The year 'Louisiana Lightning' lit up the Bronx

Remembering Guidry's dominant 1978 season four decades later

June 14th, 2018

The 1978 season was filled with so many peaks and valleys for the Yankees, who gave new meaning to the words "Bronx Zoo."
Throughout the chaos, one man stood out as a beacon of consistency for a team in desperate need of stability, putting together one of the greatest seasons any starting pitcher has ever had.
Ron Guidry.
The lanky left-hander went 25-3 with a 1.74 ERA in 35 starts, unanimously winning the American League Cy Young Award. His dominance on the mound helped the Yankees mount a memorable second-half comeback, erasing a 14-game deficit in the AL East to force a one-game, winner-take-all matchup against the rival Red Sox.
Naturally, Guidry -- nicknamed "Gator" or "Louisiana Lightning" -- started that game at Fenway Park, doing his part to get the Yankees back to the postseason to defend their World Series title.
"There were so many things going on during that season," Guidry said. "In 1977 and 1978, there was a lot of turmoil in those years. I just felt like I needed to do a good job whenever I went out there, because of the way the season progressed."
The peak of that 1978 season arguably came on June 17, when Guidry set a Yankees record (that still stands) with 18 strikeouts in a 4-0 shutout of the Angels. The club is honoring the 40th anniversary of that game (and season) tonight, by giving away Guidry bobbleheads. Four decades later, Guidry recounts his magical season as if it just ended last week. The ease with which he recalls each game, each batter, is impressive, though the 67-year-old laughs at the mention of his remarkable memory.
"You guys talk about it all the time," Guidry said. "I'm not able to forget it; you guys keep reminding me about it!"
As good as Guidry was in 1978, the seeds of that season were planted the previous summer. Manager Billy Martin moved Guidry from the bullpen into the rotation in mid-May 1977 -- a role that immediately suited the southpaw.
Guidry had his ups and downs during his first three months after the move, but he went on a seven-start streak during the final part of the season that saw him go 7-0 with a 1.02 ERA, five complete games and three shutouts.
Two complete-game victories in three postseason starts -- including a gem in the World Series to help the Yankees win their first title since 1962 -- was the icing on top for Guidry, who finished the season 16-7 with a rotation-best 2.82 ERA in his rookie season.
"You've learned how to become that No. 1 starter, so when you start the next season, you pitch as the No. 1 starter," Guidry said. "Everything reverts back to the year before. I was still thinking the same way in '78 about how it wound up in '77."
Guidry picked up right where he left off when 1978 started, going 7-0 with a 1.88 ERA through the end of May. Thanks largely to Guidry's efforts, the Yankees were hanging around the top of the division.
Those numbers improved to 10-0, and by mid-June, it was obvious that Guidry was having a special season. Still, nobody could have foreseen what would take place in his next outing.
Guidry established a new franchise record with his 18-strikeout performance against the Angels, twirling his third consecutive complete game and his fifth in six starts.
"That was the first game all year that I actually thought I didn't have anything," Guidry said. "When I left the bullpen, I asked Sparky [Lyle], 'When was the earliest you've ever been in a game? I don't have very much.' He said, 'Just keep battling. You're too good for it not to come at some point. I'm not planning to go in until the ninth inning -- if I go in at all.'"

Lyle knew what he was talking about. Guidry had 11 strikeouts through five innings, delighting the crowd. As the night went on, fans began standing every time he got two strikes on a batter, encouraging their pitcher to get another punchout. He responded time and time again, fanning three more Angels in the sixth and one each in the seventh and eighth. Little did Guidry know that a tradition was born on that historic night.
"I'm the one that started all that stuff," Guidry said. "When I was actually pitching, it was more of a distant roar, because you learn to tune all of that out. When you're tuned into something else, you don't really pay attention to whatever is going on. I would think about the batter; what I'm going to throw, how I pitched him the last time. I had so many things in my mind, I didn't listen to what was going on around me."
Guidry had a chance to tie Nolan Ryan's AL record of 19 strikeouts, but after he fanned the first two hitters in the ninth, he gave up a single to Don Baylor before retiring Ron Jackson on a grounder to end the game.
"Pitchers throw pitches over the plate and try to make the best pitches they can; hitters are guessing," Guidry said. "Every time I'd throw a pitch right down the middle, they would take it. When I'd throw one away from the plate, they would swing. Every time they would guess, they guessed wrong."
Guidry's starts had essentially become automatic wins, but the Yankees struggled on the other days. Despite a 15-1 record in Guidry's first 16 starts, the team finished June at 43-32; when anyone besides Guidry started a game, the Yankees were 28-31.
"For me, being the No. 1 guy on the staff, I'm just trying to do the best job that I can do every time I go out there, because I know how much the team depended on me," Guidry said. "As you're going through the season, it's just magnified. Reporters were telling me, 'You've probably already locked up the Cy Young Award.' I was like, 'Dude, we've got three more months to go.'"
One of the Yankees' biggest problems was supposed to have been one of their greatest strengths.
Despite the presence of Lyle, the 1977 AL Cy Young Award winner, in the bullpen, the Yankees signed Rich "Goose" Gossage as a free agent, adding the most imposing reliever in the game to their staff.
But Gossage had five blown saves and seven losses out of the bullpen by the end of June, causing some teammates to lose trust in the big right-hander.
"Billy Martin came out one night to check and see how I was doing," Guidry said. "I was winning, 2-1, Goose is warming up in the bullpen, and before Billy said a word, I looked at him and said, 'I'm telling you right now, if you take me out of this game and you bring that guy into this game, the next time I pitch, I'm going to throw one pitch and fake an injury. Until he starts getting guys out, I'll finish my own games.'"
Who could blame him?
It wasn't until July 7 that Guidry finally took his first loss of the season, a 6-0 clunker in Milwaukee.
"You don't mind losing those, because there's nothing you could have done that day that would have made it different. You just got your butt beat," Guidry said. "The next game I lost [on Aug. 4], I lost, 2-1, to Baltimore; that's the one that haunts me. I think about that one often. I was up, 1-0, going into the seventh inning and gave up a two-run homer to Doug DeCinces, who hit me well. That's the game you think about."
Guidry was the ultimate stopper; after taking the mound on Opening Day, 22 of his 34 subsequent starts came on the heels of a Yankees loss. The Yankees were 19-3 in those games -- a key reason the club was able to overcome the 14-game deficit it faced in mid-July.
"For the team, every time that I'd take the mound, they would look at me knowing we were going to win," Guidry said. "They knew all they had to do was score one or two runs and the game was over, because that's how well I was pitching. I never thought about what I was actually doing in terms of me having a great year; it was about the impact I was having on my team."
The Yankees seized sole possession of first place on Sept. 13, and they remained there until the final day of the season. But when the 162-game schedule was over, the Yanks and Red Sox were tied at 99-63, sending the rivals to a one-game battle for the division title. Guidry, who was 24-3 with a 1.72 ERA, would take the ball with the season on the line.

"A lot of guys have said it was the most nerve-wracking game they had ever played in," Guidry said. "I never at any moment of the day felt like the world would end if we didn't win. I went out with the same philosophy as always: do the best job that I can do."
Boston scored against Guidry in the second and sixth innings, taking a 2-0 lead into the seventh. Bucky Dent's two-out, three-run homer gave the Yankees a lead -- part of a four-run seventh that sent Guidry back to the hill with a two-run cushion.
"They were going to have to score off me or Goose to win that game," Guidry said.
Guidry handed the ball to Gossage with one out in the seventh, then Reggie Jackson's solo shot in the eighth stretched the lead to three runs. The Red Sox scored twice against Gossage in the bottom of that inning, but the future Hall of Famer closed it out in the ninth, retiring fellow Cooperstown inductees Jim Rice and Carl Yastrzemski with the tying run in scoring position.
Guidry was credited with the win, his 25th, capping one of the best seasons any pitcher has had in the modern era.
The Yankees would successfully defend their title, beating the Royals in four games in the best-of-five AL Championship Series before dispatching the Dodgers in six games for the second straight year to capture another World Series.
Guidry pitched 10 more seasons with the Yankees, finishing his career with a 170-91 record, a 3.29 ERA, four All-Star appearances and two World Series rings. His numbers fell short of Cooperstown consideration, but his No. 49 was retired by the Yankees in 2003 -- the ultimate honor in the Bronx.

Guidry spent two years (2006-07) as the Yankees' pitching coach under Joe Torre, and although he wasn't brought back when Joe Girardi took over in '08, "Gator" remains a staple of the team's Spring Training as a guest instructor. Forty years after the greatest year of his career, Guidry still enjoys hearing his teammates talk about that season. It's not an ego thing for the lefty; he truly seems to appreciate what his performances meant to the entire team that year, especially when he hears it from the men with whom he shared a field.
"I've always been most happy when the guys that I played with tell stories about what it was like playing behind me," Guidry said. "Someone once asked Mickey Rivers what it was like playing behind me. He said, 'I don't know why I ever bring my glove out there.'
"Hearing your teammates tell you what they thought about you, that's rewarding."