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Skidding back into the '70s

They have lost big leads before

By John Powers
Globe Staff / September 28, 2011

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It has been more than three decades, and Fred Lynn is 3,000 miles away these days, but he knows a slow-motion train wreck when he sees one, having lived through both Red Sox collapses during the 1970s.

“You’re sitting there wondering what happened,’’ said the former All-Star center fielder, who lives in California, where he grew up. “It seems like whatever you do doesn’t work.’’

Now, on the regular season’s final day, the present town team is on the verge of a fatal collapse after squandering a nine-game lead in the American League wild-card race. For the past few weeks, Boston’s besieged and befuddled players, whose September record (7-19) - after an 8-7 victory at Baltimore last night - was worse than that of the historically hapless 1962 New York Mets, have been stumbling hollow-eyed and slack-jawed through loss after loss.

If they fail to make the playoffs, the Sox will join the 1951 and 1962 Dodgers, 1964 Phillies, 1969 Cubs, 1987 Blue Jays, 1995 Angels, and 2007 Mets on the list of epic late-season imploders. Not to mention the 1974 and 1978 Boston clubs, both of which frittered away what seemed to be sure things in midsummer.

Though the 1978 collapse is considered more nightmarish because it ended in a playoff loss to the Yankees at Fenway Park with Bucky Dent’s pitching-wedge screen shot, this year’s free fall is closer to the 1974 version, in which Boston led the division by seven games on Aug. 23, lost 19 of its next 26, and finished third behind Baltimore and New York.

Lynn was a rookie call-up that season and by the time he made his major league debut on Sept. 5, his teammates already were in an unstoppable spiral. While the Sox had two superb pitchers in Luis Tiant and Bill Lee, who won 39 games between them, their bats had turned to sawdust.

“We just weren’t hitting,’’ said Lynn, who was brought up to provide some pop at the plate. “The whole team wasn’t hitting.’’

By the time the Sox arrived in Baltimore for a Labor Day doubleheader, they had lost six of eight games.

“Where they really are is in Dire Straits,’’ wrote Globe columnist Ray Fitzgerald, “a rocky inlet just around the bend from the Bay of Despond.’’

By nightfall, the Sox had run aground, swept, 1-0 and 1-0, with Tiant and Lee on the mound. Then, after being blinded, 6-0, by Jim Palmer in the series finale, Boston came home to lose to the Brewers, 4-3, on Gorman Thomas’s ninth-inning homer and then 2-0 with Tiant on the hill.

With the losing streak at eight, manager Darrell Johnson told his men to play music in the clubhouse to lighten the mood.

“It was a dark cloud, no question,’’ recalled Lynn. “No matter what the team was doing, it couldn’t win.’’

The crusher came in the Fens four days later against the Yankees, who had lost 20 of their previous 21 games in Boston. After winning the series opener, they were held scoreless by Tiant until the ninth inning of the second game, when crew chief Marty Springstead ruled that a fan had touched Chris Chambliss’s line shot to the right-field corner and awarded New York the tying run instead of holding the runner at third on a ground-rule double.

“The umpires are gutless,’’ Tiant declared after the Yankees prevailed, 2-1, on Alex Johnson’s 12th-inning homer off Diego Segui.

The Sox essentially were finished.

“Well, to say that I’m not disappointed would make me a damn liar,’’ owner Tom Yawkey confessed after his club ended up seven games behind the Orioles and five behind the Yankees. “I guess I’m a fatalist and that it’s happened and nothing can be done.’’

What made the 1978 crash more painful was that Boston had staged a heroic revival to get back into the race after being fusilladed by the Yankees in the Fens by counts of 15-3, 13-2, 7-0, and 7-4 in the “Boston Massacre’’ after Labor Day.

“I don’t know what happened,’’ skipper Don Zimmer conceded after watching what had been a nine-game lead on Aug. 13 shrink to zero.

“Every day you sit in front of your locker and ask God what the hell is going on,’’ shortstop Rick Burleson said as the losses mounted to 14 of 17.

But a Sunday victory in the Bronx turned everything around, and the Sox won 12 of their final 14, the last eight in a row, to force the playoff with New York.

“We just wouldn’t go away,’’ Lynn remembered. “We just put the screws to them. When someone is in your rear-view mirror, you feel it. It was great to be part of something that memorable. We were just on the wrong end of it.’’

This year, the Sox’ stretch run has been memorable for all the wrong reasons, with the club losing to a last-place team while hoping for last-minute help from unsympathetic people in pinstripes.

If there is any consolation to this September swoon, it is that these Sox don’t have to hear about 1918, as the 1974 and 1978 teams did.

“That’s gone away,’’ Lynn observed. “They’ve already won twice.’’

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

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