Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Boston's Summer Swoon

1978 is the standard against which all other Red Sox collapses are measured (
It's been a rough summer for Red Sox fans, and doesn't figure to get any better unless this team figures out how to hit with runners in scoring position and string together quality outings on the mound.

Regardless of what happens over the next four months, no summer will ever be as bad as the one where Boston had its division sewn up in late July, only to miss the playoffs on the season's final day.

Red Sox Nation has endured its fair share of epic collapses, both in the regular season and postseason. There was Johnny Pesky "holding the ball" as Enos Slaughter raced around to score in 1946, lost pennants on the final days of the 1948 and 1949 seasons, Bill Buckner letting an easy grounder skip through his legs, and Grady Little leaving in Pedro Martinez too long.

Until 2011 came along, however, Boston's 1978 tank-job was always in a league of its own. Mention the year 1978 in New England, and memories will immediately recall two things; the historic blizzard that dumped record amounts of snowfall across the region, and the Olde Towne Team’s equally historic meltdown that summer.

For a while, it looked as though the ‘78 Red Sox would go down as one of the great ballclubs in history given how dominant they were in the first half. By July 20th,  Boston had built up a nine-game lead over its division—including a 14 game cushion over the slumping Yankees—and was on pace to win 112 games. From that point forward the Yankees were the best team in baseball, going 52-21 to close out the season, while the Bosox barely broke .500 at 37-36.

Boston’s swoon started in late July, when the Sox suddenly lost nine of ten and saw their division lead cut in half. It was around this time that a maelstrom of injuries devastated the starting lineup. Leadoff man and shortstop Rick Burleson missed 16 games in July with a strained ankle ligament. A sprained wrist cost Captain Carl Yastrzemski 10 games in August. All-Star second baseman Jerry Remy suffered a chipped bone on a steal play at second, forcing him from the starting lineup for two weeks in late August/early September. Dizziness resulting from a beaning beset Dwight Evans, who had an .815 OPS before September 1st but only a .545 OPS after. Meanwhile, catcher Carlton Fisk was playing through a cracked rib and Butch Hobson battled floating bone chips in his throwing elbow, which he would re-arrange between pitches to the horror of his teammates.

With two-thirds of their starting lineup hampered by injury, the Red Sox were running on fumes as the calendar flipped to September. Their already weak bench was stretched too thin, forcing Don Zimmer to replace his All-Stars with the likes of Bob Bailey, Jack Brohamer, and Frank Duffy. Zimmer also did himself no favors by limiting Bill Lee, a notorious Yankee-killer and Boston’s only left-handed starting pitcher, to just 24 starts even though Lee was perfectly healthy. Lee did not make a single start after August 19th and was used only three times—all in relief—as Boston’s seemingly insurmountable lead slipped away.

Entering September, the Red Sox still held a seven game lead over the rest of their division. With injuries mounting, however, they simply hit a wall. Boston lost 14 of 17, going from seven games up on the division to three and a half out of first with two weeks to go. In the middle of that horrid stretch was the Boston Massacre, a nightmare four-game sweep at the hands of the surging Yankees. New York bludgeoned Boston 42-9 in the pivotal series, erasing the home team’s four-game lead in the standings and seemingly delivering the knockout punch.

Boston, however, was far from finished. With their backs to the wall, they rallied to win 12 of their last 14, including eight in a row to close out the regular season and force a tie of first, setting up a tie-breaker game at Fenway Park against the Yankees.

On what was a beautiful fall day in New England, Boston got to New York’s ace and eventual AL Cy Young winner Ron Guidry first, tagging him for one run in the second and another in the sixth. With former Yankee Mike Torrez cruising, the Red Sox appeared to have the game well in hand as they took a 2-0 lead into the top of the seventh. Just seven outs from advancing to the American League Championship Series, Boston had an 82 percent chance of winning the game when Bucky Dent, New York’s number nine hitter, stepped in to face his former teammate with two outs and runners on first and second.

At that moment, one would have been hard-pressed to find a batter less-threatening than Dent. The light-hitting shortstop was mired in a horrendous slump, having collected just seven hits and two RBI in his previous 58 at-bats. His batting average had plunged to a lowly .241, with his slugging percentage not much better at .308. With only four home runs on the season he was not a threat to go yard, especially since his last home run had come on August 16th.
"Deep to left! Yastrzemski will not get's a home run!" 
So when Dent lifted a pop fly towards the left field wall nobody, not even Dent, thought it was going out. He started digging for a double. Many believed Dent had just flied out to end the inning.

“When Bucky hit the ball, I said, ‘That's an out.’” Don Zimmer remembered.

“It was a ball that everyone thought was going to be caught,” author Leigh Montville recalled, “a nothing kind of hit.”

Only that nothing hit somehow found its way into the netting atop the Green Monster for a go-ahead three-run homer, silencing the crowd of 33,000. Left fielder Carl Yastrzemski, who appeared to have a play on the ball when it first left Dent’s bat, crumpled just in front of the wall as he watched the ball soar over it.

“I still can’t believe it went in the net,” Yastrzemski would say years later.

Dent’s unlikely long ball did not win the game for New York, as many have come to believe, but it did turn the tide. Torrez walked the next batter, Mickey Rivers, and was pulled from the game, unable to get the final out of the inning. Bob Stanley trotted in and allowed Thurman Munson to double, which scored Rivers easily from second (he had stolen). The winning run wouldn’t score until the top of the eighth, when Reggie Jackson led off with a solo shot to center that gave New York a 5-2 lead and drove Stanley from the game.

Boston rallied for two runs in the bottom of the eighth and had a chance to win the game in the bottom of the ninth. The tying and winning runs were on base for Jim Rice, that year’s American League MVP, and Yastrzemski. Rice flew out and Yaz popped out, stranding the tying run on third base.

The Red Sox had come as close as humanly possible to tying the game. Boston had won 99 regular season games, and in the end it was not enough. The downtrodden Sox went home for the winter with nothing to show for it except the bitter taste of defeat in their mouths.

Game 163, fittingly enough, was a microcosm of Boston’s rollercoaster season. The Sox jumped out to an early lead, blew it, clawed back, but ultimately fell just short. It would be eight more years before they reached the postseason, which would end even more tragically than their ill-fated 1978 campaign.

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