Overcoming a series of debilitating injuries, a great deal of inner turmoil, and a huge deficit to the Boston Red Sox, the Yankees captured their third consecutive A.L. East title in 1978, winning the division by defeating the Red Sox in a memorable one-game playoff at Fenway Park.
The Yankees started the season with Billy Martin as their manager, but they ended the campaign with Bob Lemon in the dugout. Catfish Hunter, Don Gullett, Willie Randolph, Bucky Dent, Mickey Rivers, and Roy White all missed extensive playing time. Reggie Jackson feuded with Billy Martin, and Martin battled with team owner George Steinbrenner. Through it all, though, one thing remained constant – the brilliance of a slightly-built left-hander named Ron Guidry. Louisiana Lightning, as he came to be known, compiled one of the greatest individual seasons of any pitcher in American League history by finishing the year with a record of 25-3, a 1.74 ERA, and nine shutouts. In addition to leading all A.L. hurlers in each of those three categories, he also placed among the leaders with 248 strikeouts, 16 complete games, and 274 innings pitched. Guidry’s performance enabled the Yankees to keep the Red Sox within their sights for most of the year, until they mounted an extraordinary comeback that forced the two teams to meet in a winner-take-all matchup. By defeating Boston by a score of 5-4, New York won the A.L. East title with a record of 100-63. The Red Sox finished the campaign with a mark of 99-64.
Meanwhile, the Kansas City Royals had a much easier time winning their third straight A.L. West title, finishing five games ahead of both the California Angels and the Texas Rangers, with a record of 92-70. Kansas City’s best player was Amos Otis, who stole 32 bases and led the team with 22 home runs, 96 runs batted in, and a .298 batting average. Dennis Leonard, Paul Splittorff, and Larry Gura vied for the title of staff ace. Leonard led the club with 21 victories, 20 complete games, and 295 innings pitched. Splittorff won 19 games and finished second to Leonard with 13 complete games and 262 innings pitched. Gura threw only eight complete games and 222 innings, but he finished 16-4 with a team-leading 2.72 ERA.
The matchup between New York and Kansas City appeared to be quite even, on paper. The Yankees compiled a team batting average of .267 and scored 735 runs during the regular season. The Royals batted .268 as a team and scored 743 runs. New York had an edge in power, hitting 125 home runs to Kansas City’s 98. But the Royals held a distinct advantage in team speed, stealing 216 bases to New York’s total of 98. The Yankees, though, led the league with a team ERA of 3.18. Kansas City placed third in the junior circuit with a mark of 3.44. The Yankees also appeared to hold a psychological edge over their opponents, having defeated the Royals in each of the two previous American League Championship Series. Only time would tell if that would prove to be a factor.
The ALCS opened up in Kansas City on October 3rd, with Royals manager Whitey Herzog naming Dennis Leonard as his starter. Forced to start rookie right-hander Jim Beattie, who finished the regular season with a record of only 6-9, the Yankees brought the heavy lumber with them to the ballpark, scoring seven times and collecting 16 hits, en route to posting a 7-1 victory. Reggie Jackson’s three-run homer in the eighth inning off K.C. reliever Al Hrabosky put the game on ice for New York. Meanwhile, Beattie combined with Ken Clay to hold the Royals to just one run on two hits.
Kansas City rebounded in Game Two, knocking out Yankee starter Ed Figueroa after just one inning. The Royals went on to score 10 runs on 16 hits, in evening the Series with a 10-4 victory.
Game Three in New York proved to be the most exciting contest in the Series. George Brett hit three home runs for Kansas City against Yankee starter Catfish Hunter. But they all came with no one on base, and Reggie Jackson hit a two-run homer for New York, as the two teams entered the bottom of the eighth inning with the Royals holding a slim 5-4 lead. Thurman Munson stepped to the plate with a man on base, having failed to hit a home run in almost two months due to a badly injured shoulder. Yet the Yankee captain drove a Doug Bird fastball well over the 430-foot sign in deepest left-centerfield, to give the Yankees a 6-5 lead they did not relinquish.
New York then clinched the pennant the next day, defeating Kansas City in Game Four by a score of 2-1. The Yankees scored their two runs on solo home runs by Graig Nettles and Roy White against Dennis Leonard, who surrendered only four hits in going the distance. Ron Guidry got the win for New York, giving up seven hits over eight innings, before giving way to Goose Gossage, who worked a scoreless ninth. The victory put the Yankees in the World Series for the third straight year.By Bob_Cohen
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- 1978 ALCS, Al Hrabosky, Amos Otis, Billy Martin, Bob Lemon, Bucky Dent, Catfish Hunter, Chris Chambliss, Dennis Leonard, Don Gullett, Doug Bird, Ed Figueroa, George Brett, George Steinbrenner, Graig Nettles, Hal McRae, Jim Beattie, Kansas City Royals, Ken Clay, Larry Gura, Mickey Rivers, New York Yankees, Paul Splittorff, Reggie Jackson, Rich Gossage, Ron Guidry, Roy White, Thurman Munson, Whitey Herzog, Willie Randolph