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Fans in Suspense as Red Sox bats begin to pound

Because of their hitting ability, especially in Fenway Park, the Boston Red Sox have nearly always been a highly visible team with the media and generally an exceptional draw on the road.

People like the fireworks often generated by the power bats of Jim Rice, Fred Lynn, Carl Yastrzemski, Tony Perez, Carlton Fisk, and Butch Hobson. When the Red Sox get hot, as they have recently by winning seven of their last eight games, it doesn't take much to revive pennant fever in Boston. The problem is that Red Sox fans, except for World Series appearances in 1967 and 1975, have been disappointed every year since 1946.

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In the past three years, under Manager Don Zimmer, the Red Sox have won 91.99 , and 97 games, only it has been either the New York Yankees (twice) or the Baltimore Orioles who have represented the American League in the World Series.

What's the matter with the Red Sox?

The obvious answer is pitching, and that includes the bullpen (especially the bullpen), where stability and dependability seldom go hand in hand. There are also those who do not think that Boston is consistently capable of winning one-run game, a must for any team thinking pennant.

But in any discussion about the Red Sox, it is difficult to get very far away from their pitching. Bill Campbell, probably the best reliever in the Al four years ago when Boston signed him as a free agent to a five-year $1-million contract, has serious enough physical problems now so that some doubt he will ever regain his previous effectiveness. What's come along in the meantime hasn't been all that great, either.

For example, who would you rather have in your bullpen. Tom Burgmeier and Dick Drago of the Red Sox or Goose Gossage and Ron Davis of the Yankees?

Dennis Eckersley and Mike Torrez, the two starting pitchers Boston hoped would play the role of "stoppers" this season, have only recently begun throwing well again after injuries. One Red Sox official also told me that another of the team's starters, Bob Stanley, so far has shown all the motivation of a man being led to the gallows.

Last year these three pitchers won 49 games among them. This year they have all reached mid-June with earned-run averages that would get them a ticket to the bullpen on most clubs.

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Yet when outspoken catcher Carlton Fisk was asked recently about the Red Sox pitching staff, he replied: "I'm not so sure there is anything wrong with our pitching that a little more toughness and hard work wouldn't overcome." Fisk has a reputation for often playing when injured, while not all of Boston's pitchers can make that statement.

The man in the middle is Zimmer, who gets fired regularly by fans who call in through Boston talk shows to air their views. But, in what may be a first for managers in Boston, Don has not been treated that harshly by the press.

Those writers who follow the Red Sox at home and on the road seem to be aware of Zimmer's problems and are willing to make allowances for them. For one thing , they like his honesty. For another, they have been around long enough to know what injuries can do to a ball club, especially when they involve the pitching staff.

To most Boston fans, Zimmer either removes his starting pitchers too soon or stays with them too long. Either don juggles his lineup too much or too little. Either he has his team bunt when it should be hitting away or vice versa. The manager can seemingly do no right.

As a spot big league player (mostly with the Brooklyn-Los Angeles Dodgers) Zimmer lasted 12 years in the majors and played in two World Series.He was a fighter then and he is a fighter now, and his decisions, right or wrong, are totally his.

Asked where the Red Sox might be if his pitching staff hadn't earlier been torn apart by injuries, Don replied:

"I don't think you can blame the pitchers exclusively for what has happened to us. We haven't been good on the mound, that's true, but we also haven't hit as a team, and often our defense has let us down.

"I don't know yet whether we're capable of winning 90 or more games again or not," he continued. "ome back in a month and I can probably tell you for sure. But we're not going to do it without an 8- or 10-game winning streak."

Although statistics rarely prove why a team wins a pennant, they often show why they do not in terms of pitching, errors, and number of one-run defeats.

The Red Sox to date simply haven't been making as many winning plays as the Yankees, nor have their pitching and defense been nearly as strong. In fact Milwaukee and Baltimore, as well as New York, probably have better overall personnel.

Sometimes people tend to expect too much from a team simply because so many of its players have appeared in All-Star games. That could be the reason for all the 1980 fan unrest in Beantown.

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