The Red Sox were serious about going for it in 1978. They signed free agent Mike Torrez in late November; he was a hot commodity, the 1977 World Series MVP, for the Yankees. They’d gotten a lot younger at second base, trading for a scrappy local player from Somerset, Massachusetts – Jerry Remy – in December. And on March 30, they added a 1977 All-Star pitcher in Dennis Eckersley as part of a six-player trade with the Indians; Eck had the best strikeout to walks ratio in the league in ’77.
After losing three of the first four games, they won eight in a row. On May 13, they got back into first place and began to build a lead. Before May was complete, Bill Lee was 7-1 and Jim Rice already had 16 home runs and 48 RBIs. And When Bill Lee won his ninth game on July 5, the team was like a juggernaut, with a 10-game lead in the American League East.
There were tensions, some of them cultural ones between the younger players and the older, more straightlaced leaders. When the Sox sold Bernie Carbo to the Indians on June 15, Bill Lee cleaned out his locker and said he was quitting. “Today just cost us the pennant,” he exclaimed. “I don’t like quitters,” shot back manager Don Zimmer. Lee added fuel to the fire, calling Zimmer “a gerbil, a no-good s.o.b.” and said of GM Haywood Sullivan, “I’d like to punch his head off.” Lee was back the next day, but some bridges were burned.
The Red Sox lost nine out of 10 near the end of July; they still held a 4 1/2 –game lead but any notion of invincibility had dimmed. Recovering in August, they rebuilt a solid lead and ended August up by seven games over the Yankees. They lost Jerry Remy for a couple of weeks on August 26, with a cracked wrist bone when hit by a pitch, and they lost Dwight Evans as an effective outfielder on August 29 when he was beaned. Evans was woozy for weeks, the Gold Glove outfielder even dropping four fly balls in one game.
Then came the Boston Massacre. In one week, they saw a seven-game lead decline to a four-game lead. Then the Yankees came to town for four games – and won every one of them, scoring 42 runs while the Red Sox only scored nine. There were 12 Red Sox errors in the four games, and Sox pitchers gave the Yankees 19 bases on balls. The Yanks left town tied for first place. The Red Sox won the next game, and then lost five in a row. They’d held a 14-game lead over the Yankees in the middle of July, but from September 7 to September 16, they’d gone from being up by four games to being down by 3 ½. Part of the problem may have been the doghouse where Zimmer placed The Spaceman (Bill Lee). After he gave up five runs in an 8-4 loss to Oakland, Lee was never given another start - even though he already had 10 wins at the time (the loss was his 10th, too). Just one more win for the Red Sox at any time before the end of the year would have made a world of difference.
Somehow they righted the ship, in the nick of time. Down to their last 14 games, they went 12-2, winning eight in a row at the very end. It took every one of those wins to have a chance; New York won seven in row – but then faltered and lost their last game. The two teams were tied. There was to be a single-game playoff, at Fenway Park, on October 2.
The Red Sox scored first, on a Yaz home run leading off the second inning, and held a 2-0 lead after six innings. But the unexpected occurred – Bucky Dent hit a three-run homer off Mike Torrez that just barely settled into the net above the left-field wall. New York scored four runs in the top of the seventh. They added a fifth run in the eighth, but the Red Sox came back to within a run by scoring two of their own.
In the bottom of the ninth, Rick Burleson walked with one out – and then Jerry Remy hit a screaming line drive to right field. Blinded by the sun, Lou Piniella simply stuck out his glove and the ball found it, holding Remy to a single and forcing Burleson to hold up at second base. Had the ball gotten by Piniella, the Sox would likely have tied it – or seen the speedy Remy win the game with an inside-the-park home run. Had the Rooster even made it to third base, he could have tagged and tied the score when Jim Rice drove a fly ball to deep right field. But Yaz checked his swing and popped up to third base and the game was over. Considering the way both 1972 and 1975 had ended, this was the third time in seven seasons the Red Sox had suffered an agonizing last-minute loss. There was fertile ground to believe the team might be cursed. Jim Rice was named AL MVP. He had 213 hits, 46 of them homers, and his 406 total bases was the first time anyone in the league had reached 400 since Joe DiMaggio in 1937. Rice led the league in hits and homers and total bases, and also in RBIs (139), slugging percentage (.600), and triples (15).
Eckersley led the team with a 20-8 record, and Bob Stanley in relief became known as “the vulture” with his 15-2 record. Torrez had won 16 games (16-13), and Tiant was 13-8. In November, Tiant did a reverse Mike Torrez, signing as a free agent with New York.By Bill Nowlin
- Bernie Carbo, Bill Lee, Bob Stanley, Bucky Dent, Carl Yastrzemski, Dennis Eckersley, Don Zimmer, Haywood Sullivan, Jerry Remy, Jim Rice, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Piniella, Luis Tiant, Mike Torrez, Rick Burleson