The 1974 Boston Red Sox had the most prolific offense in the American League and they slugged their way into first place and the heart of the pennant race. But that offense went silent at the season’s crunch point and a pitching staff that lacked depth wasn’t able to make up the difference as rookie manager Darrell Johnson was unable to return the franchise to the postseason.
It was a busy offseason leading up to the ’74 season and the Red Sox made a flurry of moves, none of which were particularly enlightened. They dealt a young outfielder in Ben Ogilvie to the Detroit Tigers. That didn’t hurt them in 1974, but it didn’t help, and Ogilvie later became a star. Boston traded starting pitcher Marty Pattin to the Kansas City Royals for versatile pitcher Dick Drago. This one worked out better, but the rotation missed Pattin’s reliability in taking his turn every fourth day.
The rotation was further stripped by trading John Curtis–another steady, if unspectacular arm to the St. Louis Cardinals. The Red Sox got back starting pitcher Reggie Cleveland and reliever Diego Segui–both were regulars on the mound and both were mediocre.
But that wasn’t the biggest move Boston made with St. Louis. The Red Sox dealt outfielder Reggie Smith–who by this point had surpassed 34-year-old Carl Yastrzemski as the team’s best everyday player–to the Cards for Bernie Carbo and Rick Wise.
Carbo would become a Boston icon for his pinch-hitting skill, most memorably in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series, and Wise would turn into a decent starting pitcher a year later. Neither were as good as Smith, who could hit for average, hit for power and run.
For 1974, the pitching staff was completely dependent on Luis Tiant and Bill Lee. El Tiante threw over 300 innings, won 22 games and finished with a 2.92 ERA. Lee’s ERA was higher, at 3.51, but he logged over 280 innings and won 17 games. The rest of the rotation was pieced together with a mix of Cleveland, Drago and Roger Moret. Segui was the top reliever, but that didn’t mean he was good, finishing with a 4.00 ERA.
Boston had to rely on its bats, and with Smith gone, they needed people to step up. Yaz remained ever reliable, churning out a .414 on-base percentage and a respectable .445 slugging percentage, though his power was not what it had been a few years earlier.
The Red Sox gave regular playing time to 22-year-old Dwight Evans for the first time, and Evans rewarded them with solid number of .335 OBP/.421 slugging. Tommy Harper was in decline in left field, but he still stole 28 bases. Cecil Cooper, the good young DH/1B, began to slowly emerge and he batted .275.
Carbo didn’t officially have a regular position, but he got plenty of at-bats and finished with a .364 on-base percentage. It wasn’t a lineup that looked fierce on paper–especially when catcher Carlton Fisk missed over 100 games due to injury–but it was balanced and kept scoring runs.
The season didn’t begin well and Boston was 11-15 in early May, losing five of six at home to non-contenders in the Texas Rangers and California Angels. Tiant and Lee got it turned around, throwing consecutive shutouts at the New York Yankees and the Red Sox cleared the .500 threshold for good on May 21. They were only 23-20 going into Memorial Day, but managed to lead an AL East where all six teams were packed within three games of each other.
In early June, the two-time defending World Series champ (soon to be three-time defending) Oakland A’s came to Fenway Park. The Red Sox won three straight, and the highlight was Tiant beating A’s ace Vida Blue 4-1 in a game where Evans hit a three-run blast. When Boston made the return trip west, another Tiant-Blue battle was on tap. The game was tied 1-1 in extra innings, both aces determined to finish what they started. Boston scraped over a run in the 11th, won 2-1 and also took two of three in the series.
The Tiant-Blue battles were the highlight of a 9-3 stretch for the Red Sox that saw them pull out to a lead as much as 4 1/2 games in the AL East. But they lost six of seven at home to the Baltimore Orioles and Kansas City Royals, coming back to the pack. When the All-Star break arrived, Boston was 50-45, the AL East still within five games from top to bottom, and the Red Sox in the lead.
In late July, the New York Yankees came to Fenway Park and Boston won three straight. They opened the series by beating Yankee closer Sparky Lyle on a walkoff and ended the series the same way.
Lyle was a former Red Sox and the decision to trade him in 1972 was one of the worst in franchise history, but in July 1974, the Sox got the best of their old friend. Then they swept a two-game series from the Orioles and won 15 of the first 22 games in August.
Boston’s lead soared as high as seven games, but a 2-6 stretch leading into September tightened the race back up. On Labor Day, Boston was two games up on New York, plus-five on Baltimore and were going to old Memorial Stadium to play the Orioles in a three-game set.
The Red Sox had Tiant and Lee on tap for the first two games and their best pitchers answered the bell. Both threw complete games. Combined, they only gave up nine hits and two runs…and they both lost.
It was perhaps the most infamous display of offensive failure in Red Sox history. They mustered a combined five singles in the two games and wasted Tiant and Lee’s brilliance, losing 1-0 each time. In the series finale, the Sox faced Cy Young winner Jim Palmer and got only three more singles, losing this one 6-0.
The best offense in the American League had failed to score a run in the biggest three games of the season to date. They had only eight hits and all were singles.
Boston stumbled out of Baltimore and lost nine of the next fourteen. When the Orioles made a return trip to Fenway for, the Red Sox were four games out, with the Birds and Yanks jousting at the top. This three-game set with Baltimore would be followed by a three-game series in the Bronx. It was now or never.
The offense improved against Oriole pitching in the opener, but that means merely that they got a couple extra-base hits and actually scored a run. But one run was all they got, and Drago’s strong outing was undone by solo home runs given up to Don Baylor and Boog Powell. Boston lost 2-1, and then trailed 5-1 in the ninth the next day. Finally, the bats awakened. Evans hit a three-run homer, the Red Sox tied it and they won in extra innings to keep their season alive.
But Reggie Cleveland took the mound in the finale and could only get two outs, resulting in a 7-2 loss. Boston was still five games back with a week left.
Tiant went into New York and threw a six-hit shutout to win the opener 4-0. Moret followed it up with a complete-game 4-2 win, as the Red Sox clung to their faint hopes. Lee pitched the finale and took a shutout into the ninth inning. But once again, there was no offensive support and the Yankees scraped over a run to win 1-0.
In the meantime, Baltimore just wasn’t losing. From the beginning of September to the end of the regular season, the Orioles went 25-6. By the time the final weekend arrived, the Red Sox were five games out and eliminated. Baltimore finally outlasted New York on the season’s penultimate day.
The Red Sox had stayed in contention all season long, but with a final record of 84-78, the record was actually worse than any since 1966. Fortunately, better days were ahead–in 1975, they would again grab an AL East lead in the second half and then finish the job.