Rick Waits’ Win Over Yankees Gave Red Sox Brief Reprieve in 1978
Vince Guerrieri | On 03, Oct 2018
Forty years ago this week, Rick Waits pitched the Indians to a win in the season finale – and ensured that their opponents that day would get one more game.
The Red Sox at one point held a 10-game lead in the American League East, with the Yankees a distant third. But Yankees owner George Steinbrenner shook up the team by firing manager Billy Martin and replacing him with former Indians pitcher Bob Lemon. The Yankees got hot and overtook the Red Sox for the division lead in September, and both teams were on a tear going into the final day of the season.
Both the Yankees and Red Sox were at home, hosting miserable teams. The last-place Blue Jays were playing at Fenway Park, and the sixth-place Indians were at Yankee Stadium in front of nearly 40,000 fans who were hoping to see the Yankees clinch the American League East.
Waits got the nod for the Indians, and would pitch against Catfish Hunter, who by his own admission didn’t have it going on that day. He gave up a first-inning two-run home run to Andre Thornton, and then another dinger, a solo shot to Gary Alexander, to allow the Indians to retake a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
Meanwhile, in Boston, Luis Tiant was shutting out the Blue Jays.
Waits went the distance in what turned out to be a 9-2 Indians win. “I had great stuff that day,” Waits said in a story for the 25th anniversary. “One of those days where everything came together, and I felt like I could have beaten anyone.”
Shortly after that, the Red Sox finished off the Blue Jays to move into a tie for first place in the American League East, and the Fenway Park scoreboard flashed, “THANK YOU RICK WAITS.”
Waits estimated later that he got hundreds of letters of gratitude – which, as it turned out, would be short-lived.
The Red Sox and Yankees met the next day at Fenway Park for a tiebreaker game. The winner would go on to the American League Championship Series. The loser would go home. Ron Guidry started on short rest for the Yankees against Mike Torrez of the Red Sox. In the seventh inning, with the Red Sox holding a 2-0 lead, Torrez gave up singles to Chris Chambliss and Roy White, and after pinch-hitter Jim Spencer flied out, Bucky Dent golfed a pitch over the Green Monster to give the Yankees the lead. They never trailed after that and won 5-4 to advance to the ALCS. Ultimately, they advanced to the World Series and beat the Dodgers for the second year in a row.
It was a bitter pill for the Red Sox for a variety of reasons. Not only had they seen a 10-game lead vanish, but it was the second time they’d hosted a tiebreaker game and lost. The first was in 1948 – to the Indians.