The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox played a 1978 season that boiled down to a tale of two halves. Boston dominated the first half and their lead grew to 14 games. New York, after a managerial change from Billy Martin to Bob Lemon in July, countered, closed the gap and pulled even. The Yankees led the race for the final two weeks until the Red Sox finally pulled back even on the season’s final day.
The 1978 Yankees-Red Sox playoff to settle the AL East title and trip to the American League Championship Series carries a special place in baseball lore. New York would send Ron Guidry to the mound, a 24-game winner who would easily win the AL Cy Young Award. Boston countered with Mike Torrez. It was the Red Sox who struck first, as Carl Yastrzemski, hungry for a World Series win, homered to lead off the top of the second.
The Yanks threatened in the third when speedy leadoff man Mickey Rivers hit a two-out double, but catcher Thurman Munson struck out. Boston challenged Guidry again in the bottom of the inning, when George Scott, the first baseman known as “Boomer” for his big swing, doubled to lead off the inning. He was bunted over to third, but neither Rick Burleson nor Jerry Remy could pick him up.
The score stayed 1-0 to the sixth when Burleson doubled, Remy bunted him to third and Jim Rice singled him home. The lead was 2-0, but the inning ended when Fred Lynn flied out with two men on base.
It bears wondering if it was necessary for manager Don Zimmer to be so bunt-oriented in this game, something decidedly un-Red Sox. The sac bunt in the third was done by ninth-place hitter Jack Brohammer and understandable. But having Remy bunt when a man was already in scoring position, took away an out when Boston might have had a bigger inning. Then the fateful seventh inning arrived.
With one out, the Yanks got back-to-back singles, before Torrez induced pinch-hitter Jim Spencer to fly out. With the light-hitting Bucky Dent at the plate, the Sox were on the verge of getting out of the inning. Dent hit a lazy fly ball to left that Yastrzemski was sure he had. The ball drifted…and drifted…and drifted…and landed in the netting of the Green Monster. A stunned crowd saw the Yanks take a 3-2 lead.
Dent’s home run has earned him the nickname “Bucky (expletive) Dent” in New England, but there was more drama packed in these final three innings then there were in the first six.
While the Red Sox couldn’t finish off big innings, the Yanks added one more before the seventh was out, with Rivers drawing a walk, stealing second and then scoring on a double by Munson. In the eighth, Reggie Jackson hit a home run. The door for the New York offense had been opened and they bashed it down.
Just as Boston’s regular season was about more than a blown lead, but about a comeback after that, so too was this game. The Red Sox didn’t lay down and die, even trailing 5-2 and facing feared Yankee closer Goose Goss age, who came in during the seventh inning, as was the norm for closers in those days.
In the eighth, Remy doubled and Yastrzemski drove him home. Consecutive singles by Lynn and Fisk cut the lead to one run, and even though they couldn’t tie it up, the top of the order would have a chance in the ninth.
After an uneventful top of the ninth, Burleson drew a one-out walk. Remy singled to right and Lou Piniella lost it in the sun. Piniella made a smart move and pretended to move in casually as though he were about to make the catch and prevent Burleson from taking off, as no one could pick up the ball in the late afternoon shadows. Another stroke of Yankee good luck saw the ball fall right in front of Piniella and Burleson could only advance to second.
It proved to be an enormous play when Rice hit a long flyout to right and Burleson could only go to third rather than scoring. With Yastrzemski at the plate, the stage was set for a storybook finish. But pre-2004, Red Sox-Yankee stories always ended badly in Boston. Yaz popped out to third and it was over.
The Yankee-Red Sox playoff game was, at least briefly, the end of an era. Boston would not seriously challenge for the AL East title in September until their pennant year of 1986, and not until 1988 would these two historic franchises be directly involved in a big race against each other. Not until 2003 would anything approaching this drama take place.