clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Yankees History: Errors, a hit-by-pitch, and a wild ninth inning from 1978

The Yankees might not have ever gotten to the famous one-game playoff in 1978 were it not for one weird ninth inning.

New York Yankees Reggie Jackson Photo by Sporting News via Getty Images Archives/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images

When you think about “clutch” seasons in Yankees’ history, one that has to come to mind is 1978. That year, the Yankees famously came back from 14 games down in the AL East, rallying all the way back to catch the Red Sox and finish the regular season tied. They then won a tiebreaker game against the Red Sox — you might be aware of that — before going on to beat the Dodgers in the World Series.

Because the Yankees and Red Sox finished tied atop the division, it meant that the Yankees needed every single win they got over the course of the season. That includes not only all four games of the famed September “Boston Massacre” in Fenway, but also every random April win against teams they wouldn’t go onto battle with.

It also includes an August 9th game against the Brewers, where Milwaukee gave the Yankees quite a bit of help.

While the Yankees had cut into their deficit in the AL East somewhat, they still trailed by 8.5 games in the division standings as they took on the Brewers on August 9, 1978. To make matters tougher, Milwaukee technically went into that day’s play in second place, a half-game ahead of the Bombers.

With Ed Figueroa on the mound, things didn’t get off to the best start for the Yankees. After retiring Paul Molitor to lead off the game, Figueroa allowed a home run, a walk, and another home run, putting him in a quick 3-0 hole.

The Yankees would answer back with two runs in the bottom of the first, and then tied it up on a Thurman Munson solo homer in the third. The home run would actually be Munson’s final ever regular season one at Yankee Stadium, as it was his last of the season, and the three that he hit before his tragic passing the next year came on the road.

Despite being right back in the game, the Yankees quickly fell behind again. Figueroa allowed another couple hits in the fourth, including an RBI single to Larry Hisle that knocked him out of the game. Ken Clay replaced him and got out of the fourth inning with no further damage, but then allowed two runs on three hits in the fifth, widening the gap. With the Yankee offense unable to muster any more runs off Brewers’ starter Lary Sorensen, Milwaukee tacked on an insurance run in the top of the ninth thanks to a Cecil Cooper home run.

Now down four runs, the Yankees went into the bottom of the ninth with just a two-percent chance at winning according to Win Probability. A pinch-hitting Roy White led off the inning, but he could only fly out. Bucky Dent then got a little something going with a single, and Mickey Rivers followed that with a home run, getting the Bombers within two. That’s when things got weird.

Willie Randolph was up next, and he got on when Brewers’ shortstop Robin Yount couldn’t handle a grounder. The Yankees’ opening then got bigger when Milwaukee reliever Bob McClure walked Munson. Chris Chambliss then came up big, as he doubled to score Randolph and put the tying run just 90 feet away.

In a bit of a tough spot, Brewers’ manager George Bamberger decided to intentionally walk Graig Nettles, which would load the bases and set up a potential inning-ending double play. The issue was that then also brought Reggie Jackson to the plate. For all the controversy that surrounded Jackson in those years, he was not someone you wanted to face with the game on the line.

One McClure pitch got away from him and hit Jackson, allowing Munson to trot down from third to tie things up. Milwaukee then went back to the bullpen and brought in Bill Castro to try and get the game to extra innings. In the box score, Castro got what’s listed as a groundball, but catcher Buck Martinez made an error while fielding it, allowing Chambliss to score and give the Yankees an improbable win.

Considering the butterfly effect, maybe if the Yankees go on to lose this game, they make different choices somewhere else and win a game they otherwise lost. However, based on the actual results, the Yankees would have lost the AL East were it not for one very weird ninth inning against the Brewers.