October 2nd, 1978 — a date which will live in infamy for Red Sox fans. Light-hitting shortstop Bucky Dent hit a three-run home run over the Green Monster to stun the Boston faithful and catapult the Yankees into the playoffs.
It had been a crazy year, with the defending World Series champion Yankees falling 14 1/2 games behind Boston in mid-July. They dropped to fourth place in the AL East race, just five games over .500. The Red Sox, meanwhile, sprinted out to a 62-28 start, and held a nine-game lead over second-place Milwaukee on July 19th.
Little by little, New York crept back into the playoff picture, while Boston’s historic pace slowed to a crawl. The Bombers arrived in Beantown for a critical four-game series on September 7th, trailing the Red Sox by only four games in the standings.
The unthinkable happened, as the Yankees swept their rivals in what came to be known as “The Boston Massacre.” As fortune would have it, each team went 13-7 for the remainder of the schedule to finish in a first-place tie. Yankees President Al Rosen lost the coin flip with his Red Sox counterpart, which meant that the winner-take-all Game 163 would be played at Fenway Park.
Red Sox ace Dennis Eckersley threw a complete game to notch his 20th win only two days before, so he was unavailable to pitch. Manager Don Zimmer chose a suitable replacement in Mike Torrez, who would start the play-in game on his preferred three days’ rest. Torrez, who won the clinching game of the World Series for the Yankees the previous year, was 1-3 against his former team.
Yankees skipper Bob Lemon went with ace Ron Guidry on short rest for the third straight turn. “Louisiana Lightning” was already 24-3, amidst one of the most dominant seasons for a starting pitcher during the Live Ball Era. The southpaw was 2-0 against the Red Sox in three starts, with both wins coming in the form of complete game shutouts in consecutive outings in September.
The Yankees threatened in the top of the first, but failed to score. Leadoff hitter Mickey Rivers squared to bunt his way on, but none of Torrez’s pitches came close to the strike zone. “Mick the Quick” walked on four pitches and then immediately stole second. With the Boston bullpen already stirring, Torrez settled down and started throwing strikes. He quickly retired the next three batters to kill the potential rally.
Guidry appeared to be his usual dominant self, retiring the side in order in the first, including two batters on strikeouts. But Gator made a mistake in the second by throwing a pitch up in the zone to Carl Yastrzemski, and the future Hall of Famer made him pay. The crowd had greeted Yaz with a sustained standing ovation as he strode to the plate, and the icon responded by crushing a no-doubt-about-it home run into the right-field seats to give the Red Sox a 1-0 lead.
For awhile, it looked like that might be the final score, but Boston managed to tack on an insurance run in the sixth. Shortstop Rick Burleson led off with a double and moved to third on a sacrifice bunt by Jerry Remy. Jim Rice, voted AL MVP after the season, singled him home.
At that point, Boston’s lead looked insurmountable. The Yankees had been unable to get anything going at all off Torrez. Rivers managed a two-out double in the third, Lou Piniella got a leadoff single in the fourth, and Roy White walked to begin the fifth. Those were New York’s only baserunners, and all were left stranded. Soft-tossing Torrez was winning the pitching duel against flame-throwing Guidry.
Everything changed in the seventh. With one out, Chris Chambliss and White reached on back-to-back singles. The Yankees were desperate to get on the board, so Lemon sent slugger Jim Spencer up to pinch-hit for weak-hitting second baseman Brian Doyle. Suspense mounted as multiple conferences were held on the mound before and during the at-bat to discuss pitching to Spencer. He was obviously the biggest hitter of the game for the Yankees, and the Red Sox needed to get him out. New York’s hopes of a long ball were dashed when Spencer was retired on a weak fly ball.
The Red Sox and their fans breathed a sigh of relief, as the Yankees’ number-nine hitter stepped into the batter’s box. Dent was a glove-first guy, slashing .243/.286/.317 with four home runs on the year. The Bombers had bats on the bench, but with Fred Stanley slated to take over at second for Doyle, and Willie Randolph still bothered by the injured hamstring that kept him out of the starting lineup, New York needed to stick with Dent for defense.
Dent choked up, the way slap hitters do. He took a pitch in the dirt, and then fouled one off his foot. Play was stopped for several minutes while the Yankees shortstop was attended to by the trainer. When Dent finally got back in the box, he hit the next pitch from Torrez into the screen above the Green Monster.
The Yankees celebrated the home run that no one could have predicted, but the inning wasn’t over. Rivers drew his second walk of the game, stole second, and scored when Thurman Munson doubled off reliever Bob Stanley. The Yankees had plated four in the frame, stunning the Boston crowd.
Reggie Jackson led off the eighth with a towering home run to dead-center field, giving the Yankees a 5-2 lead. Although this game is remembered for Dent’s blast, it was Mr. October’s that proved to be the game winner.
Boston, known for late-inning comebacks, didn’t go down without a fight. The Red Sox scored twice off closer Goose Gossage in the eighth. Remy led off with a double, and scored on a one-out Yaz single. Yaz moved up on a Carlton Fisk single, and scored when Fred Lynn singled. Gossage appeared to be on the ropes, but he retired Butch Hobson on a lazy fly ball and struck out George Scott to escape the jam.
Clinging to a 5-4 lead, the Yankees headed to the bottom of the ninth. Gossage got pinch-hitter Dwight Evans to fly out, but then walked Burleson. Remy followed with a catchable line drive to right, but Piniella was blinded by the late-afternoon sun, and the ball dropped right in front of him for a base hit.
With hearts on both sides of the rivalry pounding, Rice moved the tying run to third base on a deep fly out to right. That’s as far as Burleson got. Graig Nettles caught Yaz’s foul pop up to close out the win and send the Yankees to their third straight meeting with the Royals in the League Championship Series.
Before the game, Phil Rizzuto was in the hotel lobby, nervously biting his nails. George Steinbrenner walked over to him and said, “don’t worry Phil, we’re gonna win it.” That they did. The Yankees went on to capture their 22nd World Series trophy. For the Red Sox, the Curse of the Bambino would drag on for 26 more years.