Tom Lasorda had made a big splash in his first year as manager in Los Angeles, winning the pennant in 1977. The 1978 Los Angeles Dodgers made the new skipper 2-for-2, pulling away to win the NL West on the strength of a dynamite September.
The Dodgers were a complete team, the best in the National League in both hitting and pitching. They made only modest changes to the roster, replacing Elias Sosa with Terry Forster in the closer’s role. Otherwise, the component parts of the 1977 NL champs were back.
Reggie Smith was the best-all around offensive threat, playing rightfield and finishing with a stat line of .382 on-base percentage/.559 slugging percentage. Smith hit 29 home runs and finished with 93 RBIs. Others weren’t far behind. Steve Garvey had 113 RBIs and batted. 316 at first base. Ron Cey hit 23 home runs at third base.
Davey Lopes was at the top of the order and the second baseman had an OBP of .355 and swiped 45 bases. Rick Monday and Lee Lacy were productive outfielders in more limited roles. Even with a down year from leftfielder Dusty Baker and catcher Steve Yeager, the Dodgers had plenty of muscle.
The starting rotation was balanced, with Burt Hooton enjoying the best year, as he won 19 games and finished with 2.71 ERA. Don Sutton and Tommy John were veterans that combined for 32 wins and ERAs in the 3s. Doug Rau was a solid fourth starter, 15-9 with a 3.26 ERA.
Rick Rhoden filled out the rotation with ten wins and an ERA in the 3s, and the team broke in 21-year-old Bob Welch. The power righthander made 13 starts, finished with a 2.02 ERA and would be a part of one of the most memorable confrontations in World Series history before the season was over.
Los Angeles was steady, if unspectacular in beginning the year. They were 26-19 on Memorial Day, trailing the San Francisco Giants and Cincinnati Reds, but within 3 ½ games of the NL West lead. The Dodger record was 50-36 by the All-Star break, moving them past Cincinnati, but still a couple games back of San Francisco.
Early August was a problem. A road trip to San Diego and San Francisco went poorly, with five losses in seven games, and the Dodgers fell as many as six games back. They stopped the bleeding when the Giants made a return trip to SoCal, as the teams split a four-game set. Then the Dodgers righted the ship, with an 8-4 stretch against the NL East, including five wins in seven games against the eventual East winner, the Philadelphia Phillies.
In the latter part of August, Los Angeles got a hold of first place, and on Labor Day they were clinging to a one-game lead on San Francisco, with Cincinnati drifting out of the race, 6 ½ games back. The Giants were coming to Dodger Stadium for a key three-game series starting on the holiday.
Sutton got the ball for the Labor Day opener and was hit early, digging his team a 4-0 hole. But the veteran calmed down and Monday led off the fifth inning with a home run, triggering a five-run inning. The 5-4 score stood up, as middle reliever Lance Rautzhan got seven big outs, and Forster nailed down the final five for the save.
The Giants answered with a win on Tuesday, but the Dodgers took the series with a blowout on Wednesday. Cey went 3-for-3 with a home run, as did backup catcher Joe Ferguson. Los Angeles won that game 9-2 to at least get a small amount of room to breathe. Then they took over the race.
The Dodgers won eight of their next ten, and dominated a two-game set up in San Francisco. They won the games 7-2 and 8-0, the latter being a shutout by Rau. He had also won the rubber match rout in Los Angeles earlier. The name “Doug Rau” doesn’t ring out in history like Sutton or John, but Rau won some important games for these excellent Dodger teams of the late 1970s.
Los Angeles was soaring and by September 16, they were up nine games. It took less than two weeks for a race that had been tight all year to be blown open. The Dodgers clinched on the penultimate Sunday of the year, with Welch shutting out San Diego to put the icing on the cake. The final standings look close only because the Dodgers mailed it in for the final week, giving back five games in the standings and finishing with a margin of 2 ½.
It was a Dodgers-Phillies rematch in the NLCS, and for the second straight year, Los Angeles won the best-of-five series (the LCS became best-of-seven in 1985) in four games, thanks to taking the first two in Philadelphia and then winning a good 10-inning affair in Game 4.
Another rematch awaited in the World Series, as the Dodgers looked for revenge against the New York Yankees. It got off to a good start, as Los Angeles took the first two games at home. Game 2 was clinched when Welch struck out Reggie Jackson with the tying run in scoring position. It was an epic battle, with balls repeatedly fouled off, before Welch finally got the Yankee slugger. But it was also the last Dodger victory of the year—the Yanks became the first team to win four straight after losing the first two in a World Series.
Nonetheless, Los Angeles was clearly the pre-eminent team in the National League and their final revenge on the Yankees was only three years off—in 1981, the Dodgers turned the tables, losing the first two games in New York and then winning four straight to clinch. As far as the immediate aftermath of 1978, there were worst things than having a manager who was perfect in winning pennants after two years.