Detroit Tigers pitcher Frank Tanana winds up to pitch during a Detroit Tigers vs. Oakland Athletics game at the Oakland Coliseum. (Otto Gruele/Allsport)
Today, we stand just nine days from the end of the 2011 regular season, with teams still in playoff contention having anywhere from nine to 11 games remaining. You'd think the time for epic collapses would be just about done.
Not so fast, my friends. I am here to tell you the story of two collapses that don't get as much attention as the '64 Phils or '07 Mets. But these happened much closer to the end of the season than those did, and the lesson for this year's Cardinals or Giants or Rays or Angels -- four teams that hang on by their proverbial fingernails -- is: don't ever give up, because it not only can be done ... it has been done.
The 1998 National League wild-card race took place in a year when another race -- the home-run chase between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa -- took center stage. But the Mets and Cubs were actually having a closer race than Sammy and Mac. For the last 45 days of the season, no more than one game separated the wild-card leader from the second-place team in those standings. Either both would win, both would lose, or they'd alternate winning and losing -- and that's while not facing each other even once. The last regular-season series between the Cubs and Mets in 1998 was a four-game set at Wrigley Field in late July. Naturally, the teams split it.
After the games of Sunday, September 20, 1998, the Mets were 88-69, one game ahead of the 87-70 Cubs, with five games remaining for both teams. Lurking behind were the Giants at 83-72, with seven games left, but standing four games behind, and having to leap over two teams.
The Mets didn't win another game. They lost a pair to the woeful Expos and got swept in a three-game series by the Braves. Meanwhile, the Cubs were splitting a pair with the awful Brewers and losing two of three to the Astros. That should have been enough for the Cubs, but ... the Giants won six in a row and would have won the wild card outright if Neifi Perez (of all people) hadn't hit a walkoff homer against them in Colorado on the final day of the regular season.
That forced a wild-card tiebreaker game, which the Cubs won. But the Giants came out of nowhere, overcoming a four-game deficit with seven to go, just to force that one-game playoff.
But even that is not as impressive as what the Detroit Tigers accomplished in 1987, when there were still just two divisions in each league and no wild card safety net.
The Toronto Blue Jays led the Tigers in the old AL East by 3-1/2 games with eight remaining games for Detroit and seven for Toronto. On Sunday, Sept. 27 in Toronto, the Jays were leading the Tigers 1-0 going into the ninth inning. All closer Tom Henke needed to do was record three more outs and Toronto would have led by 4-1/2 games with six to go -- an almost insurmountable lead.
Kirk Gibson, who a year later hit one of the most famous home runs in baseball history, tied the game with a dinger leading off the ninth and Detroit won 3-2 in 13 innings.
Still, the Blue Jays were still in first place, 2-1/2 games ahead with just six left. What could go wrong?
Plenty, as it turned out. Toronto didn't win another game. They hosted the Brewers for three games and got swept, then traveled to Detroit for the season's final three games. Even having been swept by Milwaukee, though, the Jays were still in first place by 1-1/2 games with a magic number of three.
Detroit beat Baltimore on Oct. 1 to make their deficit one game. Toronto could have clinched no worse than a tie by just winning one game of their series in Detroit.
They got swept, and the Tigers won the division with a flourish, a 1-0 shutout hurled by Frank Tanana over Blue Jays ace Jimmy Key on the season's final day.
So don't say that the Rays or Angels or Cardinals or Giants can't overcome their current deficits and make the postseason. Yes, it would take hot streaks by those teams and losing streaks by those they're chasing. But it's been done before.
Perhaps the next week and a half will give us similar thrills. Or, if you are a Red Sox or Braves fan, chills.