The Boston Red Sox have lately been gliding along in what tennis players refer to as "the zone," an altered state of confidence in which you feel you can hit whatever you want, wherever you want, whenever you want. Nothing, it seems, can go wrong. In the case of the Red Sox, this condition resulted in bushels of baseballs being smashed over American League fences in the past two weeks.
From June 14 until last Saturday, when Yankee Pitcher Mike Torrez finally managed to take the long ball away from the Sox, Boston's sluggers established a major league record for the most home runs hit over a span of 10 games: 33. The Red Sox began setting records by unloading 16 homers in Games Three, Four and Five of the streak—a total that included four in one inning off New York's Catfish Hunter. And because they added at least one home run in each succeeding game, they kept setting a major league record every day for a week. American League fans had not witnessed anything on a par with this since 1963, when the Minnesota Twins, led by Bob Allison, Harmon Killebrew, Jimmie Hall and Don Mincher, blasted 19 home runs in five games.
"So many of the Red Sox were hot, there was no way to pitch around them," said Baltimore Manager Earl Weaver, whose pitching ace, Jim Palmer, was rocked for five homers in one game during the Boston barrage. "You don't want to walk Fred Lynn to get to Jim Rice, do you? Or Jim Rice to get to Carl Yastrzemski? Or Carlton Fisk to get to George Scott? It was a joke."
Weaver must be developing a macabre sense of humor, because while hitting all those home runs, the Red Sox moved from a half game ahead to four games in front in the American League East. That certainly was no laughing matter to the contending Orioles or Yankees. During three games in Boston, the Red Sox outhomered the Yanks 16 to none, while sweeping the series by scores of 9-4, 10-4 and 11-1. The change from Fenway Park to Baltimore's more spacious Memorial Stadium at the beginning of last week made little difference to the Sox, who slammed out nine more while sweeping four games, 4-0, 7-0, 7-4 and 7-3.
"They were all hit well," said Oriole Shortstop Mark Belanger, "No cheapies. I was getting whiplash from looking over my shoulder."
Only three straight losses in New York at the end of last week prevented Boston from whiplashing its way to a huge lead. But even if the Sox' slugging did not settle the American League East race, in the minds of most Boston opponents it did settle the issue of whether this year's baseball is livelier than the '76 model (SI, June 13). The question Sox players were rightly asking in return was, "If it's just a case of a rabbit in the ball, why isn't everybody setting slugging records the way we have?"
Here is how the Sox socked their way to the records:
•June 14, Boston—In the fourth inning against the Chicago White Sox, Scott launched a 430-foot drive into the centerfield bleachers. Two pitches later Bernie Carbo tagged another one way over the wall in left. Scott added a three-run blast in the eighth to seal a 7-1 victory.
•June 16, Boston—Scott and Designated Hitter Rice each socked his 15th home run of the season, but the White Sox won 7-3, stopping a six-game Boston winning streak.
•June 17, Boston—Lead-off batter Rick Burleson's first-inning fly over The Green Monster in left may have been wind-aided, but the shots that followed in that inning against the Yankees' Hunter would have been out of the Grand Canyon. Boom! went Lynn into the bullpen in deepest right. Boom! Boom! went Fisk high over the screen in left. Boom! Boom! Boom! went Scott even higher over the screen in left-center. Yastrzemski and Fisk stroked two more homers, back to back, in the seventh off Reliever Dick Tidrow.
•June 18, Boston—Yaz, showing little wear and tear for all his 37 years, cracked two more shots, and so did Carbo. Scott had to be content with one.
•June 19, Boston—Second Baseman Denny Doyle, homerless for almost two years, started the Sunday merry-go-round in the fourth with a line drive into the Red Sox bullpen. "Those guys ought to be wearing helmets out there," said the 165-pound Doyle. "Don't they know I'm dangerous!" When Doyle returned to the dugout, Yaz refused to shake his hand, saying, "Are you kidding?" Carbo hit his third homer in two games three innings later. But it was in the eighth that the Red Sox came close to blowing down Fenway. Rice hit a screaming liner just to the left of the flag pole in center held. If it had been hit a few feet farther to the right, it would have gone clear out of the park. Yaz, up next, narrowly missed becoming the first man ever to hit a ball out of the park in right field. His blast down the line hit the facing of the roof. It was the 10th time this year that the Sox have hit back-to-back home runs. Scott made it three homers in a row—and six off Tidrow in his two appearances in this series—with a long belt to straightaway center.
•June 20, Baltimore—The only starter who had not gotten into the home-run derby, Third Baseman Butch Hobson, kept the streak alive with a 450-foot drive in the eighth inning. It hardly seemed fair to Boston's rivals that Red Sox pitchers were starting to show off, too. Ferguson Jenkins had pitched a three-hitter to close out the Yankee series, and on this night Rick Wise had a two-hitter with 10 strikeouts.
•June 21, Baltimore—Luis Tiant fired a two-hit shutout as Rice ripped homer No. 17 and Scott took over the league lead with his 19th.
•June 22, Baltimore—Palmer, who had surrendered four homers in his last start against Boston on June 8, took a three-hitter and a 4-3 lead into the ninth inning. Of course, all three Sox runs had been scored on homers. Before the ninth was over, Palmer had given up a pair of two-run blows to Fisk—his second homer of the game—and Hobson. As usual, Scott and Rice were also among the boomers.
•June 23, Baltimore—Hobson again was alone in the home-run department with his 11th, while Jenkins threw a six-hitter.
•June 24, New York—A crowd of 54,940 screaming, beer-spilling fans turned out at Yankee Stadium Friday night for what would be the final game of the streak. Yaz and Hobson (his third homer in four days) again struck early against Hunter, and when Scott hit his ninth homer in 10 games to give Boston a 5-3 fourth-inning lead, it looked like the Yankees' season might be ending prematurely. But Roy White gave the Red Sox a taste of their own medicine with a two-out, two-run clout that tied the game in the ninth. New York won 6-5 in 11 innings. The next day Mike Torrez yielded nothing more damaging than a run-scoring double to Lynn and a couple of long outs to Rice and Yaz en route to a 5-1 victory.
Boston came out of the streak having won 13 of 15 games and leading the league in batting average (.284) and runs (369). At the close of last week Scott, Rice, Fisk and Yaz were all in the top 10 in home runs. The Red Sox were the best in the majors in that category—no club is within 20 homers of their total of 107 in 69 games. At their present pace, which would be difficult to maintain, the Red Sox would end up with 255 home runs for the season. The record is 240, set by the Yankees in 1961 when Roger Maris (61) and Mickey Mantle (54) accounted for 115 all by themselves.
Favoring the Red Sox in their quest of slugging records is the fact that seven players in the starting lineup are home-run threats. And with this gang, when somebody belts one, it often sets off a chain reaction. Such a frightening lineup deserves a nickname. Murderer's Row is out, having been given to the 1927 Yankees and having been borrowed by the '61 team. It's a little old-fashioned anyway. How about Boomer and the Crunch Bunch?
The Boomer is the 33-year-old Scott, whose homers in the streak moved him into the major league lead with 21. "I've never seen the likes of this before." he said happily. He returned to Boston in a trade this winter after spending the last five seasons in Milwaukee. Two years ago he led the American League in home runs (36), and last season he won his sixth straight Gold Glove award at first base. The ebullient Scott was very popular with Boston fans during his previous tour there (1966-71), and the Red Sox front office felt his right-handed power and glove were good investments. Scott is credited with popularizing the term "taters" for homers, and his power has obviously been a big plus since late May when Manager Don Zimmer moved him from fifth to sixth in the order. Scott, who had gotten off to a slow start, immediately got hot. Zimmer says the shift brought Scott around, but the Boomer doubts that. "I don't think it makes no difference where a big man like me hits," he says. "It was the good Lord who turned it around. I just had to wait until He made the call." But, strangely enough, his defense has kept the Boomer from displaying his big, toothy, gold-inlaid grin. Scott's error total stood at a startlingly high 16 last week, many of them committed on throws and grounders that should have been easy to field. No one claims to know the cause, save the hosts of the Clif and Claf radio talk show in Boston, who have given Scott a lot of on-the-air guff.
Clif is former Boston Globe writer Clif Keane, and Claf is Herald-American columnist Larry Claflin. Their favorite topic of late has been the Boomer's weight problem, which has been evident since spring training, when he reported at nearly 240 pounds. Although the 6'2" Scott is now down to 220, Clif and Claf think Scott cannot field anymore, because of "his fat belly." They took to calling him "Chicken Wings" after he was seen in the company of two platesful of same during the spring, and they encourage their listeners to hurl similar barbs when calling in to the show. No one who watched Scott perform in Yankee Stadium last weekend will understand this criticism, because he saved several runs by roaming far to his right to cut off ground balls, a play nobody in the majors makes as well as he does.
Over a recent 13-day span, while the Boomer was booming, Rice raised his average from .255 to .315. He was a smoking 31-57 at the plate, including three four-hit games in five days, and he claims he would hit even better if he could be a real-live outfielder instead of the DH. He is now fifth in the majors in homers with 18, and for an idea of how strong he is, consider the following incident that occurred recently while Rice was playing golf with Red Sox TV color man Ken Harrelson.
"I had just teed off and Jim asked if he could borrow my driver," says Harrelson. "I should have known better. Jim took the club way back with the idea of outdriving me, but as he moved into his downswing, the shaft snapped right in two. It reminded me of the time two years ago against Detroit when he checked a swing and the bat cracked right in half above his hands. He is that strong. On the golf course he is the longest. I mean, longer than me, and 15 to 40 yards longer than the biggest hitters in the PGA, Jim Dent and Fuzzy Zoeller. And he hits the baseball the same way. It jumps off his bat as if it were hit with a one-iron."
Boston has so many brutes in its lineup that Rice says the Sox are getting blasé about homers. "We've got this standard routine in the dugout now," he says. "When a guy comes in after a homer, someone will ask him, 'Hey, man, you get it all?' The answer's always, 'Nope.' "
Lead-off man Burleson (.315) and ninth hitter Doyle (.250) are the only non-sluggers in the order. Yastrzemski, who is growing old as gracefully as his predecessor in left, Ted Williams, was hitting .304 and had 14 homers. Fisk was leading the league in runs scored with 57, despite batting fifth. The main reason he had that many is Hobson, who bats eighth and is in effect the lineup's second clean-up hitter. Hobson was fourth in the league in RBIs and was batting .333 with men on base.
Seven weeks ago the shoe was on the other foot. Red Sox pitchers had given up more home runs than their teammates had hit, and the club seemed to be going nowhere. Then one night in Seattle, Lynn begged Manager Don Zimmer to change the lineup card and let him play, though the injured left ankle that had kept Lynn out of the first 27 games of the year was not healed. Zimmer relented, Lynn smashed home runs in his first two trips to the plate, and Boston has been off and slugging ever since.
On May 22 the Red Sox trailed Milwaukee 10-4 in the seventh inning, yet came from behind to win 14-10 on the strength of six home runs. It was one of three times they have hit six this year. The next week they trailed Kansas City 8-2, but rallied to win 17-12 on six more homers. Reliever Bill Campbell, the one expensive free agent Boston was able to afford before Mrs. Tom Yawkey tightened her purse strings, got the win in that game and has been virtually untouchable since. He has eight saves and two victories in his 12 most recent appearances. On June 8, the night before their first explosion against Palmer, the Red Sox scored 11 runs in one inning and knocked the Orioles out of first place by a 14-5 score. The next night they shelled Palmer. And the next week the home-run streak started.
Explaining how he came to be hot during the record run, Fisk says, "I'm actually seeing the ball coming off the bat. Amazing."
"I will do anything to stay in the groove," says Rice. "It actually starts when I wake up in the morning. Hitting is with me all day long. It's a total awareness, almost like a trance."
Snapping the fingers is not likely to bring the Red Sox out of the glorious trance they have been in, and an incident that occurred in left field last week suggests that some teams may have to turn to chicanery to break the spell. Pat Kelly, the Baltimore leftfielder, raced to the barrier, leaped and got a glove on a game-winning homer hit by Fisk. He could not hold onto it, but nobody could see for sure what had happened as he lay for a few seconds draped over the top of the fence near the bullpen. Some observers say Kelly spent his time on the fence reaching out with his glove as if he wanted one of the pitchers in the bullpen to stick the ball back in it.
He didn't pull off that ploy, but it was understandable that he may have tried it. After all, when you're up against Boomer and the Crunch Bunch, what else is there to do?
In this sequence Scott ended Boston's homer streak with a shot off Catfish Hunter. It was the seventh clout against the Cat during the binge.
Hobson, a .235 hitter, bats .333 with men on base.
Even though he hits fifth, Fisk has scored 57 runs.
Like Ted Williams, Yaz (.304) is aging gracefully.
During the Boston streak, Carbo had three homers in two days.
Familiar scene: one Sox slugger greets another.
Rice, who hit .544 during a recent 13-game span, is second to Scott in homers for the Sox with 18.