Saturday, October 2, 2010

October 2, 1978: Bucky Bleeping Dent

BOSTON - The image is seared into the brains of Red Sox fans across New England: Carl Yastrzemski drifting back on a fly ball, looking up as he reached the Green Monster, then nearly collapsing, his knees buckling, as he watched the home run settle in to the netting atop the famous left field wall. The game wasn't officially over at that point, but it sure seemed that way to the fans, and based on Yastrzemski's reaction, the players probably felt that way, too.

The 1978 American League East race was a thrilling one, with the defending champion Yankees chipping away at a large Boston lead all summer. On July 8, Boston was 10 games in front of Milwauke, 11.5 ahead of the Yankees. From there, the Yankees turned it on winning at a .675 clip to take the division lead in September. On September 23, the Yankees had a one-game lead on Boston, and New York finished the season 6-1. But the Red Sox went 7-0 to force a one-game playoff between the two long-time rivals.

The two teams met in Fenway Park on October 2 to decide the division championship. The Yankess sent Ron Guidry, he of the sublime 24-3 record, to the mound, with the Red Sox pitching Mike Torrez, he of the lukewarm 16-12 record. Despite the apparent pitching mismatch, the Red Sox took a 2-0 lead into the top of the seventh on the strength of a home run by Yastrzemski and an rbi single by Jim Rice.

With one out in the top half of the seventh, Chris Chambliss and Roy White hit back-to-back singles. When pinch-hitter Jim Spencer flied out, only light-hitting shortstop Bucky Dent stood between the Red Sox and the end of the threat. Dent was a .243 hitter and had hit only four home runs that year, so he wasn't seen as one of the least likely heroes in the Yankees lineup. The crowd was getting loud, imploring Torrez to get his light-hitting shortstop out so the Red Sox could be closer to a division title.

When Dent hit that ball into the Fenway Park netting, though, the crowd went silent, eerily so. Perhaps it was the decades of close calls and agonizing defeats, or perhaps it was that this game-changing home run was hit not by an all-star like Reggie Jackson or Thurman Munson but by Bucky Bleeping Dent. Whatever the reason, the Red Sox fans seemed deflated.

The players may have been, as well. After Dent's home run, Mickey Rivers walked and stole second, then came home on Munson's double. The Yankees had a 4-2 lead. They stretched that advantage to 5-2 on a monstrous home run by Jackson, which ended up being a very important run. The Red Sox got two runs in the bottom of the 8th to cut the lead to 5-4 before Yankee closer Goose Gossage got the last two outs with the go-ahead run on base.

In the ninth, the Red Sox threatened again, starting with a one-out walk by Rick Burleson. Jerry Remy followed with a line drive to right that Lou Piniella lost in the sun. Acting casual, like it was a routine flyball, Piniella didn't move until the last moment, when the ball bounced in front of him; he was able to somehow get a glove on it to keep it from going behind him. Piniella's acting job kept Burleson from advancing further than second base. That ended up being a huge play when Rice followed with a deep fly ball that would have easily tied the game if Burleson had been on third. As it was, the Red Sox were still down one, and they remained that way when Yastrzemski popped out to end the game.

While it was Jackson's blast that ended up being the official game-winning run, and Piniella's play in right that ended up saving the game, Dent's home run became the play that went down in baseball lore. It was surely the timing of the home run and the momentum swing it caused that has helped it live on, as well as the fact it was hit by one of the least likely players on the field to hit a clutch home run. While it has lived on in glory in Yankees history, it lives in infamy for the Red Sox fan base, a group that has forever since given Bucky Dent a new middle name, one that can't be said on TV.

October 2, 1908: CLEVELAND - Ed Walsh was pitching brilliantly. At the end of a season in which he would win 40 games, in the heat of one of the tightest pennant races in American League history, Walsh had taken the mound for the White Sox in an absolute must-win game against Cleveland and had done everything his team had asked. Walsh struck out an amazing 15 batters, giving up only four singles. Somehow Cleveland had scratched together a run on a single, a two-base error on a pickoff attempt, and a wild pitch, but otherwise, Walsh was mowing them down. But it wasn't enough. Addie Joss wouldn't win 40 games like Walsh, but he led the league with a 1.16 era in 1908, and he was a big reason Cleveland was in the pennant race. Matched against Walsh, Joss did the only thing that could have given his team the victory: he threw a perfect game. Needing only 74 pitches, Joss cut down all 27 White Sox batters with stunning efficiency, striking out only three of them in throwing the fourth perfect game in baseball history. While Cleveland and Chicago both fell short of Detroit in 1908, nobody ever forgot that game, probably the only time a pitcher threw a perfect game but wasn't the best pitcher on the field.

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