Down but Not Out: When the Yankees Rallied From 14 Games Behind to Win Pennant

Updated on March 21, 2019
Thurman Munson, captain of the Yankees and key player in their historic comeback.
Thurman Munson, captain of the Yankees and key player in their historic comeback.

The New York Yankees find themselves 4.5 games behind Boston on July 19, which, considering the way the Red Sox have been playing, seems like a large disadvantage. But it was 40 years ago on the same date that the Yankees mounted one of the biggest comebacks in baseball history against the Red Sox.

Following the games of July 19, 1978, the Yankees—the reigning World Series champs—found themselves struggling at 48-42 and a whopping 14 games behind the Red Sox, who were cruising along with a 62-28 record.

Changing Managers

It had already been a tumultuous year. Manager Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson had gotten into an argument in the dugout that was caught on national television. Martin and owner George Steinbrenner disparaged each other. Finally, after defeating the White Sox on July 23, Steinbrenner fired Martin. After one game under Dick Howser, the Yankees named Bob Lemon as manager.

The Yankees were already in the midst of an impressive run when that happened. Starting on July 20, the Yankees won 11 of their next 15 games, while the BoSox dropped 11 of their next 14. Suddenly the Yankees were a mere 6.5 games out of first (although still in third place; the Milwaukee Brewers were in second, five games out).

That set up a two-game series between New York and Boston, and Boston won them both. The Yankees then lost to Baltimore on Aug. 4 and dropped into fourth place, 8.5 out. A third straight postseason appearance by the Yankees seemed out of the question.

AL East Standings on July 19, 1978

 
W-L
GB
Boston
62-28
 
Milwaukee
53-37
9
Baltimore
51-42
12.5
New York
48-42
14
Detroit
46-45
16.5
Cleveland
43-49
20
Toronto
33-59
30

The Boston Massacre

But the Bronx Bombers were far from ready to throw in the towel. They won six straight games, lost two, then won four more. That put them back into second, although they’d hardly made a dent in the Red Sox’ lead, which still stood at 7.5.

They finally picked up another game on Boston, but heading into September they still trailed by 6.5 games.

But then the tide began to turn. The Yankees opened September winning two of three from Seattle and three of four from Detroit. Meanwhile, the Red Sox dropped two of three to Oakland and two of three to Baltimore.

Trailing by just four games at that point, the Yankees then traveled to Boston for a four-game series – a series that would become known as the Boston Massacre.

The Yanks won the opener, 15-3, without hitting a homer. The next night they won 13-2 on homers from Reggie Jackson and Lou Piniella aided by seven Boston errors. The Red Sox scored their two runs in the bottom of the ninth.

Ron Guidry took the mound for New York for the third game of the set. He was already 20-2 at that point, and he didn’t disappoint. He allowed two hits to the first three batters he faced, then didn’t allow another one the rest of the game, giving the Yankees a 7-0 win. A 7-4 victory completed the four-game sweep for the Yankees and put them into a first-place tie.

In the four games, New York had outscored Boston 42-9 and outhit them 67-21.

The Boston Massacre

Linescores of New York's four-game sweep
 
 
 
Sept 7, 1978
 
 
 
New York
15
21
2
Boston
3
8
2
WP: Ken Clay
 
LP: Mike Torrez
 
 
 
 
 
Sept 8, 1978
 
 
 
New York
13
17
1
Boston
2
6
7
WP: Jim Beattie
 
LP: Jim Wright
 
 
 
 
 
Sept 9, 1978
 
 
 
New York
7
11
1
Boston
0
2
2
WP: Ron Guidry
 
LP: Dennis Eckersley
 
 
 
 
 
Sept 10, 1978
 
 
 
New York
7
18
1
Boston
4
5
1
WP: Ed Figueroa
 
LP: Bobby Sprowl
 

Ending in a Tie

The Yankees won four of the next five to take a 3.5 game lead over the struggling Sox. But the Red Sox kept battling. By the time the Yankees lost to Cleveland on Sept. 23, the New York lead had slipped to a mere game with one week of games remaining.

The Yankees then reeled off six straight wins before losing to Cleveland on the final game of the season. But that effort wasn’t enough. The Red Sox won seven straight, including the season’s final game to forge a first-place tie with the Yankees.

The Dramatic 163rd Game

That forced a 163rd game for the season that in effect became a one-game playoff between the two teams to see who would face Kansas City, the winners of the West Division. The game was held on a Monday afternoon at Fenway Park. The Yankees sent Guidry, now 24-3, to the mound while the Red Sox countered with Mike Torrez, who had won the final game of the World Series for New York the previous year.

Boston struck first on a second-inning homer by Carl Yastrzemski. They added another run in the sixth on an RBI single by Jim Rice to make it 2-0 heading into the seventh.

After one out, Torrez gave up back-to-back singles to Chris Chambliss and Roy White before retiring pinch hitter Jim Spencer. That brought up the No. 9 hitter, light-hitting Bucky Dent, who was hitting .242 and had only four homers all season. He’d hit only one homer with 16 RBIs in his previous 63 games.

Dent fouled a pitch off his foot that left him hobbling for a minute or two before finally returning to the batter’s box. Dent then blasted Torrez’ next offering high and over the Green Monster in leftfield. In a turn of events that stunned the Boston crowd, the Yankees suddenly had a 3-2 lead.

Torrez walked Mickey Rivers, the next batter, before being replaced by Bob Stanley. After Rivers stole second, Thurman Munson doubled to centerfield to bring him home for a 4-2 edge.

Goose Gossage replaced Guidry with a runner on in the bottom of the seventh and got out of the inning. Then Reggie Jackson led off the eighth with a monster homer for a 5-2 lead.

But, as it was the whole season, Boston wasn’t dying quickly. In the bottom of the eighth, Yastrzemski singled home Jerry Remy, and after Carlton Fisk singled, Fred Lynn’s single brought Yaz across the plate to cut the lead to 5-4.

It was still 5-4 going into the bottom of the ninth. Rick Burleson drew a one-out walk and Remy singled. Burleson moved to third on a fly out, bringing Yaz to the plate. Red Sox fans cheered and New York fans held their collective breath. But he popped a foul ball down the third base line that Graig Nettles gloved to give the Yankees the win and complete one of the biggest comebacks in American League history.

New York then beat Kansas City in four games to face the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series for the second straight year. After dropping the first two games, the Yankees reeled off four straight wins for their second consecutive world championship.

AL East Final Standings, 1978

 
W-L
GB
New York
100-63
 
Boston
99-64
1
Milwaukee
93-69
6.5
Baltimore
90-71
9
Detroit
86-76
13.5
Cleveland
69-90
29
Toronto
59-102
40

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