The 1978 Boston Red Sox were coming off a strong year in ’77, one in which they won 97 games. But the New York Yankees won 100 and won a World Series title, so in Boston that meant some changes were necessary.
Boston raided the Bronx for free-agent starting pitcher Mike Torrez, who’d won two World Series games for New York in October. Then the Red Sox made two more significant deals, acquiring second baseman Jerry Remy from the Angels and packaging starting pitcher Rick Wise into a deal with Cleveland that brought them Dennis Eckersley in return.
Remy and Eckersley each had brilliant futures ahead of them in other areas—Remy as an analyst on the current Red Sox TV broadcast team, and Eckersley as a closer. And in 1978 they were both pretty good at what they did at second and in the starting rotation. The Sox were looking good for ’78.
The lore of the 1978 Red Sox tells us they got off to a blazing start. In reality, Boston was decent, but not spectacular in April and on May 3 they were still 3.5 games behind the Detroit Tigers and also trailing the second-place Yankees.
It wasn’t until May 22 the Sox took the lead in the AL East and kept it for an extended period, but when they took off, this team was the hottest thing going. With Remy and shortstop Rick Burleson shoring up both the middle infield and the top of the order, Jim Rice having a monster year that would eventually win him the MVP, future Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk behind the plate and the legendary Carl Yastrzemski still in good form, this team could score runs by the bushel.
Eckersley won 20 games, Torrez was a solid #2, while holdovers from the 1975 pennant winning team, Luis Tiant and Bill Lee filled out the rotation in what was an era when teams relied on only four starters. Boston’s record hit an astonishing 62-28 in July and on the 19th of that month their lead was nine games over the surprising Milwaukee Brewers, 12.5 over Earl Weaver’s Baltimore Orioles, and 14 over the New York Yankees, who were in turmoil and had fired manager Billy Martin and replaced him with Bob Lemon. All was right with the world in Fenway.
The Red Sox had become the smart-money pick to win the World Series by late July, but the same kind of injury problems that hit the Yankees in the first part of the schedule now hit Boston. While the Sox cooled down, the Yanks were scorching hot. They closed the lead to four games by the time a four-game set began in Boston on September 7-10.
New York scorched Boston by a combined score of 42-9, won all four games and gave this series its place in baseball lore as “The Boston Massacre. The Red Sox spiraled to 3.5 games back by September 16, losing two more in Yankee Stadium before rebounding on September 17 with a Sunday afternoon win in the Bronx behind Eckersley
Things began to change the following week though. The Red Sox began to chip back away at the Yankee lead and they caught the Yanks on the final day of the regular season. On that Sunday, the Fenway Faithful got the good word that the Yanks lost in Cleveland, and that a one-game playoff would take place in Boston on Monday, October 2.
It would become one of the legendary battles in MLB history, but as was often the case prior to 2004, the Red Sox drew the short straw. Bucky Dent hit a three-run homer into the screen to give the Yankees a 3-2 lead in the seventh and then a drama-packed final three frames ended with the Yanks holding on 5-4, with the tying run at third base.
The season was a noble effort, one that marked the Red Sox the second-best team in baseball (their 99 wins exceeded that of every other division winner and the Yanks went on to win the World Series) and the Sox had no quit in them. That’s a thin reed to hold onto when the best team is your archrival, when you had a 14-game lead after the All-Star break and you have to watch them celebrate on your home field.