Reid Brignac of the Tampa Bay Rays tags out Jacoby Ellsbury of the Boston Red Sox in a run-down play at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Remember the 1964 Phillies?
Well, of course you don't; that was 47 years ago. I remember, but just barely; I was in third grade.
The collapse of the Phillies that year, when they led the National League by 6-1/2 games with 12 left, has become the benchmark by which every future late-season collapse has been measured. The '64 Phillies lost 10 straight games, and by the time they won their final two games, it was too late. They finished one game behind the Cardinals.
There have been two more recent collapses akin to that one. The 1995 Angels led the AL West by six games with 16 to go in that strike-shortened season. They lost nine in a row, falling into second place, then won their last five regular-season games before getting blown out by the Mariners in their one-game playoff.
The 2007 Mets led the NL East by seven games with 17 remaining. They promptly lost five in a row and six of seven, cutting their lead to 1-1/2 games with 10 to play. A three-game winning streak put them in seemingly good position: 2-1/2 games ahead with seven remaining, but they lost five straight and fell out of first place. Even then, they could have forced a tie with the Brewers and had a tiebreaker for the wild card had they won their final regular-season game -- but they lost 8-1 to the Marlins.
And that is the largest September lead ever blown. No team has ever lost a September lead of eight games or more.
Nervous fans all over New England fear that the 2011 Red Sox could be the first. Boston entered September 83-52, with not only a nine-game lead over the Rays, but in first place in the AL East with a 1-1/2 game bulge over the Yankees. They seemed headed toward not only a division title, but possibly home-field advantage throughout the AL playoffs.
You know what's happened since then. Boston is 3-10 in September and has fallen out of first place; the Yankees have gotten hot at the right time and now lead the division by four games, leaving the Red Sox to focus on the wild card. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay is 8-5 this month, and that nine-game separation between the Red Sox and Rays has been reduced to just four games.
All of that leads into a four-game series beginning tonight in Boston, after the Rays swept the Red Sox in Tampa last weekend.
Collapses are funny things. It's arguable that the 1964 Phillies, 1995 Angels and 2007 Mets were better teams than the ones who surpassed them in the standings. But when they started losing, there didn't seem to be anything the talent of those players could do to stop the slide. The late Ron Santo, third baseman for another well-known team of collapse, the 1969 perhaps said it best:,
"When you're eight games behind, it's like eight miles," said Ron Santo, the Cubs' radio broadcaster and former third baseman. "When you're eight games in front, it's like eight inches.
"It's funny. That's how that works. You never know what might happen."
It's still a longshot for the Rays. They not only pretty much have to sweep the Red Sox -- even winning three of four gets only two of those four games back -- but they also have to face the Yankees twice before the regular season ends. Meanwhile, the Red Sox have a pair of series with the Orioles, which might be seen as easier, although Baltimore just finished taking two of three from the Rays.
Tampa Bay is 39-29 against Boston since the start of the 2008 regular season (2008 ALCS excluded from that count), and has won nine of the 14 meetings between the teams this year. Coolstandings.com gives the Rays just a 5-percent chance of making the playoffs... but on Sept. 1, that chance was just 1 percent.
No matter who eventually wins this playoff spot, history could be made. No team that has started a season 0-6 has ever made the World Series. Both the Rays and Red Sox began the season with that mark; one of them could wind up in the Fall Classic, just one more reason to love this game and its history.