Last month, the MLB experienced two of the biggest collapses in baseball history by the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays.
On September 1, 2011, the Boston Red Sox were in sole possession of the AL East lead, a half-game ahead of the New York Yankees and nine games ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays for the American League Wild Card. In the National League, the Atlanta Braves possessed an eight and a half-game lead on the St. Louis Cardinals for the wild card. The Braves and Red Sox were sitting pretty one month away from the playoffs.
However, the Rays and Cardinals both battled back and overtook the Red Sox and Braves, respectively, for the final two playoff spots. The races culminated with emotional final games by all four teams.
“I can barely breathe, to be honest with you. It doesn’t seem real,” Evan Longoria of the Tampa Bay Rays said after his team came back from a seven-run deficit to beat the New York Yankees. To start the eighth inning, the score was 7-0 Yankees, and the Tampa Bay Rays’ wild ride had seemed to run its course.
But seasoned veteran DH Johnny Damon, an offseason addition to the Rays, led off the eighth with a single, breathing new life into his team and reinvigorating Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. The hit by Damon set the foundation for what would be a seven-run rally by the Rays.
Then the Rays, once again with their backs against the wall, down to their last out of the season, called on lowly Dan Johnson to pinch hit and save the franchise’s season. Johnson channelled his inner Bill Buckner as he slammed the ball into the right field stands, evening the score at 7-7. The Rays sealed their post-season fate when the face of their franchise, Evan Longoria, hit a walk-off bomb in the bottom of the twelfth inning.
Longoria’s feeling of disbelief was shared by all Red Sox fans, though in a slightly different light, after their team collapsed in the month of September. The Sox capped off their dismal month with a disheartening loss against the Baltimore Orioles in which their blue chip closer, Jonathan Papelbon, couldn’t seal the deal against the AL’s worst team. The Red Sox’s September implosion was, in a word, incredible: the team with the most stacked line-up in baseball clocked a 7-20 record in the month.
The fact that a team comfortably leading the wild card race going in to the final month of play imploded as spectacularly as the Sox did is incredible. A collapse of this sort could be attributed, just like every other Red Sox failure, to some type of curse; however, a 7-20 September record is no curse (for reference, that month would put them on pace to lose 120 games over a full season).
Rather, the record is the fault of the team as a whole and changes are sure to be made, starting with the skipper. On Friday, September 13, the Boston front office announced that manager Terry Francona and the Sox will go their separate ways. Francona talks about the reason for his departure from the team: “I wanted desperately for our guys to care about each other on the field. I wasn’t seeing that as much as I wanted to. When things go bad, your true colors show and I was bothered by what was showing. It’s my responsibility.” Francona took his effective firing like a consummate gentleman, calling for fresh blood to rejuvenate the franchise.
The second best (or worst) collapse of the season was the breakdown of the Atlanta Braves in the NL Wild Card. The Atlanta Braves led the NL wild card by a whopping eight and a half games over the St. Louis Cardinals going in to September. After floundering early in the month, the Braves faced a daunting final game of the season with the wild card spot on the line.
They were matched up against the number one seed in the NL, the “dream team” Philadelphia Phillies. Playing for the most wins in a season in franchise history, the Phillies were determined to eliminate their division rivals from NL wild card contention. Flash forward to the top of the ninth. With the Phillies down one run with only two outs remaining, Chase Utley, the Phils’ starting second baseman, hit a sacrifice fly to score the runner from third, tying the game at three runs apiece.
Braves fans everywhere were heart-broken when, in the top of the thirteenth, the Phillies score the go-ahead run before holding the Braves scoreless in the bottom of the inning, ensuring Atlanta would not participate in the playoffs. The collapse capped off a devastating September for the Braves, in which they sported a 9-18 record, a .235 batting average, and a staff ERA of 4.25.
In contrast to Atlanta’s late-season batting troubles, the St. Louis Cardinals led the National League with a formidable .293 team batting average. With no contract talks distracting all-star first basemen Albert Pujols and the rest of the Cardinals, Pujols put the team on his back; the slugger hit .363 with 19 RBI’s in the month of September to lead the Cardinals to an 18-8 record with 4.8 runs scored per game.
The Cardinals made their entrance into the playoffs easy in the season finale when starting pitcher Chris Carpenter, seasoned veteran of thirteen years and the recipient of the 2005 NL Cy Young, threw a complete game shutout against the Houston Astros, winners of a paltry fifty-six games in 2011. The win, paired with the Braves’ loss, sealed the NL wild card for the St. Louis Cardinals who finished with a 90-72 record.
This has been a crazy last few weeks leading up to the greatest ending to the season in baseball history. We can only hope for the playoffs to be as exhilarating as the last day of the 2011 season turned out to be.