The Top 15 Most Memorable Pennant Race Collapses in Baseball History
With the Major League Baseball regular season winding down, the time is ripe for a good, solid September/October collapse.
With the two wild cards format starting this year, this could become an increasingly common event for teams in both conferences. As it stands right now, Baltimore/New York and Atlanta are the runaway leaders in the American League wild card race, with the National League's is still up in the air.
Regardless of what year it is, there's always a clubhouse that seems to wilt under the pressure of a 162-game season, and after leading the division the whole way, lose a game or two here and there and start to slow down in the final month. Or they drink too much beer and eat an apparently alarming amount of fried chicken in the clubhouse, but that'll come later.
Let's take a look back at the top 15 most memorable pennant collapses starting from the oldest, because let's face it, most of us weren't even alive when some of these happened.
1951 Brooklyn Dodgers
On August 11, 1951, the Los Angeles Dodgers held a large 13.5 game lead and appeared to be cruising towards the pennant. Then the New York Giants happened.
Not only did the Giants go 37-7 overall, but they won 16 in a row at one point, forcing a three-game playoff despite losing the last game (potential-clinching) of the season 10-0.
After they split the first two games, the Giants rallied behind Bobby Thomson, who smacked a three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth to give the Giants a 5-4 victory. Check out the win probability chart at bottom: total collapse epitomized in a picture.
Because of that play, Giants' fans will never forget Russ Hodges' voice screaming "I don't believe it, I don't believe it, I don't believe it," as Thomson sprints across home plate and into the nightmares of every Dodger fan.
1962 Los Angeles Dodgers
One of most legendary pitchers in Dodger lore, Sandy Koufax, was unable to stem another collapse, this time to the Giants of San Francisco.
Paired along with Don Drysdale, the Dodgers again seemed to cruise to another pennant, but unexpectedly lost a four-game lead with ten games to go starting September 22. They lost eight of their next ten, including their last four and found themselves in another three-game playoff for the pennant.
No Robby Thomson miracle this time, but this time the Giants found a way to score four runs in the top of the ninth to take a 6-4 lead (winning runs by Matty Alou and Willie Mays) and ultimately win. Once again, we take a look at a picture that screams a thousand words.
Even though the Dodgers would go home losers again, they can take solace knowing the Giants did go on and lose the World Series to the New York Yankees.
1964 Philadelphia Phillies
Keeping with teams going on massive losing streaks, the Phillies, up 6.5 games on Sept. 21, 1964 with 12 games to play, somehow lost ten straight, letting the St. Louis Cardinals steal the pennant.
The most embarrassing part is that the Phillies had three chances to deal the Cardinals a death blow, giving not only themselves a chance but the Cincinnati Reds as well in a three-team playoff. However, that never occurred because the Cardinals won the series to cap the worst collapse in Philadelphia history.
Also known as the Phold, the Phillies never fully recovered and ended up not making the playoffs until 1976. Before that, they only made the elimination round in 1915 and 1950.
Suffice to say, this collapse was not met kindly by the well-known tough-love fans in Philly.
1978 Boston Red Sox
The Bucky Dent homer. Red Sox fans will never forget this one.
The Boston Red Sox, like many chokers, were cruising mid-season and led the division by a whopping 14 games, until the hated rival Yankees ran off a historic 52-21 run. Even though the Yankees were hot, the Red Sox essentially controlled their own destiny, and that they did, going on to "win" 24 of their next 52 and falling into a tie for first place.
Then the one-game divisional playoff was decided when Bucky Dent and Reggie Jackson helped propel the Yankees to the playoffs. Not a good season to remember, and we'll see the Red Sox again later in the list.
1987 Toronto Blue Jays
The Toronto Blue Jays decided to buck the trend in this slideshow, choosing to keep it rather close throughout the season and choke their lead in the very last week, holding a 3.5 game lead with only seven to play.
The Blue Jays then lost the rest of their games, and like the Phillies in 1964, lost three directly to their closest competition, the Detroit Tigers. What made this one even worse was the way they lost each game by only one run. Certainly painful when considering they now play in the toughest division in the Major Leagues and may not be sniffing the playoffs anytime soon, even with the two Wild Cards.
1993 San Francisco Giants
In Barry Bonds' first year as a Giant, he had a mustache. That wasn't the only thing that went wrong for the Giants.
On July 22, they led the Atlanta Braves by ten games, but the Braves were in the midst of a 49-16 stretch that also saw them go 28-9 at one point. Combine that with the Giants stumbling to a 20-18 finish, and the recipe for failure was set.
The Giants won three in a row, then lost to the Dodgers, while the Braves won, making the Giants one game short. 103 wins, a third MVP from Barry Bonds, an excellent pitching staff led by John Burkett, Bill Swift, and super-closer Rod Beck, and the Giants were unable to capitalize and unfortunately sent home.
So far, Dodgers 2, Giants 1.
1995 California Angels
In 1995, one of the worst player lockouts occurred when the 1994 World Series was cancelled. When play finally resumed with wild card teams added to each conference, the California Angels were ready to go and came out strong. By the end of the season they probably wished the player lockout went on longer.
On August 9, the Angels led both the Texas Rangers and Mariners by 11 games. After a very deep 18-31 slide, they found themselves in a tie with the Seattle Mariners, who went 30-19, causing a near flip-flop in the standings.
The one-game playoff still gave the Angels a chance, but it felt like they were just going through the motions, losing 9-1 despite having their best pitcher (pictured above) Mark Langston on the mound. Langston pitched strongly into the bottom of the seventh, only down 1-0, but proceeded to allow four runs and hand Lou Piniella's Mariners the division.
1996 Los Angeles Dodgers
This season was especially noteworthy when the Los Angeles Dodgers were hit with the traumatic news that their manager, Tommy Lasorda, had experienced a heart attack.
However, the Dodgers played well in his absence, even taking a two-game lead with three to play and sitting pretty after winning two of three against their rivals, the San Francisco Giants. All they needed to do then was win a game against the second-place San Diego Padres and... haven't we seen this play out before?
Once again, a division leader lost their lead in the worst way possible, failing to close out the division against their closest competitor. After losing the first two 5-2, and 4-2 respectively, they headed into the last one needing a win. Going into a scoreless game in the eleventh, Chan Ho Park gave up an RBI hit to Chris Gwynn.
Dodgers 3, Giants 1.
2007 San Diego Padres
After winning the National League West in back-to-back seasons, the San Diego Padres were looking for a three-peat. With aces Jake Peavy, Chris Young, the ageless Greg Maddux and a shutdown bullpen led by Scott Linebrink and Trevor Hoffman, they looked to be on their way.
Despite a mediocre offense at best, they were able to hang on into the final weekend, with a one-game lead over the Colorado Rockies. All they had to do was win a single game, but failed to do so, losing both games when the great Trevor Hoffman blew his sixth save of the season. This was a precursor for things to come.
In the one-game playoff classic against the Rockies, Trevor Hoffman blew yet another save after Scott Hairston bombed a two-run homer to give them an 8-6 lead.
Here we can see what truly happened.
In the thin air of Colorado, Hoffman was unable to get a single swing and miss.
Padres fans can take solace in the fact that Rockies went on to lose to the Boston Red Sox in the World Series.
2007 New York Mets
Collapsing in San Diego, or even San Francisco is one thing. Somehow finding a way to choke in one of the most high-pressure places in the world is another. The 2007 New York Mets managed to pull this off after holding a seven-game lead on September 12.
Not only did they go 5-12 in their last 17 games but it got worse when the Phillies were able to get in on the last day.
The worst part is how the Mets lost, with Tom Glavine and Pedro Martinez combining for three of their last six losses in a 1-6 homestand. However, with budding young star David Wright, the future was still bright in New York. They could make the playoffs next year, right?
2008 New York Mets
Here we are again.
Manager Willie Randolph was lucky to survive the New York pressure-cooker in 2007, but was not as lucky this time, losing his job midway through the season.
The Mets' record when Randolph was fired: 34-35.
The Mets' record on September 10: 82-63 and 3.5 games up on the Phillies.
The Mets' record on September 28 : 89-73 and losing the division by three games.
Once again, they found themselves looking up at the Phillies and searching for answers in the offseason. Unlike the previous year, they slowly lost the lead and were unable to do anything about it. They haven't been anywhere close to the playoffs since.
2009 Detroit Tigers
The 2009 Detroit Tigers held first place in the American League Central for 142 days combined throughout the regular season.
With ace Justin Verlander, Edwin Jackson and surprise starter Rick Porcello, they were able to hold a three-game lead with four to play after Verlander beat the Minnesota Twins. So of course, the Tigers lost the next three games and had to pitch Verlander on short rest just to reach a one-game playoff with the Twins.
Porcello pitched beautifully in the one-game playoff but Fernando Rodney (currently having one of the greatest seasons for a reliever for the Rays in 2012) gave up the winning run on an RBI single by Alexi Casilla.
Another bit of history shows that this is the first time a team has lost a three-game lead with four to play.
2010 San Diego Padres
On August 25, 2010, the San Diego Padres were riding one of the greatest underdog seasons in recent memory, going 76-49 with a 6.5-game lead in the National League West.
With nary a superstar in the line-up outside of Adrian Gonzalez and no ace pitcher outside of Mat Latos, they found ways to keep winning with ground-ball pitchers like Clayton Richard and a lockdown bullpen that relied heavily on closer Heath Bell.
Unfortunately, after that day the Padres were never the same, losing ten in a row, and finding themselves three back of the San Francisco Giants going into their place. They won the first two and went into the third needing to win to cause a one-game playoff.
With their best pitcher Latos on the mound, the Padres were confident, but the Giants No. 4 starter Jonathan Sanchez not only shut down the Padres, but also hit a triple and scored on a Freddy Sanchez single.
The Giants went on to win the World Series because of their excellent pitching and timely hitting. There's no saying what the Padres could have done if they had gotten in.
2011 Atlanta Braves
Beware: We are about to embark on the craziest dual collapse in baseball history.
The Braves entered September with a 7.5-game lead for the wild card. ahead of the St Louis Cardinals.
With stud pitchers Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens and Brandon Beachy, coupled with an explosive offense led by Brian McCann, they were well on their way to securing another playoff appearance.
Then the bullpen, superb throughout the season, finally wore down, as Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel pitched poorly down the stretch.
It culminated in Kimbrel blowing a save against the Phillies and losing in the 13th, while the Cardinals beat the Astros, capping a stunning collapse in which the Braves went 9-18 and their counterparts 18-8.
Much was made about the bullpen management by manager Fredi Gonzalez, and that led to its lighter treatment in 2012. Not all the blame can be pointed to the bullpen, however, as Jason Heyward had a down year after a stellar rookie season.
Not to worry, because misery loves company, and there would be plenty more on the East Coast.
2011 Boston Red Sox
What's coming next will seem improbable, but it happened. The best team in all of Major League Baseball going into September would not even make the playoffs, and then have to fire their manager because of fried chicken and beer.
The Red Sox went 7-20 in September, saw the Yankees pass them, and went into the last day still having a small chance depending on the Yankees beating the wild card-leading Rays. The games started well as the Yanks went up 7-0 and the Red Sox, despite all their issues, had Jonathan Papelbon to close out the lowly Orioles in the bottom of the ninth.
And then the Rays came back and won on an Evan Longoria walk-off homer, and after a Robert Andino bloop single, the Red Sox season came crashing down.
The worst part of the collapse is how it has melted into the next season, with the Red Sox starting slow yet again in 2012 and finally holding a fire-sale: ridding themselves of Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett.
One of the wildest days in baseball history.