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Boston making its pitch(es) for first place, In a switch, hurlers overshadow hitters on surprising Red Sox

For virtually their entire history, the Boston Red Sox have been a team that lived by the sword (i.e., a high-powered offense), and died the same way when the other guys were at bat. The result has been pennant-race excitement in many a spring and early summer, followed by late-season swoons as the pitching deficiencies began to tell. But so far at least, 1986 looks different. Several big hitters have been slow to reach their strides. Don Baylor, acquired in a trade with the Yankees, is hitting .209; former National League batting champion Bill Buckner is at .212; and 1984 home run king Tony Armas is batting .185, with one round-tripper.

As a team, Boston is batting .265 -- a far cry from its league-leading .282 of a year ago. And despite playing half their games in friendly little Fenway Park, the Red Sox are next to last in home runs.

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In other years, a Red Sox team with offensive figures like this would be lucky to escape the cellar. But improbable as it seems, the current edition is leading the American League East as it prepares to wrap up a brief home stand tonight and set out on a nine-game road trip.

The reason is a difficult one for longtime fans to believe, but statistics don't lie, and the statistics say Boston's pitching has been by far the best in the league. Not even the pitching-rich world champion Kansas City Royals can approach the Red Sox' team earned-run average of 3.17. The Royals are a distant second at 3.48, and after that the figures are all near or above 4.00.

Along with the improved pitching has come an equally important ingredient -- the confidence that grows with winning close games. Whereas last year's team had a losing record in one-run contests and was only .500 in two-run games and extra-inning battles, the 1986 team is on the plus side in all these categories. And the more games like this that you win, the greater the tendency not to give up when things look bleak.

A case in point came Tuesday night. Trailing 7-6 in the ninth with two out, none on, and Minnesota's ace reliever Ron Davis on the mound, Boston parlayed three walks, a double by Wade Boggs, and a hit batsman into an 8-7 victory. Not exactly a ``Murderers Row'' outburst, but as reserve catcher Marc Sullivan said after getting hit by that final pitch, ``This is the kind you have to win.''

And reliever Bob Stanley, a veteran of so many frustrating seasons dating back to 1977, is confident this sort of thing will continue.

``Our attitude is so much better this year,'' said Stanley, whose club-leading five saves are already half as many as he had in all of 1985. ``The team is better too. We always had to rely on our hitting before, but now our pitching is carrying us. And I don't see it stopping.''

The big man is Roger Clemens, who struck out a major league record 20 batters in a recent victory over Seattle. Spectacular as it was, though, that was just one game, which by itself wouldn't mean too much in terms of a pennant race. But Clemens has been consistently sharp, posting a 6-0 record and a 2.50 ERA and trailing only teammate Bruce Hurst for the league strikeout lead (71-69) going into Tuesday night's game against the Twins.

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Ever since he was drafted in 1983 after a spectacular college career, Clemens has been considered a top prospect -- and now after two injury-shortened seasons he appears to be fulfilling that promise. But any contender needs both strength and depth in its pitching rotation -- and here too the Red Sox appear well situated.

The big four of Clemens, Hurst, Oil Can Boyd, and Al Nipper outdid any similar quartet over the first 6 weeks. A knee injury that will sideline Nipper until July clouds the picture, but there's so much depth that no one appears unduly worried. Indeed, the cupboard is hardly bare, with veteran left-hander Tim Lollar, hard-throwing young right-hander Mike Brown, and a couple of solid minor league prospects on hand.

Depth is also the key in relief, where, just like the ``bullpen by committee'' that helped carry St. Louis to the World Series last year, the combination of Stanley, Joe Sambito, Sammy Stewart, and Steve Crawford has so far offset the absence of any one dominating reliever.

And while the hitting hasn't erupted in full force yet, it's been enough to get the job done. Defending batting champion Boggs is hitting .363, while Marty Barrett and Jim Rice are both at .311, the latter with 27 RBIs.

Baseball is a game with a lot of ``ifs,'' of course, but if these three keep hitting, if the Baylor-Buckner-Armas trio awakens, and if the pitching staff can maintain its effectiveness, the 1986 Red Sox look like a team that just might stay in the race all the way this time around.

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