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Thursday, September 02, 2004

The Heartbreakers: Big Leads That Got Away

Everybody's got a story. Everybody's got a first love -- that wasn't the last. If you're lucky, you were the one who realized it wasn't going anywhere and broke the bad news, though hurting someone you care for, even transiently, has no appeal. If you're not lucky, it's the other party doing the telling, and you're sitting on the front porch staring brokenhearted at the steps and wondering what happened.

Baseball's had those moments, too. Moments when the sure thing going into September fell apart in October. The heartbreakers. Forthwith, a brief history of teams that had big leads going into September that subsequently collapsed and lost the pennant they must have been sure was theirs.

1995 California Angels

Lead on Aug 31: 7.5 games
Ultimate winner: Seattle Mariners, 1.0 game

The biggest change of fortune for any team ever with a division lead on this date, the Angels ultimately collapsed, going through two straight nine-game losing streaks from August 15 to September 3 and September 13-23, going 10-16 in September. The Seattle Mariners, meantime, roared ahead, playing 19-8 ball in September, and ultimately beating the Angels in a one-game playoff, with -- who else? -- Randy Johnson on the mound for the M's.

1951 Brooklyn Dodgers

Lead on Aug 31: 7.0 games
Ultimate winner: New York Giants, 1.0 game

Probably the most famous of all the heartbreakers, this one has its own Hall of Fame entry. By the end of the regular season, the Dodgers had squandered their 13.5 game lead (as of August 11), playing approximately .500 ball in the latter half of August and all of September -- versus a Giants team suddenly on a tear (20-5) -- and found themselves tied for the National League pennant. The pennant was ultimately decided in a three-game playoff. The teams split the first two games, and the Dodgers seemed to be cruising with a 4-1 lead in the third game when the Giants scored a run, and then sent Bobby Thomson up in the ninth with two on. His "Shot Heard 'Round The World" walk-off homer beat the Dodgers that day; Russ Hodges announced the win with the now-famous radio call, "The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!" New York had shut down for the series, one of the greatest in baseball history.

1938 Pittsburgh Pirates

Lead on Aug 31: 6.5 games
Ultimate winner: Chicago Cubs, 2.0 games

Would you have ever guessed that the Cubs had played the heartbreaker before? In 1938 they did, going 21-5 in their final month, while the Pirates stalled 13-14. Not helping their own cause, the Bucs swooned 0-5 to the Cubs in September. The Cubs would go on to be swept in four by the Yanks in the World Series, in what would prove to be the Cubs' next-to-last appearance for the 20th century. They won their final -- and goat-cursed -- pennant in 1945.

1978 Boston Red Sox

Lead on Aug 31: 6.5 games
Ultimate winner: New York Yankees, 1.0 games

Speaking of curses, is it a surprise that the Red Sox would take a lead going into September only to have it stripped from them by the Yanks? Of course not. The Yanks got red-hot (23-9) while the Sox -- stop me if you've heard this one before -- stalled (15-16). As with the Pirates, the Sox were badly punished by a Yankees club in September (0-6). Despite an eight-game late-September winning streak against Toronto and Detroit, it wasn't enough, and the Sox ended the season tied, forcing a single-game playoff. The game's most dramatic moment came in the seventh inning. With Mike Torrez pitching for the Sox, up 2-0, two on, and two out -- "deuces wild" as Vinny would say -- Bucky Dent hit the "home run that broke New England's back". Final score, Yankees 4, Red Sox 2. The Yanks would go on to beat the Dodgers in six games.

1934 New York Giants

Lead on Aug 31: 5.5 games
Ultimate winner: St. Louis Cardinals, 2.0 games

If there's any recurring theme here, it's that coasting will kill you, and losing to your principle rival will really kill you. The Giants in September played 13-14 baseball, while the Cards won three of four from the Giants, with a 21-7 record in the season's final month. If anything, it's years like this that give the 2004 Giants hope.

1964 Philadelphia Phillies

Lead on Aug 31: 5.5 games
Ultimate winner: St. Louis Cardinals, 1.0 game

More of the same here, except that the Phils played horrible ball in September-October, with a 14-19 record, losing the months' series to the Dodgers 3-5, getting swept by the Milwaukee Braves 0-4, and finally losing -- badly -- to the Cards 1-4. The Phils held the lead most of the season, but lost the lead on the last home game of the year; "Phillies Phold" read the newspaper headlines. Let it be an object lesson to the weakening Dodgers of 2004.

1930 Chicago Cubs

Lead on Aug 31: 5.0 games
Ultimate winner: St. Louis Cardinals, 2.0 games

You just knew the Cubs would have to be on the receiving end of one of these, right? .500 ball (13-13) in September -- including an 0-6 streak in the season's final six games -- the Cards went 21-6 in September despite losing to the Cubs 2-1 that month! I don't know for sure, but I'd bet the billy goat had yet to be born; cursologists toil on another explanation.

1969 Chicago Cubs

Lead on Aug 31: 4.5 games
Ultimate winner: New York Mets, 8.0 games

Until Steve Bartman, arguably the worst collapse by a Cubs team. 8-17 in September, the Amazin' Mets 24-8, the Cubbies going 1-3 against the Mets. "The Cubs are gonna shine in sixty nine," said Hall-of-Famer Ernie Banks, but that would last for only five months of the year. This was the first year of division play; the Mets would go on to defeat the Atlanta Braves in three games (the NLCS in those days was a best-of-five format) and take it all against the Orioles in five.

Praise be to Retrosheet for making today's column possible.

Weakening Dodgers of 2004? They've won 3 of 4, 7 of 12 (.583), 12 of 22 (.545), 17 of 29 (.586), etc. No losing streaks of more than two games since June 26. They're not playing .750 ball anymore, but it still seems kind of a harsh way to characterize them.

I suppose that by the end of the weekend, they may end up with a three-game losing streak.
If all of New York shut down in 1951 for the Dodgers/Giants playoff why did only 34,000 come to the Polo Grounds (which sat tens of thousands more fans) come to the 3rd game?
Jon -- I'm talking about the DL here. Else, why start Nomo?
Oh. Ah.
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Bob -- because I wasn't there to see it and relied instead on other people's accounts, and half-remembered junk. Sorry. Attendance was most definitely in decline in the early 50's, and O'Malley moving the team west was an answer to that.

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