My Little Tony: Pitching Key to Sox Success

Not many Red Sox fans have ever seen a production of the musical revues My Lady Friends or No No Nanette, but they continue to loom large over the Beantown sports scene. The entrepreneurial Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold the Boston star Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in late 1919 for $100,000 which he could use to plough into the plays.

Yet only now, 82 seasons after the ill-fated deal, have the Red Sox management begun to realize that sale’s true significance. For, blinded by Ruth’s towering home runs, the Sox brass have never truly understood that it is pitching that wins championships. Ruth’s offensive contribution to the Red Sox was surely important, but he was, first and foremost, a pitcher. And it is a dearth of quality pitching that has hurt the team in recent years.

Last year the Red Sox were forced to make do with a substandard selection of mediocre rookies and arm-weary veterans. Joe Kerrigan and his staff coaxed as much as they could from the likes of Brett Saberhagen, Rod Beck and Tomo Okha—but such a staff could clearly never be expected to win a World Series. The injury to Pedro Martinez was, of course, vital, but even before he went down the staff looked decidedly thin. His injury was merely a convenient peg for a slide that would have doubtless occurred at some point with a patchy staff that had only two quality starters, one of whose success—Hideo Nomo—was a real surprise.

This year, though, the Boston rotation appears formidable. Pedro Martinez’s apparently healthy return is enough to warm the heart of any Boston fan, while his supporting cast have so far proved to be extremely effective. Derek Lowe, resurrected from his nightmarish closing stint in 2001, seemed a highly competent number two long before his stunning no-hitter on Saturday. Meanwhile, Frank Castillo and John Burkett have both showed real promise thus far—and the staff can only improve with the imminent return of Dustin Hermanson from injury. And it is clear that a staff has good karma when even Darren Oliver looks sharp.

Meanwhile, and just as importantly, the Boston bullpen has been strengthened for an arduous pennant run. Ugueth Urbina’s heart-stopping closing has been the exception and not the rule. Casey Fossum and Sun-Woo Kim have been welcome additions, while the incomparable El Guapo and the inexplicable Tim Wakefield remain solid relievers. In short, the pitching situation is bright.

It seems that Boston has at last learned to accept the old cliché that good pitching really does beat good hitting. For too many years the Sox squandered money on overpriced position players—Mike Lansing, anyone?—and didn’t provide Pedro Martinez with adequate support. Now it seems that Red Sox brass have at last learned to copy the Yankees’ winning formula—pitching pitching pitching. (Indeed it was only through adhering to that very doctrine that Arizona, led by Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson, were able to take down the Yankees in last year’s World Series.)

The Red Sox are a long way from that holy grail. It is still early in the season and no Boston fan needs to be reminded about how last season’s team was leading AL East at the All-Star Break before degenerating into an embarrassing collection of lunatics and layabouts.

But the signs are good. In 1986, the last time the Red Sox reached the World Series, it was thanks to the arms of the now-reviled Roger Clemens and his strong staff. With the Yankees in transition, it just might happen again. But that can only be the case if the new Red Sox management learn from Harry Frazee’s mistake: nothing is ever worth more than quality pitching. With any luck for Boston fans, No-No D. Lowe can soon kill off the ghost of No No Nanette.