The plane was chartered, the bags were packed and the champagne was on ice. To make it official the Yankees gave the baseball to Catfish Hunter on Sunday, confident that the new Catfish would be the Catfish of old. But instead of defeating Cleveland to clinch the American League East title, Hunter gave up five runs in 1⅖ innings, and the Indians were off to a 9-2 victory. Goodby, Kansas City, hello, Boston.
"I'd have bet everything I owned that he would have a good game today," Reggie Jackson said. But Hunter's pitches had neither pop nor control—and the Yankees had no chance. After a week of near-perfect baseball that produced five straight victories, New York suddenly seemed as fallible as the sixth-place team that beat them. "It looked like a rerun of one of our games," said Buddy Bell of the Indians.
Only once did New York show any of its vaunted prowess. After Andre Thornton's two-run home run put Cleveland ahead in the first inning, the Yankees came right back to tie the score. With one out, Thurman Munson singled to left, and Lou Piniella sent him to third with a double to right. The next batter, Jackson, lofted a high fly to short left center that Shortstop Tom Veryzer easily caught. But instead of running the ball back to the infield, Veryzer faked a few throws to home and came in at a trot. That was all the incentive Munson needed to break for the plate, which he reached safely. "Oh boy, I thought we were in trouble then," Indian Manager Jeff Torborg said. "That's the kind of play that can ignite a team." The Yankees did score again that inning, on Graig Nettles' single, but those runs were all they got.
The Indians broke the tie—and the Yankees' hearts—in the second inning with four runs. New York had allowed exactly that many in its previous six outings. "It was just one of those games," said Manager Bob Lemon, who found only one thing to be cheered about. "Up in Boston at least we won't have to look at the scoreboard to see what the Sox are doing."
October 8, 1978
Sunday's loss notwithstanding, the Yankees had made the greatest comeback in American League history. New York was 14 games out of first place on July 19. From that dismal abyss the Yankees rallied to win 52 of their next 73 games and finish the regular season with a 99-63 record, which was identical to Boston's and the best in baseball this season. "Winning so many games means a lot," said Bucky Dent. "We struggled and struggled and came from so far back. Now people can respect us for the way we play, instead of thinking we're some kind of soap opera."
If the Yankee comeback was memorable so was the Boston collapse that made it possible. But the performances of the two antagonists in the final week should not be forgotten either. Neither of them lost until the Yankee defeat on Sunday. The Red Sox won their last eight in a row, and the Yankees won six straight—at a time when a single defeat for either team would have had dramatic consequences. Separated by only one game, New York won to stay ahead, Boston to stay alive. "To me, this is more impressive than the comeback," said Lemon. "When you've got more than two months left and the other team is losing, the pressure isn't as great as it is in the last week when the other team is winning. I'll have to say that there have been times when I've slept better and longer."
The scores from Fenway Park even made the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner a nightmarish occasion for New Yorkers. While the Yankees stood for the anthem before each game, their eyes could not help but wander from the centerfield flagpole down to the centerfield scoreboard. Invariably, the scoreboard showed that the Red Sox, whose games started half an hour earlier, were well on their way to another victory.
If the Boston scores were not in New York's favor, the quality of the Yankees' opposition certainly was. Toronto, after all, is an expansion team, and Cleveland has been easy prey for New York the last three seasons. "I don't think anybody's uptight," said Nettles early in the week. "If we're supposed to be the division winners, we should be able to beat the two worst teams at home the last week of the season."
With admirable defense, timely hitting and superb pitching, they did win, but it was not always easy. The highlight of Tuesday night's 4-1 victory over the flightless Blue Jays was not Ed Figueroa's six-hitter or Mickey Rivers' two-run double in the second inning but four double plays. Second Baseman Willie Randolph was involved in all of them: he was the pivot man in the second and eighth innings, and he started the DPs in the third and ninth. Though Randolph was hitless, he could justifiably declare, "I did my job. I felt I played a pretty good game."
On Wednesday night, for the second straight game, the Yankees scored all the runs they needed with a three-run flurry in the second inning. The rest of the night belonged to Hunter, who allowed six hits in a 5-1 complete-game victory. More than any other Yankee, the Cat had been responsible for the Yankee turnaround. Since returning from his second stint on the disabled list on July 17, he had won 10 of 12 decisions. Before then he had the credentials of a sore-armed has-been: a 2-3 record and a 5.93 ERA. But after a shoulder manipulation took care of his ailment, he became the consistent third starter New York needed to make a serious pennant drive.
The No. 1 starter, of course, is Ron Guidry, who received a standing ovation before he took the mound for Thursday night's game and then earned it by four-hitting Toronto 3-1. The Yankees were not swinging very effectively themselves, and they needed a sixth-inning throwing error by First Baseman Doug Ault to score two of their runs. But Guidry never needs much hitting to get by. The win ran his record to 24-3, with a 1.72 ERA and an average of eight strikeouts and six hits for every nine innings pitched. No one blamed him for saying after the game, "The only thing I don't know if I can do is play the outfield. I think I'll give that a try next year." He was kidding, of course. The American League's hitters are not going to get off that easily.
Cleveland followed Toronto into the Stadium on Friday and looked to be a bit tougher competition. The Indians had defeated the Red Sox and the Yankees twice each in recent weeks, and Torborg was taking his spoiler's role seriously. "It's nice to be thrust into the race," he said. "It gives us a chance to salvage a great deal of lost pride."
The Indians were doing exactly that on Friday night, when a double by Tom Veryzer and a single by Rick Manning made the score 1-0 in the eighth inning and put New York behind for the first time all week. With the scoreboard showing that the Red Sox had bombed the Blue Jays, the Yankees suddenly found themselves only six outs away from falling into a first-place tie. At that moment Lemon was trying to figure out some way he could "borrow Jim Rice for about 10 minutes."
New York staged a quick and decisive comeback in the bottom of the inning. Pinch Hitter Cliff Johnson led off with a walk and was lifted for Pinch Runner Fred Stanley. Rivers then sacrificed Stanley to second. At this point the Yankees had to pinch themselves again—to make sure what they were seeing was not a dream. Torborg came to the mound and pulled his starter, David Clyde, replacing him with Jim Kern. Clyde had allowed only four hits, but Torborg feared he was tiring. In the Yankee bullpen the move was greatly appreciated. "We were kind of worried out there," said Rich Gossage, "and when he took Clyde out we all said 'thank you.' " The heartened Yankees greeted Kern with four straight hits that scored three runs, and New York won going away.
On Saturday the Yankee hitters picked up right where they had left off the night before. Rivers' leadoff line single in the home half of the first was the start of a six-hit, five-run inning that was all the help Figueroa needed to become the first native Puerto Rican ever to win 20 games. Afterwards, with two magnums of champagne at his side, Figueroa declared it was "the proudest day of my life." But for the rest of the Yankees the champagne would have to wait.