Move over, 2007 New York Mets. You now have some company.
Four years after the Mets endured what was then the worst September swoon in major league baseball history, the 2011 versions of the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves simultaneously completed their own colossal collapses of historic proportions on the final evening of the regular season on Wednesday.
On a night when baseball truly put the “wild” in “wild-card,” the Red Sox and Braves were eliminated from the playoffs after each held what appeared to be earlier insurmountable leads in their respective wild-card playoff chases.
One day before seeing his team lose its hold for good on its playoff aspirations, Boston manager Terry Francona said of the Red Sox’ chase with the Tampa Bay Rays’ down the stretch, “It’s great for baseball, not so good for my stomach.”
If he was already feeling that way on Tuesday, Francona probably wanted to throw up after witnessing the manner in which his team finally coughed up what at one time, seemed to be a certain postseason berth.
The same could probably be assumed for Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez, who took over for Bobby Cox this season after Gonzalez’s predecessor managed the Braves (during his second stint with the franchise) for 21 straight seasons while guiding Atlanta to 14 division titles, five World Series appearances, but just a lone World Series title.
Before Boston bowed out, Atlanta first concluded its own demise.
With the St. Louis Cardinals already having beaten up on the Astros, 8-0, in Houston, the Braves needed to win to force a one-game playoff with the team that had amazingly caught them in the wild-card standings.
After a pre-game pep-talk from 39-year-old starting third baseman Chipper Jones (the only remaining member from the Braves’ 1995 world championship team), the Braves and 16-game winner Tim Hudson led the National League eastern division champion Philadelphia Phillies, 3-1, entering the seventh inning at home. But a double, a single, and a one-out fielding error trimmed the Braves’ lead to 3-2.
Atlanta still figured to be in decent shape though, with hard-throwing closer Craig Kimbrel starting the ninth inning, especially since Kimbrel was tied for the NL lead in saves and had set the all-time record for saves by a rookie (he played in only 21 games in 2010) with 46 this season.
But, Kmbrel, who admitted after the game that his mind “was rushing” due to the pressure of the situation, allowed a shallow single and consecutive one-out walks before giving up a game-tying sacrifice fly to Phillies’ star second baseman Chase Utley, The wildness was rare, considering Kimbrel had walked just 30 batters while striking out 127 in 76 previous innings this season.
Meanwhile, the punchless Braves, who scored just seven runs while losing their final five games of the season, were unable to push across another run after the third inning.
On it went, deep into the Atlanta night, four more Brave relievers after Kimbrel left the game, and into the top of the 13th inning, when a weak, two-out single by right fielder Hunter Pence gave the Phillies the lead for good, 4-3.
A short while later, the Braves’ season was done as Cardinal players watching on television in their clubhouse in Houston, popped champagne corks.
As tough as that was for Braves’ fans to take, it was nothing compared to the stomach-churning events that were unfolding for the Red Sox Nation in Baltimore and St. Petersburg.
Boston was in the same predicament in the American League wild-card pursuit as Atlanta was in the NL, having seen the Tampa Bay Rays storm back to tie the Red Sox in the wild-card standings heading into Wednesday.
However, even a loss to the Baltimore Orioles could be endured for one more day if the Rays would also lose to the AL eastern division champion New York Yankees.
For a good while, all seemed perfect for the Red Sox to be in position to salvage their season and keep it from slipping away.
The Rays trailed the Yankees 7-0 in the bottom of the eighth inning, at home, and the Red Sox had rallied from a 2-1 deficit to lead the Orioles, 3-2 in the fifth inning.
But, miraculously, the Rays countered with a 6-run, eighth-inning uprising to set the stage for even further drama later.
Incredibly, seldom-used pinch-hitter Dan Johnson, a career .235 hitter, batting just .119 this season, smacked only his second home run of the season – his first since April 8th and only his ninth over the past four seasons – with the Rays down to their last strike, to send the game to extra innings, tied 7-7.
While that was going in Florida, similar to the Braves’ situation, the Red Sox had their closer – Jonathan Papelbon, one of baseball’s best closers over the past six years – pitching the ninth inning with a 3-2 lead, something that would have appeared to be safe against the last-place, 93-loss Orioles.
It should also be noted that Boston had never lost in 76 previous tries this season when leading after the eighth inning.
So naturally, on a crazy night, it became time for Papelbon (4-1, 31 saves) to lose his only game of the season.
One strikeout. Then another. Two quick outs, and then two strikes, with no one on base.
No problem. Even if the Rays pull off the improbable, the Red Sox would still beat the Orioles and force a one-game playoff, right?
Inexplicably, what followed was three straight hits – back-to-back doubles and a single – by a trio of hitters, all average career hitters at best, none of whom hit any higher than .263 this year.
A short time later, the Red Sox’ nightmare was finally over when Rays’ star third baseman Evan Longoria barely put a screaming lined drive over the left field wall and inside the left field foul pole in the bottom of the 12th inning, to send Tampa Bay to the playoffs and mercifully end Boston’s monumental meltdown.
Of course, any team can, and often does, have many single nights like the Red Sox and Braves suffered on Wednesday night. But, the significance of those two losses lies in that they represented each team’s last-gasp chances to right respective ships that had gone horribly and unexpectedly off-course in such a relatively short time.
Not long ago, the Red Sox had the second-best record in MLB. Through August, they were 83-52 and as many believed, destined to meet the Yankees in this year’s ALCS.
But, the Red Sox finished the season 5-16, going 7-20 in September.
How improbable was Boston’s collapse?
Coolstandings.com shows that following Boston’s 12-7 win over Texas on September 3rd, the Red Sox, who led the Rays by nine games in the AL wild-card race, had a season-high 99.6 percent chance of reaching the playoffs: http://www.coolstandings.com/baseball_team.asp?id=BOS&sn=2011.
Even as recently as last Sunday, Boston still had an 88.4 percent of making the postseason.
And, as shown by statistician Nate Silver, the Rays overcame the inconceivable combined odds of 278 million-to-one, taking into account their nine-game deficit and then everything that had to go wrong, going wrong the way it did for Boston on the last day of the regular season:
The Braves’ implosion was no easier for them, or their fans to stomach (to use a term that would draw a parallel to how Francona felt about his own team).
Shockingly, Atlanta broke the Mets’ record for choking (staying with Francona’s indigestion theme) only moments before the Red Sox broke the Braves’ record for giving up a September playoff chase lead.
Atlanta led St. Louis by 10½ games on August 26th, and by 8½ games on the morning of September 6th. Coolstandings listed the Braves as having a 98.2 percent chance of making the playoffs at that point: http://www.coolstandings.com/baseball_team.asp?id=ATL&sn=2011.
Following a 5-2 win over Washington on September 1st, the Braves were a season-high 26 games over .500 (81-55) before finishing the season 8-18.
Recalling the events of four years ago, Met fans can relate all too well to what fans of the Red Sox and Braves just went through.
It was of course their own team, one year after coming within a hit or two from making the World Series (while losing the 2006 NLCS in heartbreaking fashion, to St. Louis, in seven games), that blew a seven-game lead with 17 games to play, to miss the playoffs – like Boston and Atlanta this year – on the regular season’s final day.
The Mets stumbled to a 5-12 finish that season while the Phillies concluded with a hot 13-4 stretch to edge New York by a game for the NL East title.
Coolstandings shows the Mets had a 99.5 percent chance of being a playoff team prior to beginning their own historic fall in 2007: http://www.coolstandings.com/baseball_team.asp?sn=2007&id=NYM.
So, perhaps Mets, Red Sox, and Braves fans can all unite in some sort of collective September Slide therapy group.
On one hand, Met fans can now find solace in the fact that it wasn’t just their team blowing a lead of at least seven games in the season’s final month.
And, in return, fans in Boston and Atlanta can take heart knowing that unless something similar happens to their teams again next year, Met fans still have them beat when it comes to stumbling in September.
In 2008, the Phillies once again caught the Mets for the NL East crown, that time, after trailing New York by 3½ games in September, thus giving New York a distinction which no other team holds (not even Boston or Atlanta… yet) – the worst consecutive September collapses in baseball history.
And, here’s one final nugget for fans of all three teams to discuss at their group remedial sessions…
Ironically waving around the winning run that ended the Red Sox’ season on Wednesday night, was none other than Orioles’ third base coach Willie Randolph, the Mets’ manager in 2007, and for the first 69 games the following year, before he was fired in 2008.