The date was Friday, September 29, 1978. The Yankees were in the final stretch of one of the greatest in-season comebacks in history, starting the day one game ahead of the Red Sox in the AL East standings after being 14 games behind Boston in July. With only three games left in the season, and with the safety net of a Wild Card not yet a possibility in MLB, every game was crucial.
The good news was the fact that the Yankees would be hosting Cleveland in the final series, and that ballclub was 21 games under .500. The bad news was that Boston would be hosting the even-worse, 41-games-under-.500 Toronto Blue Jays over the weekend. Boston sweeping Toronto seemed likely, which put even more pressure on the Yankees.
In the bottom of the eighth inning, trailing 1-0 with one out and the tying run on second base, Yankees second baseman Willie Randolph reached on an infield single off Cleveland flamethrower Jim Kern, but unfortunately pulled his hamstring in the process. Although it was just one frustrating play in what was a season-long soap opera of ups and downs, this one set up a chain of events that would culminate in one of the most unlikely World Series heroes in Yankees’ history.
Yankees manager Bob Lemon inserted little-used rookie Brian Doyle to run, and then man the keystone for Randolph that evening. What Lemon didn’t know at the time was that Randolph’s injury was worse than expected and that Doyle would likely be the Yankees' second baseman for the crucial final two games, and if necessary, a one-game playoff with Boston (not to mention the ALCS and World Series).
This, to severely understate the situation, was a problem.
The 23-year-old Randolph was already a two-time All-Star and the Yankees’ WAR leader among position players in 1978. Doyle was best known for being the brother of former Boston second baseman Denny Doyle — which is to say he wasn’t known at all. Brian did his best to fly under the radar during the 1978 season as well: Over 39 games and 54 plate appearances, he posted a BA/OBP/SLG line of .192/.192/.192. (Yes if you’re wondering, your math is correct, he drew zero walks and had zero extra-base hits in 1978.)
The Yankees went on to win two of three that weekend against Cleveland, but Boston did pull off the sweep, setting up the memorable one-game playoff in Fenway Park that Monday afternoon. Doyle popped out and grounded out in two at-bats before being lifted for a pinch-hitter in the seventh inning that day (the at-bat just prior to Bucky Dent getting a new nickname). After winning in Boston, the Yankees went on to take three of four games from Kansas City in the ALCS, setting up a World Series rematch with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
With left-hander Tommy John starting Game 1, Lemon went with Fred “Chicken” Stanley to start the Fall Classic at second base for the Yankees. Doyle got in the game late defensively but didn’t see any at-bats in the 11-5 drubbing. Doyle started Game 2 against righty Burt Hooton and went 1-for-3 with a fourth-inning single in what would be another loss for the Yankees. The Yankees came back with a win in Game 3, with Doyle going hitless against future Hall of Famer Don Sutton and Charlie Hough. With John starting Game 4, Doyle was relegated to bench duty again, coming in late defensively in what was a come-from-behind win for the Yankees that tied the Series at two games apiece.
Doyle was back in the starting lineup for the pivotal Game 5, and he didn’t let anyone down. He started a big fourth-inning rally with a one-out single, and then scored on a Mickey Rivers knock two batters later. He added another single and run scored in the seventh, and then a third hit in the eighth inning. His three-hit, two-run performance was a big part of the Yankees win, and although it didn’t exactly have everyone asking “Willie who?” it was eye-opening and fun as heck to watch. Now with the Yankees leading the World Series 3-2, they’d be facing Don Sutton again in Game 6, looking for the Series clincher in Los Angeles.
It didn’t take long for things to heat up, as Los Angeles took an early 1-0 lead in the first inning. Then in the top of the second, after a Graig Nettles single and a Jim Spencer walk, Doyle drove a double to deep left field, scoring Nettles to tie the game and advancing Spencer to third. It was his first extra-base hit all year long. After Doyle and Spencer scored on a Dent single, the Yankees had a 3-1 lead.
After yet another hit in the fourth, the red-hot Doyle came to bat against Sutton again in the sixth inning with the Yankees leading 3-2. With one out and Lou Piniella on second base, Doyle lined another single to center field, driving in Piniella and again eventually coming around to score on a Dent base hit.
One can only imagine what the Dodgers were thinking when they looked at the power in the Yankees’ lineup and realized they were getting knocked around by Brian Doyle and Bucky Dent.
The Yankees went on to win Game 6, 7-2, with Doyle finishing 3-for-4 with two runs scored and two RBI in the clincher. When the celebration began, most fans and TV announcers were speculating that either Doyle or Dent would be named the World Series MVP. Doyle finished the Series at 7-for-16 and four runs scored with a triple slash of .438/.438/.500 – very similar to Dent’s .417/.440/.458 (albeit in eight fewer at-bats). Additionally, two of the top eight plays in the Series according to Championship Probability added were Doyle’s go-ahead RBI single in the second inning of Game 6, and the lead-extending RBI single in the sixth inning that same night. As Ken Singleton would say, both came off a “brand name” in Don Sutton.
Dent would receive the award to very few complaints from fans, given his heroics leading up to and including the World Series. While he played until 1984 and later managed the Yankees, Doyle would finish his career still mostly in anonymity. He played just three more seasons in the big leagues as a backup infielder — two with the Yankees then another with Oakland, never appearing in more than 40 games. He called it quits after spending the ‘82 season in the minors and concluded his career with a total WAR of -1.2 and an OPS+ of 11. (But he did end up hitting a home run and drawing 10 walks!)
Although Brian Doyle’s career may not have stood out, he had an eight-day stretch in October of 1978 that permanently etched him in the memories of every Yankee fan who saw his next-man-up, clutch performance on the big stage.