Thursday, July 14, 2011

1967 American League: The Impossible Dream

The dust was starting to settle, the finish line in site. After a tight, tense four-team pennant race, the final weekend of the 1967 season was about to begin with the Twins and the Tigers right where they wanted to be.

Minnesota was a game on top with only two to play, needing to win just one game over the weekend in Boston to clinch, at worst, a tie for the title. Boston needed two wins, but they were playing at home, which made things a bit easier. The wild card in the whole process was Detroit, also a game back, but forced to end the season with back-to-back doubleheaders. Win all four, and the Tigers would be uncatchable.

The fourth team in the mix, the White Sox, who had led the league through a large part of the summer, were eliminated on the final Friday of the season. That set the stage for the three-team dance over the final two days.

Saturday, September 30, saw Boston beat the Twins 6-4 to tie for the lead. Detroit had a chance to make it a three-way tie with a sweep, but they could only win one of the two games. Those results all set up a winner-take-all game on Sunday between the Twins and Boston, with Detroit able to tie the winner with a sweep.

The Game
Baseball can be a cruel game. When your favorite team is in the middle of a season-deciding rally, you can't call time out and put your best player in the batter's box. You just have to hope it's his turn. The Red Sox didn't have to call time out in the final game of the 1967 season. In the most important at bat of the season, they had exactly the player they wanted in the batter's box.

The one thing that every championship team needs is somebody to take the lead, someone to carry the team for weeks at a time, someone to get the big hit. Both the Red Sox and the Twins had a player just like that. For Minnesota, that player was Harmon Killebrew, who hit 44 home runs in 1967 with 113 rbi. He had been the heart and soul of the Twins since they moved to Minnesota in 1961.

For all Killebrew's brilliance in 1967, though, Carl Yastrzemski was even better. He entered the final game of the season trying to hold off Killebrew for the AL lead in home runs and runs batted in and Baltimore's Frank Robinson for the batting championship. He was the undisputed leader of the Red Sox, the one most responsible for their charge up the AL standings in 1967.

The problem might have been that Boston depended too much on Yastrzemski. In each of the first five innings in the deciding game, the Red Sox got a hit off Twins ace Dean Chance. In each of first five innings, Chance beared down and prevented Boston from getting the clutch hit.

Meanwhile, in the field, the Red Sox were doing everything they could to give the Twins the pennant. A Tony Oliva double in the first turned into a run when Boston first baseman George Scott fumbled the relay from the outfield. In the third, Killebrew hit a single out to Yastrzemski, who found a way to bobble it into another Twins run to make it 2-0.

That was the score in the bottom of the sixth when the Red Sox finally got to Chance. Instead of one single and nothing, they got three in a row to lead off the inning, loading the bases with nobody out. In the biggest at bat of the season, who would stride to the plate but Yastrzemski, hoping to atone for his third-inning error and get the hit that won the pennant.

Perhaps it was fate, then, that Yastrzemski's line drive to center fell in. After all, the hit not only tied the game, but it clinched the rbi and batting average titles for Yastrzemski. As long as the Boston pitchers kept Killebrew in the ballpark the rest of the game, Yastrzemski would win the triple crown.

But that was something to worry about later. Boston added three more runs in the sixth; a run scored ahead of the throw home on an infield grounder, reliever
Al Worthington threw two straight wild pitches to bring another run home, and Killebrew matched Yastrzemski with an error of his own to let the fifth run in.

With only three innings between them and the pennant, the Red Sox did their best to make things interesting. A 3-2-3 double play snuffed out a bases-loaded situation in the top of the seventh, then Bob Allison doubled with two on for the Twins in the top of the eighth to make it 5-3. Yastrzemski struck again, though, throwing out Allison at second to end the inning and end the Twins' best threat.

There wasn't any question, then, who the AL MVP was. Yastrzemski won the triple crown, which should have been enough as it was, but he went 4-for-4 in the deciding win over the Twins, throwing out Allison to end the threat and getting the biggest hit of the game. A true MVP performance. When Detroit lost the second game of their doubleheader later that day, Boston had their first AL pennant since 1946.

The 1967 season is always remembered as Boston's Impossible Dream. Yastrzemski's brilliant play - and Boston's dramatic pennant win - made it a season for the ages. Yastrzemski continued his dream season in the World Series, batting .400 in the seven games with three home runs. But St. Louis had Bob Gibson, and as they proved in 1964, that was all they really needed to win a World Series. Gibson gave up only one run in winning games 1 and 4, then was given 7 runs of support in a 7-2 Game 7 victory. Boston's Impossible Dream had fallen one game short, stymied by the best postseason pitcher of all time. But Boston fans would always remember their team's dramatic season, and especially their clutch victory in the final, winner-take-all game of the season.

The Rundown

12. Boston 5, Minnesota 3 (1967 AL regular season)
13. Minnesota 5, Oakland 4 (2002 ALDS)
14. Boston 4, Oakland 3 (2003 ALDS)
15. Cleveland 4, N.Y. Yankees 3 (1997 ALDS)
16. L.A. Angels 5, N.Y. Yankees 3 (2005 ALDS)
17. Texas 5, Tampa Bay 1 (2010 ALDS)
18. San Francisco 3, Atlanta 1 (2002 NLDS)
19. N.Y. Yankees 5, Oakland 3 (2001 ALDS)
20. Seattle 3, Cleveland 1 (2001 ALDS)
21. Chicago 5, San Francisco 3 (1998 NL Wild Card tiebreaker)
22. N.Y. Yankees 7, Oakland 5 (2000 ALDS)
23. Los Angeles 4, Houston 0 (1981 NL West Division Series)
24. Montreal 3, Philadelphia 0 (1981 NL East Division Series)
25. N.Y. Yankees 7, Milwaukee 3 (1981 AL East Division Series)
26. Seattle 9, California 1 (1995 AL West tiebreaker)
27. Chicago 5, Atlanta 1 (2003 NLDS)
28. Houston 12, Atlanta 3 (2004 NLDS)
29. N.Y. Mets 5, Cincinnati 0 (1999 NL Wild Card tiebreaker)
30. Cleveland 8, Boston 3 (1948 AL tiebreaker)
31. Houston 7, Los Angeles 1 (1980 NL West tiebreaker)

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