The Kansas City Royals used solid pitching and exceptional team speed to capture their third consecutive A.L. West title in 1978, finishing the regular season with a record of 92-70, five games ahead of both the California Angels and the Texas Rangers. Although the Royals hit only 98 home runs as a team, they finished third in the league with 743 runs scored, and they topped the junior circuit with 216 stolen bases.
Rookie outfielder Willie Wilson led Kansas City with 46 steals, even though he compiled fewer than 200 official at-bats. Fred Patek placed second on the team with 38 stolen bases. Even George Brett swiped 23 bags, while also batting .294, scoring 79 runs, and leading the league with 45 doubles. Amos Otis was the team’s top offensive performer, stealing 32 bases and leading the club with 22 homers, 96 runs batted in, and a .298 batting average.
Kansas City also finished third in the league with a team ERA of 3.44. Dennis Leonard led the staff with 21 wins, 20 complete games, 295 innings pitched, and 183 strikeouts. Paul Splittorff finished second on the club with 19 victories and 262 innings pitched. Larry Gura pitched exceptionally well in his first season as a full-time starter, posting a record of 16-4 and compiling a 2.72 ERA.
However, Kansas City and the rest of the A.L. West failed to garner as much attention over the course of the regular season as the American League’s Eastern Division, which served as the focal point of the baseball world in 1978. The Yankees and Red Sox found themselves involved in a wild and exciting pennant race during the final 10 weeks of the campaign that provided memorable moments both on and off the field.
Injuries and inner turmoil caused the Yankees to play mediocre baseball for most of the first three-and-a-half months of the season. Don Gullett, Catfish Hunter, Willie Randolph, Mickey Rivers, Bucky Dent, and Roy White all missed extensive playing time. Meanwhile, Reggie Jackson and Billy Martin continued their personal feud, with Martin suspending the controversial outfielder for five games at one point due to insubordination. Martin resigned a week later under pressure from the front office after making derogatory remarks about Jackson and Yankee owner George Steinbrenner. The manager sealed his fate in late July when he said of the two, “The two of them deserve each other: One’s a born liar; the other’s convicted.”
While the Yankees struggled, the Red Sox continued to play superb baseball, building a seemingly insurmountable 14-game lead over New York by the final week of July. However, New York’s performance improved dramatically after Bob Lemon assumed the managerial reins of the team from Martin. The Yankees thrived under Lemon’s laid-back approach, mounting a furious comeback over the season’s final eight weeks as players began returning from the disabled list. Meanwhile, the Red Sox showed signs of vulnerability for the first time, as they watched the Yankees slowly whittle away their huge lead.
With New York having reduced Boston’s lead to just four games by September 7, the two teams met at Fenway Park for a crucial four games series. In what subsequently became known as “The Boston Massacre,” the Yankees won all four contests by a combined margin of 42-9. They also took two out of three games from the Red Sox the following weekend at Yankee Stadium, building a 2 ½ game lead over their arch-rivals in the process. However, the Red Sox eventually righted themselves, tying the Yankees on the season’s final day to force a one-game playoff between the two clubs at Fenway Park. The Yankees prevailed in the tension-filled contest by a final score of 5-4, with light-hitting shortstop Bucky Dent providing the game’s big blow in the seventh inning, with a two-out, three-run homer off Boston starter Mike Torrez. New York finished the year with a record of 100-63, while Boston ended the campaign with a mark of 99-64.
Several players made significant contributions to New York’s second-half surge. Ed Figueroa won 20 games and compiled a 2.99 ERA. After starting off the season slowly, Rich Gossage ended up leading the league with 27 saves. On offense, Chris Chambliss drove in 90 runs. Willie Randolph batted .279, scored 87 runs, and led the team with 36 stolen bases. Lou Piniella finished first on the club with a .314 batting average. In addition to playing a Gold Glove caliber third base, Graig Nettles hit 27 homers and drove in 93 runs. Playing through injuries much of the year, Thurman Munson batted .297 and led the team with 183 hits. Reggie Jackson tied Nettles for the team lead with 27 homers and finished first on the club with 97 runs batted in.
However, Ron Guidry was easily New York’s most important player over the course of the season. The slightly-built left-hander compiled one of the greatest seasons by any pitcher in American League history by leading all A.L. hurlers with a record of 25-3, a 1.74 ERA, and nine shutouts. Guidry also placed among the leaders with 248 strikeouts, 16 complete games, and 274 innings pitched, en route to earning a second-place finish in the A.L. MVP voting.
Beating out Guidry for the honor was Jim Rice, who performed brilliantly for the second-place Red Sox throughout the campaign. The slugging outfielder topped the junior circuit with 46 home runs, 139 runs batted in, 213 hits, 15 triples, 406 total bases, and a .600 slugging percentage. He also placed among the league leaders with 121 runs scored and a .315 batting average. As was the case with Guidry in New York, Rice received a great deal of help from his Boston teammates. Carlton Fisk hit 20 home runs, drove in 88 runs, scored 94 others, and batted .284. Fred Lynn hit 22 four-baggers, knocked in 82 runs, and batted .298. Carl Yastrzemski drove in 81 runs and batted .277. Dennis Eckersley led the pitching staff with a record of 20-8, a 2.99 ERA, 268 innings pitched, and 16 complete games. But Rice and Guidry were the American League’s dominant players in 1978, just as the Yankees and Red Sox were the circuit’s foremost teams.
The excitement generated by the Yankees and Red Sox during the season’s final few weeks made the impending playoff series between New York and Kansas City seem almost anti-climactic. Nevertheless, the ALCS featured its fair share of electrifying moments. The most exciting game of the Series turned out to be the third contest, which the Yankees won despite three home runs by George Brett off Catfish Hunter. Thurman Munson delivered the pivotal blow of the game in the bottom of the eighth inning when he hit a two-run homer over the 430-foot sign in deepest left-centerfield that gave the Yankees a 6-5 lead they did not relinquish. Ron Guidry clinched the pennant for New York with a 2-1 victory the next day.
New York subsequently faced Los Angeles in the World Series for the second straight time. The Dodgers jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the Fall Classic, before the Yankees came storming back to win the next four contests. Graig Nettles shifted the momentum of the Series with a brilliant defensive performance in Game Three. Bucky Dent earned Series MVP honors by batting a lusty .417.
Other notable events from around the league and players who distinguished themselves over the course of the season included:
• May 23 – With the Oakland Athletics leading the A.L. West with a record of 24–15, manager Bobby Winkles walked off the job. Jack McKeon replaced him at the helm.
• June 17 – New York’s Ron Guidry struck out 18 batters during a 4–0 shutout of the California Angels. The 18 strikeouts established a new A.L. record for left-handers.
• September 7 – The "Boston Massacre" began with a 15–3 Yankee victory over the Red Sox.
• October 2 – Bucky Dent's crucial seventh-inning home run helped the Yankees defeat the Red Sox, 5–4, in a one-game playoff for the American League East title.
• Reggie Jackson had another big World Series for the Yankees, batting .391 and hitting two home runs.
• Filling in at second base for an injured Willie Randolph, Brian Doyle led all Series players with a .438 batting average.
• Rod Carew led the American League with a .333 batting average and a .415 on-base percentage.
• California's Lyman Bostock, who placed second to Carew in the A.L. batting race the previous season, was shot to death.
• Detroit's Ron LeFlore led the American League with 68 stolen bases and 126 runs scored.
• Detroit's Lou Whitaker earned A.L. Rookie of the Year honors.
• The Hall of Fame inducted Eddie Mathews, Addie Joss, and Larry MacPhail.
• The Yankees traded Sparky Lyle and four other players to Texas for Dave Righetti and four other players at the end of the year.
• Cleveland traded Buddy Bell to Texas for Toby Harrah.
• Texas swapped Bobby Bonds and Len Barker to Cleveland for Jim Kern and Larvell Blanks.
• Milwaukee’s Mike Caldwell finished 22-9, with a 2.36 ERA, 293 innings pitched, six shutouts, and a league-leading 23 complete games.
• Brewer teammate Larry Hisle hit 34 home runs, knocked in 115 runs, scored 96 others, and batted .290.
• Baltimore’s Jim Palmer finished 21-12, with a 2.46 ERA, 19 complete games, and a league-leading 296 innings pitched.
• The Brewers led the major leagues with 804 runs scored, 173 home runs, a .276 team batting average, a .342 team on-base percentage, and a .432 team slugging average, en route to finishing third in the A.L. East, 6 ½ games behind the Yankees.
• California’s Don Baylor hit 34 home runs, knocked in 99 runs, and scored 103 others.
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