Pre-Bucky: The Week the Sox Were Relentless Heroes

Jeff Polman takes us back to a 1978 we don't remember.

Go ahead, MLB Video and ESPN Classic. Remind us as often as you want. Show that choked-up little Dent swing, that feeble flick of a bat against Mike Torrez, that wind-aided pop fly with two aboard that landed in the nets and made Yaz drop his head and kneel in pain. We can take it. Especially with the Sox winning the East this year on the heels of two world titles since 1978’s Black Monday happened.

I’ll never forget watching that game in my parents’ basement, how my father and I could barely speak when it ended, how I then had to drive four and a half hours back to my place in Vermont, oblivious to the sweet, crisp autumn air and brilliant early foliage because I was virtually in a coma.

Fortunately, what has stayed with me since then is not The Game, or the infamous Massacre that preceded it by three weeks, but the stretch from September 23 to October 1, 1978, when the Red Sox had to win every contest they played to have a chance of tying the Yankees for the AL East title. Let us revisit this underappreciated and just plain forgotten slice of pressurized heroism…

* * *

Ugh. The Massacre. Getting outscored 42-9 in those four early September home games with New York was certainly a sledgehammer to the head. After edging out a 5-4 win against the Orioles the next night, they dropped one 3-2, lost two more one-run affairs in Cleveland, then the first two games at Yankee Stadium the following weekend, scoring just eight runs in the five straight losses.

They did win the Bronx finale 7-3 behind Dennis Eckersley and take three out of four in Detroit, but then lost a Friday night opener in last-place Toronto to fall to 91-63, two games behind the Yankees with eight to play. Meanwhile, New York had a creampuff schedule of two more in Cleveland, before finishing with six home games against the Jays and Indians. Catching them seemed unlikely, and back then there was no safe wild card slot to back into.

Miracle Week began on Saturday afternoon at Exhibition Stadium, when Jim Rice hit his 43rd homer, Luis Tiant went the distance and the Sox won 3-1 while Jim Beattie and the Yanks were getting crushed 10-1 in Cleveland. The lead was down to one.

Sunday was no problem for the Yankees. Guidry shut out the Tribe 4-0 for his 23rd win, while the Sox found themselves trailing 6-4 going to the 9th against a lowly but pesky Jays club. In a bizarre sequence of events, Fred Lynn and George Scott walked with one out. Balor Moore balked them to second and third, then walked Bob Bailey to load the bases. Burleson was safe on a Willie Upshaw error that scored two and tied the game, before pinch-runner Frank Duffy was nailed trying to steal home (!), ending the inning.

On they went, through the 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th. With Bill Campbell and Bob Stanley used earlier to try and bail out Mike Torrez, Dick Drago threw four and two-thirds innings of shutout relief, a managerial decision punishable by death today. In the top of the 14th, though, singles by Rice, Lynn, and Butch Hobson plated the winner in the 7-6 thriller, and the Sox stayed one game behind.

Both teams had Monday the 25th off. On Tuesday, Ed Figueroa easily beat the Jays at the Stadium while the Sox welcomed in the Tigers. Boston was good and ready. Rice hit homer no. 44 and Eckersley was brilliant, throwing a complete game, 6-0 shutout. The Sox stayed one game behind.

Toronto was easy Yankee pickings again on Wednesday in a 5-1 Catfish Hunter win. At Fenway, Fish hit a two-run triple in the 1st, Lynn singled Fisk in, and the three quick runs were enough for Tiant, Andy Hassler and Stanley in a 5-2 win. The Sox stayed one game behind, now with just four to play.

Ron Guidry improved to 24-3 Thursday night with a complete game 3-1 win. In Boston, it was nail-biting time. Detroit’s rookie pitcher Kip Young, who would be out of baseball in less than a year, matched zeroes with Mike Torrez until Jim Rice belted homer no. 45 leading off the 4th. Torrez was brilliant the rest of the way, got four double play balls and finished off the 1-0 shutout on his own. The Sox stayed one game behind.

On Friday, the Jays came to play. Sort of. The Sox disemboweled them 11-0 behind 16 hits and Bob Stanley, while Jim Beattie was busy edging the Tribe 3-1. The Sox stayed one game behind, with only two to play.

At this point I remember being unable to focus on such trivial things as work, food, or sleep. One reason I drove south to my parents’ place in Western Mass. for the weekend was to just distract myself. It didn’t help that I also had an agonizingly obnoxious Yankee fan of a Vermont roommate named Ron, and his snide ribbing and pre-playoff gloating was on the verge of putting me over the edge.

What added to the suspense was the pre-satellite and Internet age. Today I would have both the Red Sox and Yankee game racked up on my dish and be surfing back and forth, often between pitches. In 1978, I could only watch the Red Sox and have to wait anxiously for the announcer’s next bulletin from down south.

And they were not good ones on Saturday. Figueroa was silencing Tribe bats 7-0. Eckersley was on the hill for us, though and he looked sharp. In the bottom of the 1st, the Sox patched together three singles, a walk and an error by Toronto’s Roy Howell for four quick runs, and Eckersley hydroplaned from there, scattering seven hits and three walks in a huge 5-1 win, Eck’s 20th on the season.

The Sox remained one game behind, but now there was only one to play.

Raking leaves in my dad’s front yard all Sunday morning did little to relieve the tension, but Luis Tiant took care of the rest. Allowing nothing but a single apiece to Howell and John Mayberry, he spun a masterful 2-hit shutout, with big doubles by Jerry Remy and Rick Burleson driving in most of Boston’s five runs.

The other end of the miracle was happening in New York, where the Indians clearly wanted the Bronx. Catfish Hunter had nothing, gave up bombs to Andre Thornton and Gary Alexander in his first two innings, and lefty Rick Waits, the Tribe’s “ace” who hadn’t won a game since September 11, threw a complete game 5-hitter. “THANK YOU RICK WAITS” read the Fenway Park message board at game’s end, and the historic one-game playoff the following day was set.

We’ll end our trip down memory lane right here, though as the great Roger Angell and others have pointed out, the dramatic structure of that one-game playoff was an exact replica of the entire AL East race. The Sox jumped out in front, the Yanks passed them down the stretch, and Boston nearly took it back.

I will never forget that near take-back. After compiling an 84-47 record through the first game of an August 30 double-header, the Sox went a disastrous 3-14, only to finish 12-2. In those 14 games, they outscored their opponents 74-41. Their hitting wasn’t exactly through the roof, combining for a .277/.362/.396 slash line, but in the final week in their offense-friendly home, when “win or jump off the Tobin” was Early Red Sox Nation’s motto, the pitching was otherworldly: In 54 innings, 25 hits and 3 earned runs for a 0.50 ERA and 0.74 WHIP.

Forever sweet.

Categories: American League East

Jeff Polman first attended Fenway Park on May 30, 1963 and saw Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and Gary Geiger play in the same game. He was also there 14 years later to witness Reggie Jackson fighting with Billy Martin in the dugout, and still hates the Yankees more than anything on Earth other than green peppers. After graduating from UMass Amherst and working for the Boston Phoenix and Vermont Vanguard Press, he moved to L.A. to try his hand at screenwriting. Since having two low-budget thrillers no one ever heard of sold and produced, he has written for the Huffington Post, Baseball Prospectus, Hardball Times, Platoon Advantage, ChicagoSide, and Seamheads. He also writes fictionalized baseball replay blogs like Mysteryball '58, but we won’t get into those right now. Follow him on Twitter @jpballnut.

4 Responses to “Pre-Bucky: The Week the Sox Were Relentless Heroes” Subscribe

  1. Jenloy12 September 25, 2013 at 8:55 AM #

    NCSox I remember 1978 like it was yesterday.

  2. NCSox September 25, 2013 at 8:56 AM #

    Jenloy12 If that’s true, it’s only because you saw it online. :)

  3. Jenloy12 September 25, 2013 at 8:57 AM #

    NCSox lol you’re right haha I was -15 years old lol

  4. jsc1973 September 26, 2013 at 4:49 AM #

    That was one of many Red Sox teams over the years where the pitching never got the credit it deserved, because Fenway makes hitters look better than they are and pitchers look worse. Of the 10 everyday players on the ’78 Red Sox, five of them had an OPS+ under 100. It’s too bad they didn’t have Bill James working for them back then.