When the going gets tough, it seems, the Red Sox know what to do. They bring in rookie Al Nipper and, magically, all that has been going wrong suddenly begins to turn out right.
That may be an oversimplification of what happened in yesterday’s 10-1 victory over the New York Yankees that ended a three-game Red Sox losing streak. After all, Boston bats also came to life for 13 hits, including another four-hit burst by Wade Boggs and Jim Rice’s 25th home run.
But there was no denying that there was a dramatic difference in the feeling of the crowd of 33,655 at Fenway Park yesterday as Nipper limited the Yankees to just five hits. He never gave them any doubts, and they were quickly reminded that Nipper is fearless.
Thus it should not come as a surprise to learn that Nipper (9-5) is 5-0 in his last six starts, with a 2.17 earned-run average. And he seems to be getting better. He may be the least touted of Boston’s youthful righthanders. But when you’re talking about consistency and the ability to finish what he starts, Nipper has become the guy you want to see on the mound for Boston.
“He pitched almost a perfect game,”said Sox manager Ralph Houk. “He didn’t make a mistake and that’s still the key to pitching. He pitched the hitters exactly the way they are supposed to be pitched.
“We talk about this before every game with every pitcher. We tell them if if they get hit, they’re all right if they make the pitches where they are supposed to make them. That’s what makes Al a good pitcher and why he’s been a winner all his life. He knows how to pitch hitters and goes after them.
“But then, he’s done that all his life, too.”
Houk’s view of Nipper comes from a man who could finally afford to smile after having watched the Yankees pound out 13 extra-base hits in two games. Even Nipper admitted his day would have been ruined had Dave Winfield, who had a 20-game hitting streak stopped yesterday, gotten a base hit in the first inning instead of hitting into a double play with one out and two men on base.
After escaping in the first, Nipper settled down to pitch the kind of game that has become typical for him. The Yankees did get an unearned run in the fourth on two base hits and an error by Bill Buckner. But every time the Yankees even got a whiff of a rally, Nipper began changing speeds and tossing in a screwball here and there. A 1-2-3 finish in the ninth seemed almost routine.
“I knew exactly what I wanted to do with every hitter going into the game,” said Nipper. “I talked with people I know and I talked with Ralph. I knew what I had to do to be successful, and I went about it that way.
“You can make a few more mistakes with a big lead, but mostly it gives you a lot of confidence that you can go after hitters and not be afraid of making any.
“Earlier in the season I was up and down. But I learned you can’t get real fired up on the bench when we score a lot of runs, and lose your concentration and your intensity. I tried to keep both through the game and not worry about anything else. The idea is to just go out and pitch.
“You can’t look ahead to a few innings or a few batters ahead,” he said. “If you do, the guy you face now will hurt you. Had Winfield got a hit instead of a double-play ball, it might have changed the complexion of game.
“The big hitters in the lineup are going to hurt you sometimes even though you make good pitches. But it’s the guys in the bottom of the order that you know you can get out that you have to get out.”
The Yankees agreed, but suggested waiting until next week in New York before making any judgments on Nipper.
“He’s got a good screwball,” said Willie Randolph, “and his deliberate style makes him tough. And he’s got a good fastball. But he’s the kind of pitcher that has to spot the ball. We’ll see him in New York.”
Pitching, of course, is only half the story of yesterday’s game. The Yankees, short on starters, dredged up sore-armed Marty Bystrom, the former Phillie. Bystrom, too, had a chance to escape unharmed in the first inning. But when Mike Pagliarulo booted a grounder by Jim Rice, it led to a two-run surge as walks to Tony Armas and Mike Easler were followed by a run-scoring single by Buckner.
Bystrom couldn’t survive the second inning, when the Sox scored two more runs on a single by Marty Barrett, a double off the Wall by Boggs (who went on to collect four hits for the sixth time this season), and a single by Dwight Evans.
Boston did the rest of the damage against relievers Dale Murray and Mike Armstrong. Boggs, Evans Rice, Buckner and Barrett all had two RBIs yesterday. Rice’s home run was the 301st of his career and was the first by a Red Sox hitter in 41 innings.
With his fourth hit in the ninth, Boggs continued an amazing (14 for 18, .778) streak that has pushed his average to .318.
He now has a total of 173 hits, which, with 20 games to go, gives him a shot at getting at least 200.
“I can make it,” said Boggs, “I need 27 more and I have three weeks left? I can make it.”