The 1978 American League East tie-breaker game was a one-game extension to Major League Baseball's (MLB) 1978 regular season, played between the rival New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox to determine the winner of the American League's (AL) East Division. The game was played at Fenway Park in Boston, on October 2, 1978. The tie-breaker was necessitated after the Yankees and Red Sox finished the season tied for first place in the AL East with identical 99–63 records. The Red Sox were the home team by virtue of a coin toss. In baseball statistics, the tie-breaker counted as the 163rd regular season game for both teams, with all events in the game added to regular season statistics.
Ron Guidry started for the Yankees, while Mike Torrez started for the Red Sox. The Yankees fell behind 2–0, with a home run by Carl Yastrzemski and a run batted in single by Jim Rice. The Yankees took the lead on a three run home run by Bucky Dent. The Yankees defeated the Red Sox 5–4, with Guidry getting the win, while Goose Gossage recorded a save. With the victory, the Yankees clinched the AL East championship, en route to winning the 1978 World Series. As of 2016, the '78 Yankees remain the last team to have won the World Series after playing a tiebreaker.
The Yankees and Red Sox had combined to win the past three American League (AL) pennants. The Red Sox lost the 1975 World Series. The Yankees lost the 1976 World Series, and then won the 1977 World Series. The Yankees and Red Sox were both seen as contenders for the AL East. The Yankees, Red Sox, and Baltimore Orioles, who competed for the AL East championship in 1977, all expected that they would compete for the AL East in 1978. The Orioles and Red Sox tied for second place in 1977, 2 1⁄2 games behind the Yankees. The young Detroit Tigers, with Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell, also appeared ready to challenge for the AL East.
The Red Sox signed Mike Torrez, who won two games in the 1977 World Series for the Yankees, as a free agent during the offseason. Before the season, the Red Sox acquired Dennis Eckersley to join Torrez, Bill Lee, and Luis Tiant in their starting rotation. The Yankees acquired Goose Gossage and Rawly Eastwick to join Sparky Lyle, 1977's AL Cy Young Award winner, in their bullpen during the offseason. Both teams placed five players on the AL squad for the 1978 Major League Baseball All-Star Game: Gossage, Ron Guidry, Graig Nettles, Thurman Munson, and Reggie Jackson represented the Yankees, while Carl Yastrzemski, Fred Lynn, Rick Burleson, Carlton Fisk, and Jim Rice represented the Red Sox.
The Red Sox had once led by 10 games; the Milwaukee Brewers were in second place at the time, while the Yankees were in third. The Yankees experienced injuries to Don Gullett, Willie Randolph, Catfish Hunter, Bucky Dent, and Mickey Rivers, and fell to fourth place in the division. After a shake up engineered by owner George Steinbrenner, with Munson moving from catcher to right field, the Yankees fired their combustible manager Billy Martin, replacing him with Bob Lemon. The Yankees trailed Boston by 14 games by mid-July. However, New York finished the season 53–21 in their last 74 games (a .716 winning percentage), while the Red Sox went 38–36 (.514) over the same time frame. This included a four-game sweep of Boston in Fenway Park in early September. The Yankees outscored the Red Sox by a composite score of 42–9, and the series was dubbed "The Boston Massacre" by the sports press. By the end of the four games, the two teams were tied for first place.
The Yankees took the AL East lead three days later, and did not lose it until the final Sunday of the season. Holding a one-game lead with seven games to play, New York finished on a 6–1 run. However, Boston was a perfect 7–0, enabling them to tie the Yankees at season's end. After New York lost to the Cleveland Indians on October 1, the Fenway Park video screen flashed the happy news: "THANK YOU RICK WAITS, GAME TOMORROW."
The tie-breaker game was the first in the AL since 1948, when the Indians defeated the Red Sox at Fenway Park, and the first in MLB since the advent of the division system in 1969. Guidry, who won 24 games in the 162-game regular season, started on three days of rest, less rest than usual. Torrez started the game for the Red Sox. He started for the Red Sox on Opening Day and had a 16–12 record, but contributed to the Red Sox struggles late in the season with six consecutive losses.
Carl Yastrzemski hit a home run in the second inning, and Jim Rice drove in Rick Burleson with a single in the sixth inning. Meanwhile, the Yankees had been held to two hits through six innings. With one out in the seventh inning, Chris Chambliss and Roy White of the Yankees both singled off of Torrez, and pinch hitter Jim Spencer flied out. Dent then hit a fly ball that cleared the Green Monster wall in left field to give the Yankees a 3–2 lead.
Torrez was removed from the game after walking Mickey Rivers. Reliever Bob Stanley came in, and after Rivers stole second Thurman Munson drove him in with a double. In the eighth inning, a home run by Reggie Jackson made the score 5–2 in favor of the Yankees. The Red Sox cut New York's lead to just one run in the bottom of the eighth against closer Goose Gossage on RBI singles by Fred Lynn and Yastrzemski. But the Yankees would hold off the Red Sox, thanks in part to a heads-up defensive play by right fielder Lou Piniella with one out in the bottom of the ninth. With Burleson on first base, Jerry Remy hit a line drive to Piniella in right field, but Piniella was blinded by the late afternoon sun and could not see the ball. However, he pretended to field the play normally, pounding his glove as though he would easily catch the ball. This prevented Burleson from advancing to third base. When Jim Rice followed with a deep fly to the outfield, Burleson could only move up to third base instead of scoring the tying run.
Batting with two out and two men on, Yastrzemski popped out to third baseman Graig Nettles in foul territory for the game's final out, and New York won the game, 5–4. Guidry improved his record to 25–3, while Torrez took the loss. Gossage recorded his 27th save.
This game was televised regionally by the respective teams' rights holders, WSBK-TV in Boston and WPIX in New York City. ABC Sports picked up the contest for national viewers, thus providing alternate coverage of the game on its New York and Boston affiliates. Keith Jackson, Howard Cosell and Don Drysdale narrated the action in the ABC booth.
On radio, the CBS Radio Network offered national coverage of the game, with Ernie Harwell doing play-by-play and Win Elliot working as an analyst. Locally in the home markets, WINS in New York City and WITS in Boston fed the game to the teams' respective radio networks.
In the Red Sox' broadcast booth, Dick Stockton and Ken "Hawk" Harrelson worked the television side while Ned Martin and Jim Woods were heard on radio. In the Yankees' booth, Phil Rizzuto, Bill White and Frank Messer alternated play-by-play on both radio and television, and were backed up on radio by Fran Healy.
For the third straight year, the Yankees went on to face the Kansas City Royals in the 1978 American League Championship Series. The Yankees won the best-of-five series for their third consecutive pennant. New York defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series to win their second consecutive championship, and 22nd overall.
The loss of the Red Sox was seen as a manifestation of the Curse of the Bambino, long thought to be the reason behind all things bad that ever happened to the Red Sox. Described as a "shocking blast" by the Sporting News, Dent's home run silenced the Fenway Park crowd. For the light-hitting Dent, it was just his fifth home run of the 1978 season. It sealed Dent's reputation among Yankee fans, while inspiring the permanent nickname "Bucky Fucking Dent" in New England. Dent, later the manager of the Yankees, was fired during a series in Boston in 1990. Twenty-five years later, in Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series, Aaron Boone received similar treatment by Red Sox fans after he hit the home run in the bottom of the 11th inning that clinched the pennant for the Yankees, but the Yankees would later lose to the Florida Marlins in the World Series, which went six games.
Guidry and Rice were considered candidates for the AL Most Valuable Player (MVP) Award for their strong seasons. Rice was named MVP, with Guidry finishing second in the voting. Guidry won the AL Cy Young Award. Lemon was named AL Manager of the Year.