Red Sox Archive 1967: The big inning started with a Lonborg bunt

The fourth in a season-long series of reflections on the 50th anniversary of the “Impossible Dream” Red Sox season of 1967.

For much of September that unforgettable year it was like the veritable calm before the storm, a lingering spell of uncertainty during which many dared not believe that what was happening was actually happening. Such had been the depths of this team’s long and dreary malaise. Bursts of hope mixed with lapses of brooding as the four-team pack at the top of the American League standings remained packed.

By mid-September, Tony Conigliaro had been declared lost for the duration, although he did wander by one day, and even tried some swings at soft batting-practice lobs before heading to the clubhouse to chat with his old mates. But it was awkward. In a brief encounter with Manager Williams, with whom he’d never been close, there was a discernible chill.   

Relentlessly true to form, Williams was pressing buttons furiously in near manic attempts to find a sustaining lineup that could meet his ever-mounting demands.  No one save Yaz, Lonnie, Adair, and maybe Reggie Smith seemed spared from his harsh judgments and occasional wrath as the suspicion among Knights of the Keyboard up in the press box rises that maybe he’s panicking himself,  squeezing his over-achieving troops too tightly. Meanwhile Owner Tom Yawkey, totally out of his shell, is giving interviews and declaring his team will never move while he’s in charge, no matter how long they’re “forced” [his word] to play in their old beat-up ballpark. Everyone cheers. The stage is set.  

With precisely two weeks and 14 games left, the Sox, tied for first with the Tigers and Twins and a game ahead of the White Sox, blunder horrendously by  getting swept by the totally-out-of-it Orioles. They score just five runs in three games in their own chummy ballpark, looking dead in the process.  It’s a lost weekend that clearly looks ruinous.

But the season’s governing pattern – just when things look bleakest they instantly revive – obtains again. In Detroit, trailing by a run with two gone in the ninth in their most vital game yet of the season, the by-now irrepressible Yastrzemski cranks a majestic homer to tie it, his 40th and arguably his lustiest. In the 10th, the often inscrutable Dalton Jones homers for the winner, dealing as well a near death-blow to the Tigers, who are staggering unquestionably. The Sox make it back home still very much viable for the last week, starting with the Indians who, as usual, are going nowhere.

Hapless, perhaps, but the Indians have pitching. They always have pitching. Luis Tiant – soon to be a Fenway favorite but not on that day – stones them, besting Gary Bell, 6-3. Williams then panics, asking the near-impossible of the near-matchless-all-season-long Lonborg on only two days of rest. It’s the implacable Stanford lad’s worst outing; he gets shelled in the second en route to a 6-0 whitewashing by Sonny Siebert. In the clubhouse afterwards, Gentleman Jim rages and Yaz skips early. Cracks are forming.

But once again, when things get darkest they almost instantly brighten. Just hours later, the moribund Royals sweep Eddie Stanky’s White Sox, effectively eliminating them. But the Tigers are still alive and the Twins are one up with two games left, both against Boston at Fenway.

All these years later the memory remains evergreen of a near perfect New England autumn weekend punctuated by moments one insists have never been surpassed in the long storied history of Boston baseball; not in 1912 for all its glorious legend, or 1975, its high drama not withstanding, nor even in 2004, no matter the merits of the argument.

When on Saturday they beat the Twins, 6-4, on a gutty Jose Santiago effort and another titanic three-run blast by the by now out of orbit Yaz, the stage was set for the grand finale, each team at 91-70.  Jim Lonborg against Dean Chance, young, stylish and rakish righthanders on top of the world, being both 20-game-winners and two of the AL’s best that season.  A classic was promised. At St. Eulalia’s Church in Winchester that morning, Father Fay began with a prayer seeking divine intercession on behalf of the Red Sox and the entire congregation rose and chimed in. The place was shaking.

Of course, it all came down to that one half-inning: last of the sixth, down 2-0, with Lonborg pitching terrific but Chance a tad luckier. Every wonderful detail of that immortal frame remains forever etched. And it began with a bunt.

Leading off, Lonnie takes note of Cesar Tovar playing deep at third so the ever-enterprising fellow promptly shortens up and drops the ball down the line and when he crosses first safely, the massive crowd (had to be at least 45,000 there) explodes into a colossal din that never dips the rest of the inning, rattling the Twins fiercely.  A little bunt lit the fuse.

Adair singles. So does Jones, bringing up Yaz, whose single screams to center, driving home Lonborg and Adair. Harrelson’s high-bouncing squib somehow confounds Versalles as Jones scores. Worthington replaces Chance and uncorks two wild pitches as Yaz scores. Smith’s liner hobbles Killebrew and Tartabull scores.

It’s 5-2 and while the Twins would have one last  gesture, which the valiant Lonborg gracefully withstands, it’s soon enough the ninth and Rico Petrocelli is circling under a high pop-up off the bat of Rich Rollins, praying for the thing to come down, and it does, right in his glove. Whereupon as Ned Martin artfully observes, “All hell is breaking loose on the ball field.”

At that point, there was the little matter of an ongoing Tigers-Angels game (a Detroit win would mean a one-game Red Sox-Tigers playoff for the pennant; but the Angels got the win) and, of course, the World Series yet to consider. But as the jubilant mob bore Lonborg and his mates off on their collective shoulders, it almost seemed irrelevant.

(To be continued)