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Despite winning their second consecutive American League pennant and their first world championship in 15 years in 1977, the Yankees chose not to stand pat during the subsequent off-season.  With Rich “Goose” Gossage available as a free agent, the team elected to sign the hard-throwing right-handed reliever to a multi-year contract, thereby relegating 1977 A.L. Cy Young Award winner Sparky Lyle to a supporting role in the bullpen.  The signing of Gossage turned out to be New York’s only major off-season move, although the team lost starting pitcher Mike Torrez to the rival Boston Red Sox via free agency.

New York’s hopes for a third straight A.L. title grew increasingly dim during the first half of the 1978 campaign, as the team suffered a series of debilitating injuries.  Shoulder problems continued to plague Catfish Hunter, who missed more than two months of the season.  Arm problems similarly reduced the number of appearances by Don Gullett, who started only eight games all year.  Injuries also caused Willie Randolph, Bucky Dent, Mickey Rivers, and Roy White to miss extensive playing time. 

Furthermore, the inner turmoil that caused the Yankee clubhouse to acquire the nickname “The Bronx Zoo” one year earlier continued to ravage the team.  Reggie Jackson continued to feud with Billy Martin, as New York fell farther and farther behind the first-place Boston Red Sox.  By July 19th, the Yankees found themselves sitting in fourth place in the A.L. East, a full 14 games behind first-place Boston.  That very same day, Martin suspended Jackson for insubordination.  Less than a week later, Martin tearfully handed in his resignation after he incurred George Steinbrenner’s wrath by making unflattering remarks about both Jackson and the Yankee owner.  Yet, plans were put in place shortly thereafter for Martin’s eventual return to the bench.

In the interim, though, the front office turned the team over to Bob Lemon, whose laid-back approach helped lead the Yankees to an amazing second-half comeback.  As New York players began returning from the disabled list, Boston displayed signs of vulnerability for the first time.  The Yankees reduced Boston’s lead to just four games by September 7, when the two teams met in Fenway Park for a crucial four-game series.  In what subsequently became known as “The Boston Massacre,” the Yankees proceeded to win all four games 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.

Although New York’s second-half surge was truly a team effort, the Yankees would not have been in any position to catch the Red Sox had it not been for the efforts of one man.  Ron Guidry posted 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 finished second to Boston’s Jim Rice in the A.L. MVP voting.

While Guidry was clearly the driving force behind New York’s successful pennant run, he received a considerable amount of help from his teammates.  Ed Figueroa won 20 games and compiled a 2.99 ERA.  Catfish Hunter returned to the starting rotation in late August to finish the year with 12 victories.  After struggling during the season’s first month, Rich Gossage ended up leading the league with 27 saves.

Reggie Jackson helped pace the Yankee offense by leading the team with 27 home runs and 97 runs batted in.  Graig Nettles batted a career-high .276, knocked in 93 runs, tied Jackson for the team lead with 27 homers, and won his second consecutive Gold Glove.  Nettles finished sixth in the A.L. MVP voting.  Chris Chambliss drove in 90 runs and also won a Gold Glove for his outstanding defensive work at first base.  Playing through pain much of the year, Thurman Munson batted .297 and led the team with 183 hits.  Willie Randolph batted .279, scored 87 runs, and stole a team-leading 36 bases.  Lou Piniella led the club with a .314 batting average.  Gossage, Jackson, Guidry and Nettles all earned spots on the A.L. All-Star Team.  Guidry and Nettles were also named to The Sporting News All-Star Team.

The Yankees subsequently faced the Kansas City Royals in the ALCS for the third straight year.  This time, though, they needed no Game Five heroics to defeat the Royals, disposing of their rivals in four games.  The most exciting game of the Series turned out to be the fourth contest, which the Yankees won despite three home runs by George Brett off Catfish Hunter.  The pivotal blow of the game was delivered in the bottom of the eighth inning, when Thurman Munson hit a two-run homer over the 430-foot sign in deepest left-centerfield, to give the Yankees a 6-5 lead they did not relinquish.  Ron Guidry clinched the pennant for New York with a 2-1 victory in Game Four. 

The Yankees then met the Dodgers in the World Series for the second consecutive time, defeating Los Angeles again in six games.  After falling behind in the Series two-games-to-none, the Yankees won the next four contests, with Graig Nettles’ extraordinary defensive play at third base shifting the momentum of the Series in Game Three.  Bucky Dent earned Series MVP honors by batting a lusty .417.

By Bob_Cohen
 

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Tagged:
1978 ALCS, 1978 World Series, Billy Martin, Bob Lemon, Bucky Dent, Catfish Hunter, Chris Chambliss, Don Gullett, Ed Figueroa, George Brett, George Steinbrenner, Graig Nettles, Jim Beattie, Jim Rice, Kansas City Royals, Los Angeles Dodgers, Lou Piniella, Mike Torrez, New York Yankees, Reggie Jackson, Rich Gossage, Ron Guidry, Roy White, Sparky Lyle, Thurman Munson, Willie Randolph

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