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Thursday, May 23, 2013

Sox in Six: Most Electric Red Sox Pitchers of Last 50 Years

Buchholz's record is still unblemished.

In leading the Red Sox to victory in Chicago during the final game of a nine-game road trip last night, Clay Buchholz ran his early-season record to 7-0. 

Buchholz's white-hot start, which includes a 1.73 ERA and 73 strikeouts in 72.2 innings, is one of the best in franchise history. It also has Red Sox fans wondering -- is the wiry right-hander ready to join the list of elite pitchers in Red Sox annals?

These are the guys who didn't just win big games, but had the ballpark buzzing before they even walked in from the bullpen. 

Today's Sox in Six focuses on the most electric Red Sox pitchers of the past half-century:

Dick Radatz
Mickey Mantle gave Radatz his nickname -- "the Monster" -- after striking out for what seemed like the 100th straight time against the big right-hander. 

Actually, Mickey whiffed 44 times in 63 at-bats against Radatz, but you get the idea. Listed at 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds (and likely larger), Radatz was a menacing figure on the mound, and he had the stuff to back up the big shadow he cast.

As a reliever with the Red Sox in the 1960s, Radatz was so overpowering that he drew standing ovations each time he came in from the Fenway bullpen. No matter what the score, fans would wait around to see if the Monster would make an appearance.

The Sox of this era were awful, but Radatz was still one of the best pitchers in baseball -- going 40-21 with 78 saves from 1962-64 with a 2.17 ERA and 487 strikeouts in 414 innings. In the era before closers and set-up men, he'd often pitch two or three innings for several nights in a row. 

The Monster flamed out before Yaz and the Impossible Dream team of 1967 revived Boston baseball. It's hard to imagine how good this guy could have been on a decent team.

Luis Tiant
Tiant was the David Ortiz of the 1970s Red Sox, a big-hearted jokster who was a clubhouse leader and a cold-hearted killer in the clutch. 

The Cuban righty with the crazy wind-up and a seemingly endless array of arm angles and deliveries won 20 games three times between 1973-76, and nearly pitched Boston to a title in the '75 World Series with two complete-game victories (plus seven more gritty innings) against the mighty Cincinnati Reds.

Posessing a Fu Manchu mustache and a visible passion for the game, "El Tiante" was a Fenway favorite who elicited loud cries of "LOOOOOOUIE!" from his adoring fans. Despite having lost his best fastball by his mid-30s he could still out-think the opposition and occasionally blow batters away.

Down the stretch of a season there was no one better -- as evidenced by Tiant's stellar .675 winning percentage in September/October. When Boston ownership let Louie walk after the '78 season, team captain Carl Yastrzemski lamented the loss of "our heart and soul."

Roger Clemens

Long before anybody was talking about steroids, Clemens was the heir to fellow Texan Nolan Ryan as the best power pitcher in the game.

"The Rocket" emerged from injuries early in his career to have one of the best seasons any pitcher could hope for in 1986 -- going 24-4 with a 2.48 ERA and 238 strikeouts (including a 9-inning record of 20 on April 29). Like Tiant, he nearly led Boston to a title before the nightmare at Shea Stadium that October. 

The "K" cards flew often at Fenway during Clemens' heyday, as he averaged 239 strikeouts between 1986-92 while going 136-63 with a 2.66 ERA and notching three Cy Young Awards (as well as the '86 MVP). When the Red Sox struggled with an anemic offense in the early '90s, the Rocket often carried the club on his broad shoulders but also lost plenty of low-scoring games.

His Boston years ended ugly, with a drop-off in performance and conditioning that GM Dan Duquette saw as the beginning of his end, and the doping revelations of recent years have perhaps forever tainted Clemens' image. At his youthful peak, however, there was no one better.

Pedro Martinez
Starts by Martinez at Fenway were more than just ballgames -- they were happenings. 

Saluted with thunderous ovations and the waving of countless Dominican flags, Pedro was slight in stature at 5-foot-11, 170 pounds but a giant on the mound. Like perhaps no pitcher since Sandy Koufax, he dominated hitters to the point where it almost didn't seem fair. 

Whether in a pennant race (17 strikeouts at Yankee Stadium in September 1999) or an exhibition (whiffs of five elite NL batters in the '99 All-Star Game), "The Dominican Dandy" delivered a great show. Just as Babe Ruth once out-homered entire teams, Pedro made a mockery of the ERA race by dwarfing all other pitchers in runs allowed (including a 1.74 to 3.70 edge over runner-up Roger Clemens in 2000).

Martinez's '99 season (23-4 with a 2.07 ERA and 313 strikeouts in 213 innings) was his coronation as the game's greatest hurler, and although injuries and careful managers kept his innings down in later years, he was still an elite pitcher on many occasions -- and a key part of the team that finally ended Boston's 86-year World Series title drought in 2004. 

Curt Schilling
Whether or not they liked his right-wing politics, fans loved the right arm of the big-boned pitcher who talked big and then backed it up. 

Brought in to put Boston over the top and finally take down the Yankees, Schilling delivered -- eclipsing Martinez as the staff ace and going 21-6 for the 2004 champs. He was a power pitcher in the Clemens mold, and he shined best on the brightest stage -- going 6-1 in the postseason and helping the Red Sox to titles in '04 and 2007.  

His ALCS and World Series work in 2004 was the stuff of legend, complete with a sutured ankle and bloody socks that earned him hero status throughout New England. Schilling's problems in the business world have largely tainted that image, as have his political slants. But no teammates are giving back their rings.

Jonathan Papelbon
It's been two years since the Red Sox let Papelbon leave as a free agent, and they are still looking to replace their most dominant reliever since Dick Radatz.

When Papelbon entered most games in the ninth inning to the upbeat sounds of The Dropkick Murphys' classic "Shipping Off to Boston," Fenway fans knew in most cases they'd be hearing the victory anthem of "Dirty Water" a few minutes later. The big right-hander with the steely stare had a blazing fastball and tremendous control -- walking just 15 and striking out 88 while recording 37 regular-season saves and the final out of the 2007 World Series.

Second only to Mariano Rivera as an elite American League closer from 2006-09, Papelbon registered an outstanding aggregate 1.74 ERA and at least 35 saves each year. A big ERA jump to 3.90 in 2010 led ownership to assume his best days were behind him, and Papelbon has been proving them wrong ever since.


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