Where Does The 2011 Season Stand Among Historic Collapses?

Christhian Martinez, Alex Gonzalez, Martin Prado, and Dan Uggla of the Atlanta Braves remain in the dugout after the game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Turner Field on September 28, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
"In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened!" -- Vin Scully

That famous line was uttered by the legendary broadcaster on October 15, 1988, when Kirk Gibson came off the Dodgers' bench to hit one of the most famous home runs in World Series, if not all of baseball, history.

But had Vin been calling any of the games Wednesday night, he could have said it again... and again... and again. The improbability -- or impossibility -- of Wednesday night's events has been chronicled elsewhere on this site. But just how improbable or impossible were those events, compared to other collapses in baseball history?

Many teams have lost big leads late in the season and failed to make the postseason. Some of them are legendary. The 1951 Dodgers. The 1964 Phillies. The 1969 Cubs. The 1978 Red Sox. The 1987 Blue Jays. The 2007 Mets. Those are among the most famous collapses of the last 60 years. How do the 2011 collapses compare?

Take a look at graphic representations of the Red Sox' playoff chances and the Braves' playoff chances this season. Boston's peaked at 99.93%; Atlanta's at 99.64%, both with fewer than 20 games remaining. That means the Cardinals and Rays had a less than one-half of one percent chance of doing what they did last night. (Nate Silver has more on these probabilities at Five Thirty Eight today.

We don't have charts for 1951, 1964, 1969, 1978 or 1987. But we do know this about those teams:

  • The 1951 Giants trailed by six games with 12 to go; they forced a three-game playoff, and then trailed by three runs going into the ninth inning of the final game, and by two runs with one out in that ninth inning before Bobby Thomson's three-run walkoff homer.
  • The 1964 Phillies led by 6½ games with 12 to go, and the next day lost to the Reds 1-0 when Chico Ruiz stole home in the sixth inning. The Phillies lost nine more in a row; had they just won that game, they would have tied for the NL pennant.
  • The 1969 Cubs led by five games with 22 remaining; they lost eight straight and fell out of first place, never to return.
  • The 1978 Red Sox led by seven games with 31 remaining; they went 3-14 and trailed the Yankees by 3½ games. They then went 12-2 and won eight straight to tie the Yankees on the final day of the regular season before losing the tiebreaker game on Bucky Dent's home run.
  • I chronicled the collapse of the 1987 Blue Jays ten days ago here at Baseball Nation; the short version is that they lost six straight and got swept by the Tigers when even one win over Detroit would have forced a tiebreaker. In the season's final game, between the two teams, Toronto left runners in scoring position in the first, third, fourth, seventh and eighth innings, and lost 1-0.
  • We do have a graph for the 2007 Mets; their playoff probability peaked at 99.77% with 17 games to go, when they led by 7½ games. They had a chance to tie for the wild card on the season's final day, but got blown out by the Marlins 8-1 in a game they trailed 7-1 in the first inning.

What's missing from all of those descriptions that we had on Wednesday night? Last-game drama up until the final inning, with the exceptions of 1951 (but that was already dramatic, because of the tiebreaker series), and the 1978 Yankees/Red Sox tiebreaker game, but even then, the home run that was hit by the man New Englanders have given an obscenity as a middle name came in the seventh inning, not the ninth. In that Oct. 2, 1978 game, the Red Sox had the tying run on third base with two out in the ninth, but could not score; there was no extra-inning or walkoff drama, as there was in three separate games Wednesday night.

Nor were any of those races led by as many games after the first of September as the Red Sox led the Rays (9½ on Sept. 3) or the Braves led the Cardinals (nine on Sept. 1). Both of these are now the largest September collapses in baseball history. And they occurred because three teams won in their final at-bat, two of them on walkoffs, one on an improbable home run three innings after an impossible home run.

Nor did those seasons have this: not one, but two teams posting months that ranked as among the worst months in their history. The Red Sox were 7-20 in September, the Braves 9-18. Lest you forget, the Red Sox weren't just leading the wild card race much of the year; they were actually in first place on Sept. 1, ahead of the Yankees. The 7-20 September record is the worst in major league history for a team that was in first place at any point in September. (The 1969 Cubs, who were 9-18 after Sept. 1, send their thanks for taking them out of the record books, for this, at least.)

Epic collapses. Terrific late-season runs (18-8 by the Cardinals, 17-10 by the Rays). Incredible finishes to the final games, clinching playoff berths for teams that came moments away from elimination. Here's my personal ranking of the improbable collapse/comeback seasons that I noted above:

  1. 2011
  2. 1951
  3. 1964
  4. 1978
  5. 1987
  6. 2007
  7. 1969

There's no question in my mind that the wild finish to the 2011 season is the greatest in baseball history. Take a few moments, or even a few days, to savor it; things like this may never pass our way again.

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