wasn't good in 1982 - no question about that. But I knew we figured to be a lot better this year.
''First, Eckersley pitched so much better than people realized last year. You can't just look at statistics. He lost a lot of games by scores like 1-0 and 2-0. I think there were five times that he gave up three runs or less and we got shut out. Turn those around and he would have had quite a record.
''I knew I could count on Tudor after the way he pitched the last half of 1982. I expected Ojeda to come back. He pitched so well in 1981, then last year was pretty much lost for him because of injuries. As for Hurst, I'd seen his stuff, and as soon as I knew his arm was all right (he had an elbow operation last fall), I was confident he would pitch well.
''Then there was Brown. I'd heard about him for two years - what a fine-looking young pitcher he was. We brought him up at the end of last season to get the feel of the big leagues, and you could tell he was real mature. He battles you, he doesn't get overly excited on the mound, and he knows how to pitch. Of course you never know for sure, but I couldn't imagine him not doing well.
''That gave us five pretty good starters, with a proven major leaguer like Doug Bird for spot work, plus we're deeper at Pawtucket if it should come to that later.''
Houk is an eternal optimist, of course, and perhaps not too many people would have been quite so confident that all of these question marks would come out on the plus side - but so far his expectations have been right on the mark.
As for the everyday lineup, the brightest spots have been the spectacular hitting of Boggs, who is high up among the league leaders at .358, and the power bat of Rice (8 homers, 30 RBIs). Elsewhere, most of the anticipated punch has been missing. Armas, Boston's major new acquisition via a five-player deal with Oakland, has seven homers, but is batting in the low .200s. Evans, the team's big man at the plate the last two seasons, is off to a slow start; Stapleton (. 237) has also been below par; and Yastrzemski not only has missed a lot of games with injuries but hasn't hit much for either average or power when he has been in the lineup.
There's been some timely hitting, though, which along with the pitching has been enough to keep the club up there. And of course this situation can't help but create optimism that things will get even better when the bats come around.
''There haven't been any real surprises on this team so far,'' Houk said. ''No one is playing over his head to any great extent. In fact, if anything we haven't really got it all together yet. We should hit a lot better than we have so far.''
And if all this baffles the so-called experts, Houk attributes it to their short memories.
''This club is better than last year's - and that one was pretty good,'' he pointed out. ''We were in first place quite a bit of the time, and in the race until the last week. People seem to forget that. I don't know why.''
As for the current season, Ralph follows the standard managerial strategy of declining to name any particular team or teams he feels he has to beat.
''I don't think we'll really know too much until July, when the depth begins to show,'' he said. ''And as usual, the main thing will be pitching over the entire season. I never knew of a team that won a pennant yet without good overall pitching. That means starting, long relief, short relief - the works.''
And so far this year, of course, that's a good description of the Boston Red Sox.