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This Day in Yankees History: Ron Guidry strikes out 18 batters to set a franchise record

The crowd hoped to see Gator extend his team-record 10-game winning streak to start the season. They got what they wished for and so much more.

Ron Guidry won 13 straight games to start the 1978 season. That, along with his 18-strikeout performance on June 17th, still stand as franchise records to this day.
Ron Guidry won 13 straight games to start the 1978 season. That, along with his 18-strikeout performance on June 17th, still stand as franchise records to this day.
Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Yankees ace Ron Guidry climbed the hill to face the then California Angels forty years ago today, with his franchise-record 10-game winning streak to start the season on the line. The stakes were even higher, as New York trailed first-place Boston by 7 1/2 games in the American League East race. The Red Sox had already won their game earlier in the day, so the defending World Series champion Yankees needed a victory just to keep pace.

Called Gator by his teammates, Guidry was coming off his best start of an already sensational year. On June 12th against Oakland, he twirled his fifth complete-game win. The three-hit, two-walk masterpiece was his first shutout of the 1978 season and sixth of his career. He also fanned a career-high 11 batters for the third time over a five-game span. Guidry was red hot.

Ironically, controversial manager Billy Martin reportedly didn’t even want Guidry on the team. The bombastic Yankees skipper long felt that the Louisiana native wasn’t destined to be a dominant big-league pitcher. Martin lobbied the front office to trade Guidry during the left-hander’s 1977 rookie campaign. Despite finishing with a 16-7 record — and winning some big postseason games for the Yankees in October — Guidry apparently remained persona non grata to Martin heading into spring training and the manager continued pushing for a trade.

Yankees owner George Steinbrenner reportedly agreed with Martin’s assessment, but general manager Gabe Paul stood up for Guidry and the southpaw’s potential. Accounts vary, with some saying Paul stood his ground, telling Steinbrenner we’ll trade him “over my dead body,” or something to that effect. Others claim that Paul told the Boss that he tried to trade Guidry, but could find no takers. Either way, Guidry remained, and Martin saw something that caused him to name the 27-year-old the Yankees Opening Day starter over Ed Figueroa and former ace Catfish Hunter.

Guidry responded by winning ten straight decisions over a 13-start stretch to begin the season. He pitched to a microscopic 1.57 ERA, with opponents batting .210/.269/.268 against him. That’s a paltry .537 OPS across 103 innings. The club headed into Saturday night’s showdown with the Angels having dropped the series opener the day before. It was fitting that their stopper was lined up to help them even the series, which would set up a potential rubber-game win the following afternoon on Old Timer’s Day.

Gator got off to a bit of a rough start. He gave up a a scorching double down the left-field line to Bobby Grich. Guidry then notched his first strikeout in unusual fashion when light-hitting outfielder Rick Miller was punched out on a foul tip following a failed bunt attempt. Grich moved to third on a groundout, but Guidry got out of the jam when he struck out Joe Rudi looking. Not yet locked in, Guidry walked Don Baylor on five pitches to start the second. He retired Ron Jackson on a shallow fly ball to center field, but Baylor stole second to move into scoring position. Gator left him stranded when he got Merv Rettenmund on another shallow fly ball and struck out Brian Downing.

It required 38 pitches to get through the first two innings, but the dominance began to emerge in the third. Guidry struck out the side, while working around a pair of two-out singles. Guidry was in a groove, and the Angels hitters were pressing. Once again, he stranded a runner in scoring position. It marked the last time California advanced a runner that far. In fact, only two Angels reached base for the remainder of the game.

Yankees color commentator Bill White remarked during the game that the Yankees held a contest to come up with a cool nickname for Guidry. One fan submitted both “Crafty Cajun” and “Louisiana Lightning.” The latter stuck, and fans came to this game with Louisiana Lightning etched on placards.

Some point to this game as the start of the now widespread practice of standing and clapping when your team’s pitcher has two strikes on a batter. That’s not how I remember it. Fans at Yankee Stadium had been doing it prior to this game. Indeed, they loudly cheered Guidry beginning in the first inning — well before there was a strikeout record in sight. Perhaps this was the day that the practice entered into the national conversation. One thing is certain, Guidry’s performance that night in 1978 played an important part in the establishment of this popular baseball tradition.

Louisiana Lightning struck out the side on 13 pitches in the fourth, and worked around a leadoff walk to punch out two more in the fifth. The Yankees had scored a run in the first and plated three more in the third, and with the way Guidry was pitching, the 4-0 lead seemed insurmountable. By this point in the game, the crowd of 33,000 plus was rooting for the Yankees to make quick outs so they could go back to watching Guidry pitch.

Things reached a fever pitch in the sixth. Once shortstop Dave Chalk whiffed to start the frame, Guidry had succeeded in fanning every Angels batter at least once. It was also his 12th strikeout of the game, a new personal best. After this was noted on the scoreboard, the crowd saluted Guidry with a sustained standing ovation. The tribute continued while Louisiana Lightning struck out Joe Rudi for the third time.

When Guidry retired the first two hitters in the seventh inning sans strikeout, long-time Yankees broadcaster Phil Rizzuto remarked on how disappointed the crowd was. Indeed, the fans were of one mind at that point. They wanted to see Guidry break the single-game strikeout record. Any other play drew silence or boos.

Guidry left the mound to another ovation after he stuck out the final batter of the seventh, matching the Yankees’ single-game strikeout record. Bob Shawkey set it during the Dead Ball Era in 1919. Whitey Ford later matched Shawkey in 1959, although he needed 14 innings to do it. When Gator finally broke the record with his 16th punchout to start the eighth, Rizzuto’s broadcast partner Fran Healy said “I’ve never seen a reaction to a pitcher like this, and I caught two no-hitters.”

The frenzy continued into the ninth inning, when Guidry had a chance to possibly tie the MLB record shared by Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan. Guidry later said that the crowd pumped him up that night and made him pitch even harder. He fanned the first two hitters to start the ninth, including Rudi for the fourth time. Sadly, though, after Baylor singled, Jackson grounded into a weak force out to Graig Nettles at third to end the game. Louisiana Lightning — and the Yankees faithful — would have to settle for a new franchise record of 18 strikeouts.

That wasn’t nearly all, of course. Guidry had also thrown his second straight complete game shutout. He would go on to throw seven more that year, en route to winning the Cy Young Award. His 25-3 mark, along with the 1.74 ERA, still stand among the greatest single-season pitching performances of the Live Ball Era. In the process, Guidry also ran his winning streak to 13 games to start the year. That, along with his strikeout mark, still stand as franchise records to this day.