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Former Red Sox OF Lynn reflects on 1978 playoff loss to Yankees

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Former Red Sox MVP - and PawSox Hall of Famer - Fred Lynn remembers the last time the Yankees and Red Sox met in a one-game playoff - the infamous 1978 contest at Fenway Park.

Before setting the table for what’s on tap at Fenway Park Tuesday night, Fred Lynn hit the rewind button to October 2, 1978 when the Red Sox and Yankees engaged in a memorable one-game playoff.

“Going into that game, the Red Sox and Yankees believed they were the two best teams. Whoever won that game was going to win the World Series. It did play out like that,” said Lynn from his California home Monday. “That’s not the case this time. They’re two good teams. They’re not the best teams, but it’s still the rivalry.”

You can’t mention the ’78 classic showdown between Boston and New York without referring to Bucky Dent breaking the collective hearts of Red Sox Nation. To Lynn, Lou Piniella made his mark by making not one but two game-saving plays out in right field.

“Everyone remembers Bucky but no one remembers Lou. I do,” said Lynn, inducted into the Pawtucket Red Sox Hall of Fame in 2018.

Setting the scene with vivid details – the kind that suggested the game took place just last week as opposed to 43 years ago – Lynn recalled coming up with two on and two down in the sixth inning and Boston up 2-0 on Ron Guidry and the Yanks.

“Piniella was playing right field. That’s a bad sun field that time of year. Reggie [Jackson] was not playing. If Reggie was out there, we would have won that game,” said Lynn, “but the manager was smart enough to put Lou out there.”

A lefty who was popular with Sox fans during his seven seasons with the franchise (1974-80), Lynn tended to go the other way against Guidry.

“For some unexplained reason, Lou was playing me to pull. I hooked one into the corner and he snow-coned it. That basically cost us two runs. It would have been a triple and probably knocked Guidry out of the game,” said Lynn, now 69. “If we got into their middle relief [unit], it would have been over, but Lou made that play.”

Piniella struggled with the Fenway sun in the eighth inning of a game that determined the winner of the American League East Division, yet the sequence didn’t prove to be calamitous for New York.

“Rick Burleson is on first and Jerry Remy hits a line drive off [Yankees star reliever Goose] Gossage. Lou loses the ball in the sun, but he puts his arms in the air to decoy Rooster [Burleson’s nickname]. Rick can’t tell if he’s going to catch it or not,” said Lynn. “The ball hits Lou in the chest and bounces in front of him. He kept Rooster from advancing to third. Then Jim Rice hits a long fly ball that would have tied the game.

“Those two defensive plays by Lou really hurt us,” added Lynn, who during his working stint at ESPN had the opportunity to ask Piniella – then managing the Seattle Mariners – to relive two plays that in essence saved the Yankees’ bacon.

On the reasoning behind Piniella playing Lynn the way he did, the former Red Sox outfielder said, “Guidry wasn’t the same pitcher [that Oct. 1978 afternoon] like he had been earlier that season. He had thrown a lot of innings. Lou figured I was going to pull the ball. That was good thinking on Lou’s part. You’ve got to tip your cap to a savvy player. It’s a play that no one thinks about except me and him.”

Switching gears to modern times, Lynn thought the 2021 editions of the BoSox and Yanks were on a collision course for the one-game American League Wild-Card contest.

“The way things were churning out after the All-Star break, I didn’t think either team would run away with it. The Sox, Yankees, and Toronto took turns getting hot and then turning incredibly cold. One team would have a run and the other teams would hang around,” said Lynn. “When you have three teams trying to climb over each other, they’re going to knock each other out. Toronto was the X-factor for me because they can hit like gangbusters.

“Going over all the scenarios on the last day of the season, you get a headache just thinking about it. Could we get a three-team playoff? How do you figure out who plays who? Is it a round-robin? It was crazy trying to figure out what could happen,” Lynn continued. “The Red Sox and Yankees both took care of business. They were both on the ropes in Game No. 162, but they got it done. Now it’s a clean slate. Their best starter [New York’s Garrett Cole] versus our best starter [Boston’s Nathan Eovaldi].

“You hope someone gets a key hit and there’s not a defensive blunder that costs a chance to win,” said Lynn.

Speaking of Eovaldi, Lynn noticed something when the best starter on the 2021 Red Sox got roughed up for seven runs in 2.2 innings against the Yankees the last time he faced them 10 days ago at Fenway.

“The difference between him that day and the days I’ve seen him pitch well, he misses right in the middle of the plate. Those guys [meaning the Yankees] can hit fastballs,” said Lynn. “For Eovaldi to be effective, he’s got to have some off-speed pitches going. Otherwise, they’re going to hit him.”

Sizing up the ’78 Sox and the current group, Lynn noted there is a glaring difference.

“We were really good defensively, really good. This team is not. That’s a big gaping hole. They do not play good team defense. They’ve lost many a game because of physical and mental errors,” said Lynn. “Defense is a want-to proposition. You want to play solid defense. If your mind wanders, you’re not making plays that you could have made if you had been 100 percent concentrating on what you’re doing defensively.

“The Yankees don’t play great defense either,” said Lynn. “It looks like it’s going to come down to who out-bashes who.”

The curse-breaking ’04 group of Red Sox players helped to put to bed painful memories such as Dent and the Yankees coming into Fenway on an Oct. 1978 day and emerging with a 5-4 win. New York went on to win that year’s World Series. Given the set of circumstances on deck Tuesday evening, Lynn was asked if the 2021 Sox have a chance to atone for their ’78 brethren – at least in the one-game sense.

“I don’t think so. They went through the Yankees to win it all in 2004. Any type of exorcism was done at that point,” said Lynn. “I know I was happy for all of New England. I was tired of hearing about the Yankees beating the Red Sox.

“Now it’s a clean slate with two good teams playing for one game,” Lynn delved further. “We’ll just see what happens.”

Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03

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