Wednesday, August 3, 2011

1978 AL East Tiebreaker: That Shortstop

After the exciting pennant race of 1949, baseball fans eagerly anticipated the second act between the Yankees and Red Sox. Few people expected it would take as long as it did. However, after topping the Red Sox in that thrilling weekend in 1949, the Yankees went on to win 16 American League pennants and 10 World Championships in the next 28 years, while the Red Sox won two pennants and finished second just twice.

Halfway though the summer of 1978, it didn't look like the rivalry was going to continue any time soon. While the Red Sox were running away with the American League, the Yankees were struggling. On July 19, after the All-Star break, the Yankees were in 4th place, 14 games behind the first-place Sox. The last thing anybody expected was a New York-Boston battle for the pennant.

But then the Yankees, the two-time defending American League champions, got back that winning feeling. From July 19 on, the Yankees went on a 52-21 run, 10 games better than the next best team in the A.L. East. Boston only played .500 ball over that stretch, and the result was Boston trailing the Yankees by 3.5 games on September 16.

A week later, the Red Sox were down by one game with seven games to play in season. Improbably, the Red Sox won all seven games. Just as improbably, they didn't gain any ground, staying a game back until the Yankees finally lost on the final day of the season, setting up a one-game playoff the day after the end of the regular season.

The Game
The Yankees had exactly the guy they wanted for the one-game playoff. Ron Guidry had gone 24-3 in 1978, with an ERA under 2.00. It was one of the best seasons ever for a Yankees starting pitcher.

It was a surprise, then, when Boston journeyman Mike Torrez outpitched Guidry through the first six innings. A Yankee the previous season, Torrez had been no better than Boston's third starter during the regular season. Yet there he was, pitching in the top of the seventh with a 2-0 lead.

What happened then, of course, has gone down in baseball lore. It has become one of the defining moments of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry. The sites are unforgettable: Yankee shortstop taking his compact swing on a choked-up bat, Carl Yastrzemski drifting back, expecting to catch a short fly ball, Yastrzemski's knees buckling as the ball floated over the Green Monster, Fenway Park sitting in stunned silence as Dent crossed home plate.

Everything else that has happened in the game has become a footnote: Reggie Jackson's eighth-inning home run that seemed meaningless at the time; the two runs Boston scored in the eighth, followed by the two runners Boston left on in both the eighth and the ninth. All important, yet all almost completely forgotten. It was Bucky Dent's moment, his time to put his mark on the rivalry.

Dent did more than put his mark on the rivalry. For the next decade and a half, he became one of the faces of the Yankees dominance over the Red Sox, the symbol of Boston futility, which for a time put him equal with Babe Ruth. It helped, of course, that the Yankees won the World Series that year, their second straight and their last until 1996. But it helped more that the Red Sox failed to win, that they failed to break the streak. At this point, the streak started to become the story. And it would stay that way until 2004.

The Rundown

5. N.Y. Yankees 5, Boston 4 (1978 AL East tiebreaker)
6. San Francisco 6, Los Angeles 4 (1962 National League playoff)
7. Chicago 1, Minnesota 0 (2008 AL Central tiebreaker)
8. N.Y. Yankees 5, Boston 3 (1949 American League)
9. Arizona 2, St. Louis 1 (2001 NLDS)
10. Chicago 4, New York 2 (1908 National League makeup game)
11. Boston 12, Cleveland 8 (1999 ALDS)
12. Boston 5, Minnesota 3 (1967 American League)
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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