20 Biggest MLB Pennant-Race Choke Jobs of All Time

Rick Weiner@RickWeinerNYFeatured ColumnistAugust 24, 2012

20 Biggest MLB Pennant-Race Choke Jobs of All Time

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    It happens every season.

    A team gets out to a big lead, one that looks insurmountable. Then you look at the calendar and say to yourself "yeah, it might only be Aug. 24, but that 10-game lead sure seems solid to me."

    You aren't the only one to say that—while they'll never publicly admit it, managers and players let those thoughts enter their minds as well.

    But time-and-time again, a team either gets red-hot and comes out of nowhere to make a run at a division crown, the prohibitive favorite goes into a tailspin or some combination of the two works together to give fans exciting pennant-race baseball down the stretch.

    Whether you want to call it a comeback, a collapse or a failure of epic proportions, one thing is for sure—there is always a winner and a loser, and someone's going home upset.

    Which teams couldn't handle the pressure as the season drew to a close?

    Let's take a look.

1914 New York Giants

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    The New York Giants ended July 1914 with a 52-35 record, a three-and-a-half game lead over their competition, and a 33-year-old pitcher named Christy Mathewson leading the way. Things were looking good at the Polo Grounds.

    Until the rest of the season hit.

    The Giants would proceed to play under .500 baseball, going 32-35 from August through October while the Braves would post an incredible 50-14 record over the same time period, not only erasing the Giants' lead, but eventually winning the pennant by nearly 11 games before defeating the Philadelphia Athletics in the World Series.

1934 New York Giants

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    With 21 games remaining on their schedule, the Giants were sitting pretty atop the National League with an 85-47 record and a seven-game lead over the Cardinals on Sept. 6, 1934.

    Playing first base and managing the team, Bill Terry did everything he could in both positions to keep the Giants atop the league, but the club lost 13 of their last 21 games.

    At the same time, the Cardinals, who had two games in hand, went on an 18-5 tear to end the season, passing the Giants in the standings on the next-to-last day of the regular season.

1938 Pittsburgh Pirates

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    With a young shortstop named Arky Vaughn and the Waner brothers in the outfield, the Pittsburgh Pirates started September 1938 off with a shutout of the New York Giants and a seven-game lead over the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds.

    Alas, the lead was not to be held as the Bucs would go 12-16 to end the season, including a pivotal three-game sweep at the hands of the Cubs, a series that featured Gabby Hartnett's famous "homer in the gloamin'."

    Pittsburgh would finish in second place, two games behind the Cubs.

1942 Brooklyn Dodgers

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    With a 10-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals and sitting with a 73-30 record on Aug. 5, 1942, the Dodgers looked to be a safe bet to repeat as National League champions. Just over a week later on Aug. 14, their lead was still a healthy nine games with 44 left to play.

    The Dodgers would post a 24-20 record from that point forward, including a 9-1 record over their last 10 games which included an eight-game winning streak to end the season.

    However, it wasn't enough to stop the Cardinals from gaining ground and eventually passing them in the standings, posting an amazing 38-6 record over their final 44 games.

    Brooklyn's 104-50 record on the season represents the most regular season wins by a non-playoff team in baseball history.

1951 Brooklyn Dodgers

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    While the result of the Dodgers' collapse in 1951 was one of the most iconic calls by a broadcaster in the history of professional sports, that does nothing to alleviate the pain felt by Dodgers fans.

    The Dodgers had built a lead of 13.5 games over the Giants on Aug. 11, but the Giants went an improbable 37-7 (including 16 wins in a row) down the stretch to pull into a tie with the Dodgers and force a three-game playoff to determine the winner.

    So while the Dodgers would score nearly twice as many runs as the Giants over the three games—15-8—the Giants won two of the three games, none bigger than Bobby Thomson's "shot heard 'round the world" to end Brooklyn's season.

1962 Los Angeles Dodgers

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    On Sept. 22, the Dodgers had a four-game over the San Francisco Giants with just 10 games to play. Between their rotation and powerful outfield trio of Tommy Davis, Willie Davis and Frank Howard, the Dodgers looked like they were in good shape.

    However, the Dodgers lost eight of their last 10 games—including two-of-three to the Giants, who won seven of their remaining games and took home the National League pennant by only one game.

1964 Philadelphia Phillies

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    With a six-and-a-half game lead over the Cardinals and Reds for the National League pennant and only 12 games remaining on the schedule—including three against the Cards and five against the Reds—the Gene Mauch-led Phillies were in control of their own destiny as the 1964 season came to a close.

    Instead of putting an end to years of futility, the Phillies collapsed, losing 10 games in a row—six of which were to the two teams hot on their tail. Mauch panicked, scrapping his starting rotation and throwing ace Jim Bunning (19-8, 2.63 ERA) and Chris Short (17-9, 2.20 ERA) every other day in an attempt to stop the bleeding.

    Bunning would allow 24 hits and 15 earned runs over 12.1 innings pitched, good enough for a 10.95 ERA while Short allowed 18 hits and 11 earned runs over 17.1 innings pitched, leading to a markedly better but equally ineffective 5.71 mark.

    By the time the season ended, the Phillies had lost 10 of their last 12 games, finishing in a second-place tie with the Reds—one game behind the Cardinals.

1969 Chicago Cubs

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    For the first time in history, divisions entered the picture in baseball due to the expansion that occurred in 1969—and the Cubs found themselves playing in the National League East.

    With Fergie Jenkins leading the rotation and Ernie Banks, Ron Santo and Billy Williams in the lineup, the Cubs got off to a great start and sat with with a nine-game lead over the Cardinals and Mets on Aug. 16.

    Seemingly out of nowhere, the Cubs imploded, going 17-26 to finish the season while the Mets went on a 36-11 run to not only surpass the Cubbies in the division, but eventually return to New York as the World Series champions.                                                                                             


1978 Boston Red Sox

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    In of the most epic collapses in recent memory—and one that resulted in a player earning a new middle name—the 1978 race for the AL East never should have been.

    With a 62-28 record and a 14-game lead in the AL East over the New York Yankees in mid-July, the Red Sox were sitting pretty—or so they thought.

    Boston would proceed to play .500 baseball over their next 48 games, setting up a pivotal four-game series against the Yankees in Fenway Park starting on Sept. 7. The Yankees would not only sweep the series, but they'd embarrass the Red Sox, outscoring them 42-9 over the four-games.

    Just like that, Boston's lead had evaporated.

    The Red Sox would win their last eight games to force a tie atop the division at the end of the season, forcing a one-game playoff with the Yankees at Fenway Park on Oct. 2.

    The video tells the story of what happens next, but it can be summed up in three words: Bucky "Bleeping" Dent.

1987 Toronto Blue Jays

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    Sitting with a 3.5 game lead and four of their last seven games of the season against the second-place Tigers, the Blue Jays were in control of their destiny in 1987.

    Well, someone forgot to tell the Blue Jays that they were the ones in charge, because destiny smacked them in the face as they lost all seven games, including four to the Tigers, who passed them for the division title on the next-to-last day of the season.

    Toronto left fielder George Bell, the eventual AL MVP, went a pathetic 3-for-27 with one RBI down the stretch for the Blue Jays.

1993 San Francisco Giants

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    With a pair of sluggers in their prime in Barry Bonds and Matt Williams, a pair of 20-game-winners in John Burkett and Bill Swift and excellent veteran pieces like Will Clark and Willie McGee, it was no surprise that the Giants had the best record in baseball—and a 7.5-game lead on the second-place Braves—on Aug. 22 with an 83-41 mark.

    Unfortunately for the Giants, they cooled off down the stretch, posting a 20-18 record while the Braves got red hot, going 28-9 over the same time frame.

    With the two teams tied on the last day of the regular season, the Giants fell flat on their face, getting crushed by the Dodgers 12-1 while the Braves took care of the Rockies by a score of 5-3, clinching the NL West and knocking the 103-win Giants out of the playoffs.

1995 California Angels

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    With a rotation led by veterans Chuck Finley and Mark Langston and a lineup featuring three up-and-coming youngsters in Jim Edmonds, Tim Salmon and J.T. Snow, the Angels were poised to take advantage of baseball's expanded playoff system in their first season back from the strike of 1994.

    As the season wore on things looked great for AL West-leading Angels, holding an 11-game advantage over the Mariners and Rangers on Aug. 9.

    And then their halos fell off.

    No longer playing with divine intervention, the Angels struggled down the stretch, going 18-31 from that point forward. Conversely, the Mariners went on a tear, posting a 30-19 record that found them tied with the Angels for the division lead at the end of the season.

    In a one-game playoff to determine AL West superiority, the Angels were unable to hit Seattle ace Randy Johnson, who went the distance in a three-hit, 12-strikeout performance. Langston, who started for the Angels, allowed five runs (four earned) over 6.2 innings of work in a 9-1 drubbing at the hands of the M's.

1996 Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Even without their long-time skipper Tommy Lasorda steering the ship—he suffered a heart attack in late June and retired shortly thereafter—the Dodgers sat with a two-game lead in the NL West with three games left to play—against the second-place San Diego Padres.

    All the Dodgers needed to do was win one of those games to clinch the division. One game.

    Instead, the Padres swept the series with Trevor Hoffmann picking up saves in each of the games.

    Mike Piazza, one of the catalysts of the Dodgers' offense, was virtually invisible in the middle of the Dodgers' lineup, going 2-for-12 with a RBI, walk and five strikeouts. Overall, the Dodgers lost six of their final 10 games.

    While the Padres would win the division, sending the Dodgers to the wild-card spot, both teams were swept in the playoffs by the Cardinals and Braves, respectively.

2005 Cleveland Indians

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    With 17 games remaining in the 2005 season, the Indians went on a 9-1 tear to pull within 2.5 games of the AL Central leading White Sox—but more importantly, had given themselves a 1.5-game lead in the race for the AL wild-card berth with only seven games remaining.

    The Indians would lose three of their next four games, putting themselves in a must-win situation in their final series of the season against the White Sox.

    Chicago took care of business, sweeping the Tribe not only out of the division race, but the wild-card race as well.

2007 New York Mets

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    Sitting with a seven-game lead over the Phillies with 17 games left to play, the Mets looked like they were well on their way to a division title on Sept. 12.

    After being swept by the Phillies in a three-game series, the Mets' lead had shrunk to only 3.5 games by Sept. 16.

    You see where this is going, don't you?

    The Mets would continue to play uninspired baseball, losing 12 of their last 17 games—and allowing the Phillies to win the division on the last day of the season.

    While Mets' skipper Willie Randolph would return to start the 2008 season, he wouldn't finish it, being replaced by Jerry Manuel.

2007 San Diego Padres

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    The Padres and Diamondbacks traded leads in the NL West for the bulk of the season in 2007, and when the last day of the season hit, the Padres sat a game behind the Diamondbacks for the division lead and a game ahead of the Rockies for the wild-card spot.

    All San Diego needed to do was beat the Brewers—and hope that the Rockies took care of the Diamondbacks, While the Rockies lived up to their end of the bargain, the Padres did not, resulting in a NL West title for the Diamondbacks and a play-in game for the NL wild-card berth between the Padres and Rockies.

    Subpar outings by both Padres' ace Jake Peavy and Rockies' starter Josh Fogg saw the game tied at six heading into the 13th inning.

    San Diego would take an 8-6 lead in the top of the inning off of a two-run blast by Scott Hairston, and with future Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman taking the mound, their confidence was running high. That feeling quickly erased as Hoffman got shelled.

    Kaz Matsui and Troy Tulowitzki would hit back-to-back doubles to cut the lead to 8-7, and Matt Holliday's triple tied the score at eight. After intentionally walking Todd Helton, Jamey Carroll's sacrifice fly would clinch the wild-card spot for the Rockies and send the Padres home for a long winter.

2008 New York Mets

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    With 17 games remaining in the 2008 season, the Mets sat atop the National League East with an 82-63 record and a 3.5-game lead over the second place Phillies.

    Instead of seizing the opportunity to atone for the previous year's disappointment, the Mets proceeded to go 7-9 leading into the final game of the season while the Phillies would go on a 12-4 run, passing the Mets in the standings—but not pushing them out of the playoff picture completely.

    On the season's final day, the Mets had a chance to sneak in as the wild card, needing to beat the Marlins and rooting for a Brewers' loss to the Cubs. Instead, the Mets fell 4-2 while the Brewers won 3-1, sending the Mets home.

    This would mark the second season in a row that the Mets held a 3.5-game lead in the division as the calendars turned to September and wound up missing the playoffs.

2009 Detroit Tigers

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    After beating the Minnesota Twins on Sept. 30, the Tigers looked like locks to win the AL Central, holding a three-game lead on the Twins with only four games remaining in the season.

    Unfortunately for Detroit, someone forgot to tell the Twins that the lead was insurmountable.

    Detroit would lose three of their next four games, including one against the Twins, and by season's end, the two teams were tied for the division.

    In the one-game playoff to determine AL Central supremacy, the game was tied at five heading into the bottom of the 12th inning.

    Tigers' closer Fernando Rodney, throwing his third inning of work, would allow a leadoff single to Carlos Gomez, who would score the division-clinching run from second base two batters later when Alexi Casilla's ground ball found the hole between first and second base.

2011 Atlanta Braves

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    On Aug. 26, the Braves had a 10-and-a-half game lead over the Cardinals for the NL Wild Card spot.

    On Sept. 6, their lead had dropped to eight games—still a significant advantage.

    With five games to go, the Cardinals had cut the lead to three games—and while they prepared to take on the Cubs and Astros to end the season, the Braves finished up with the Nationals and Phillies.

    St. Louis would win three of their next four games while the Braves lost four in a row, setting up a must-win final game against the Phillies for Chipper Jones and the Braves.

    The Braves took a 3-2 lead into the ninth inning with the eventual 2011 NL Rookie of the Year, Craig Kimbrel, on the mound to clinch the wild card. Kimbrel, who had issued only 29 walks in 76 innings of work up until this point, would allow a leadoff single before eventually walking the bases loaded. Phillies' second baseman Chase Utley would hit a sacrifice fly that drove in the tying run.

    After the game Kimbrel would tell reporters: "My mind was rushing. Things started moving too fast. My head started moving too fast. My brain. I didn't put it together. It was just too late. ... When you walk guys, nothing good ever happens." (h/t Huffington Post)

    But I digress. Back to the action.

    Fast forward to the 13th inning where Phillies' right fielder Hunter Pence, with runners at the corners and two outs, hit a ball past a diving Dan Uggla into right field, scoring the go-ahead run for the Phillies.

    Atlanta had a chance to tie the game in the bottom of the inning as Uggla worked a one-out walk, but Braves first baseman Freddy Freeman would ground into a season-ending double play.

    The Cardinals took care of business against the hapless Astros, clinching the wild card and eventually defeating the Rangers in the World Series.

2011 Boston Red Sox

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    After posting a 53-26 record from June through August, the Red Sox entered September with a game-and-a-half lead over the Yankees in the AL East and no indication that the wheels were about to fall off.

    On Sept. 3, they found themselves a half-game behind the Yankees, but with a comfortable nine game lead for the AL Wild Card spot.

    But the wheels went rolling down Yawkey Way as the Sox posted a 7-19 record heading into the last game of the season, facing the Orioles in a win-and-you're-in scenario.

    With a 3-2 lead, the Red Sox sent their All-Star closer, Jonathan Papelbon to the mound to clinch the wild card berth in the bottom of the ninth inning—and things looked promising after Papelbon struck out the first two batters of the inning.

    A double by Orioles' third baseman Chris Davis was followed up by a game-tying double by right fielder Nolan Reimold. Robert Andino, who had been 0-for-4 on the day, hit a line drive to shallow left field that dropped in, allowing Reimold to score the winning run—and taking destiny away from the Sox.

    Needing their hated rivals the Yankees to beat Tampa Bay, the Red Sox watched their season come to an end as Tampa erased a 7-0 deficit and beat the Yankees 8-7 in 12 innings, clinching the wild card spot for themselves.

    The loss, coupled with the dysfunction in the clubhouse, would ultimately cost manager Terry Francona his job.