Collapses down the September stretch, long a part of baseball lore, are increasing in intensity and frequency in the wild-card era.
The question, with the schedule in its final four weeks: Which team could go down in flames this time?
While the Atlanta Braves (National League East), Los Angeles Dodgers (NL West) and Detroit Tigers (American League Central) have seemingly wrapped up division titles, and the Boston Red Sox (AL East) are widening the gap on the Tampa Bay Rays, similar big leads have evaporated in recent years.
The AL West is down to a battle between the Texas Rangers and Oakland Athletics, while in the wild-card race, 4 1/2 games separated those two teams plus Tampa, the Baltimore Orioles, New York Yankees and Kansas City Royals, entering Wednesday’s action.
In the NL, the Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds are fighting for the Central Division title and the privilege of avoiding a one-game playoff that would decide the qualifier for the pennant chase as the wild-card entry.
The Washington Nationals and Arizona Diamondbacks are on the outside looking in, hoping to benefit from another team’s historic fall from grace – which has happened before:
The first year of wild-card play, the former California Angels established the template by starting September with a 7 1/2-game lead in the AL West, but lost 17 of 28 remaining games. The Seattle Mariners tied them on the final day of the season for the division title, and won a one-game playoff in Seattle. The Yankees overcame the Angels for the wild-card berth. The Mariners defeated the Yankees in the AL Division Series, before losing to the Cleveland Indians in the AL Championship Series. The Braves won the World Series.
The New York Mets had a seven-game lead with 17 to play, lost 12 of those, including the finale to the then-Florida Marlins, and barely reached their clubhouse in time to see the Philadelphia Phillies top Washington to claim the NL East title. “It’s going to be a long off-season,” third baseman David Wright said. “I don’t want to experience it again.”
Meanwhile, also in the NL, the Colorado Rockies won 14 of their final 15 games to catch San Diego and then defeat the Padres in a one-game playoff for the wild-card berth. The Rockies would advance to the World Series, losing to Boston.
Déjà vu for the Mets. “We’re all aware of what happened last year,” first baseman Carlos Delgado said after the New York managed to score five runs in their final series, again against the Marlins. The Mets had held a 3 1/2-game lead with 17 to play, and dropped 10 of them, again allowing the Phillies to sneak in. “We failed as a team,” Wright said. The Phillies defeated Tampa Bay for the World Series title.
With four games remaining, Detroit held a three-game lead over the Minnesota Twins in the AL Central. The Tigers lost three of the four, the Twins won all four and they went into a one-game playoff for the division title. Result: Twins 6, Tigers 5. The Yankees swept the exhausted Twins in the ALDS and went on to a World Series victory over the Phillies.
The Braves and Red Sox became, consecutively, the first two teams to blow leads of at least eight games in September for a playoff spot.
On Sept. 6, the Braves led the NL wild-card race by 8 1/2 but went 8-19 over their last 27 games as the Cardinals turned the table by mounting an 18-8 record in September. The Braves bowed out of the postseason with an extra-inning loss to the Phillies in the final game. “One of the worst feelings I’ve ever had coming off a baseball field,” catcher Brian McCann said.
In the AL East, the first-place Red Sox went 7-20 in September, as the Yankees and Rays lapped them for the division title and wild-card playoff berths, respectively. On Sept. 3, the BoSox had a nine-game lead over Tampa for the wild-card spot but lost six of seven games during the month to the Rays. Overall, the pitching staff surrendered more than six runs per game over the final month. Red Sox manager Terry Francona, blamed for lax clubhouse behaviour, would be fired. “Playing in Boston, you’re required to play your tail off every day to try to win ballgames for this city,” second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. “That’s what hurt so much as a player, that we not only let each other down in the clubhouse, but we let the city down.”
The Cardinals won the World Series, defeating Texas.
With nine games left to play, Texas had a five-game lead over the Oakland in its quest for a third consecutive AL West title. But on the final day of the regular season, centre fielder Josh Hamilton dropped a routine fly ball to spark an A’s comeback and sweep a three-game series against the Rangers. The dispirited Rangers went to the inaugural one-game play-in against Baltimore and lost. “It shows anything can happen in a long season,” Rangers ace Yu Darvish said.