Baseball’s Ten Biggest Pennant Race Collapses
Memorable instances of major league teams who thought they had a postseason spot in the bag—until things went terribly wrong.
So, you think you got the pennant locked up, eh? Not so fast. Even after these ten teams on this list gave the order to print those playoff tickets, they were blindsided, spun around, upended and kayoed out of the postseason picture. What happened? Did they go into autopilot and figure they could phone in the rest of the season? Did injuries and exhaustion from a long season suddenly rip into them with a vengeance? Or did a once distant contender come raging far from behind and play invincible down the stretch? Check it out below.
Pittsburgh Pirates, 1938
On paper, the Buccos were an underwhelming team with a no-name rotation, aging vets in the Waners (Paul, 35, and Lloyd, 32) and only one legitimate star (shortstop Arky Vaughan) in his prime. Yet the Pirates played consistent, solid baseball in 1938 with little breakdown—that was, until September. At the start of that month, Pittsburgh enjoyed a seven-game advantage with just 28 to play, and appeared headed to their first NL pennant since 1927. But the team struggled through the final month—and worse, the Chicago Cubs were rocketing skyward with win after win to quickly cut into the Pirates’ lead.
Darkness descended upon the Pirates’ hopes—both literally and figuratively—in their penultimate series of the year when they traveled to Chicago and got swept by the Cubs in three games, best recalled by Gabby Hartnett’s famous “Homer in the Gloamin’” that ended the second game amid darkening skies at Wrigley Field.
Brooklyn Dodgers, 1951
Some may wonder why the Dodgers’ 1951 implosion isn’t closer to #1 on this list, but their breakdown didn’t occur all at once; it was a slow and steady drain from a 13-game lead in early August, a point when Brooklyn manager Chuck Dressen felt especially upbeat about comments he blurted out weeks earlier regarding struggling rival New York: “The Giants is dead. They’ll never bother us again.”
The Giants, after handicapping themselves with a 2-13 start, arose and surged into September with a 16-game winning streak—yet the Dodgers still looked to be in fine shape with a six-game lead and only 16 left to play. But even that was whittled down as the Giants remained unbeatable while Brooklyn scratched and clawed for every victory it could get, which didn’t happen often. At the end of 154 games, both teams found themselves even steven with one another—precipitating a best-of-three playoff. The rest is baseball folklore at its most famous; after splitting the first two games, the Dodgers blew a 4-1, ninth-inning lead in the winner-take-all, the Giants’ Bobby Thomson sealing Brooklyn’s fate with his legendary “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” at the Polo Grounds.
New York Giants, 1934
The Giants’ 1951 comeback was probably seen by their fans as revenge for their own collapse 17 years earlier, largely at the hands of the Dodgers—memorably dissed by defending champion New York before the start of the season.
Greatly stocked with talent from player-manager Bill Terry (who hit .354) and Hall-of-Fame legends Mel Ott and Carl Hubbell at their peak, the Giants grabbed first place in early June and kept it well into September, building the margin as high as seven games; even with just 14 left to play, they remained ahead by 5.5 games. But they had an authentic, emerging rival in the St. Louis Cardinals, a rambunctious group of ballplayers led by hubristic star pitcher Dizzy Dean (on his way to 30 wins) and his rookie brother Daffy. It seemed every time the Giants looked up at the out-of-town scoreboard, there was one of the Deans’ numbers posted, pushing the Cardinals closer to New York.
Still up by three games with just five to play, the Giants had only had themselves to blame by losing all five of those contests—the last four of which were at home against lowly Philadelphia and Brooklyn. For the Dodgers, it was an especially sweet moment of comeuppance, after Bill Terry had ribbed reporters before Opening Day by asking: “Brooklyn? Are they still in the league?”
Toronto Blue Jays, 1987
The Blue Jays lived a sad, close-but-no-cigar existence before finally hitting the championship jackpot in the early 1990s. But before then, “almost” was the keyword that best described the Jays’ lack of fortune. Lowlights included a wasted 3-1 ALCS game lead in 1985 and, in 1988, back-to-back starts by ace pitcher Dave Stieb in which he lost a no-hitter with one out to spare. And there was the end of the 1987 season.
Unlike many of the entries on this list, the Blue Jays did not build up a huge lead for much of the year. On the contrary, Toronto had found itself bouncing in and out of first, playing musical chairs with Detroit for the top spot. The Jays didn’t even amass their biggest lead of the season until late September when they won the first three games of a four-game series against the Tigers. At that point, the Jays’ 3.5-game margin, with just seven to play, seemed awfully safe. Yet that’s when “almost” came to bite them once again in the rear end.
Toronto lost the series finale to the Tigers, then fell three straight times at home to the Milwaukee Brewers. It still remained a game in front with three to play—but to preserve the lead, it had to take on the Tigers in Detroit, needing two wins to clinch the division and one to set up a one-game playoff. The Jays couldn’t do either. In the first two games, the Tigers came from behind to prevail, then stifled the Jays’ bats behind a six-hit shutout from Frank Tanana, outdueling the Jays’ Jimmy Key to finish the improbable comeback and win the AL East. For the Jays, “almost” consisted of a seven-game losing snap, with four lost by a run—two of those in extra innings—two others by a pair of runs and the other by three.
Detroit Tigers, 2009
Two decades after capitalizing on the Blue Jays’ collapse, the Tigers experienced their own plunge to the depths of embarrassment. Detroit was not an awesome force in 2009, but many felt the Tigers were strong enough to run away from a weak AL Central—and that’s exactly what they were doing in early September, leading by seven games while no one else in the division was even above .500. But one of those other pretenders, the Minnesota Twins, embarked on a winning spree that brought them within tailgating distance of the Tigers as the two met early in the regular season’s final week for a four-game series at Minneapolis. Detroit took two of the first three games, giving it a three-game lead with four to play, but a chance to clinch was wasted when it lost the fourth game. Still, the Tigers came home for the final three games against Chicago with superb odds of advancing to the postseason.
Detroit lost a testy first game against the White Sox that saw four ejections and five players hit by pitches. Nonetheless, relations were warm enough that star Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera decided to buddy up with several White Sox players after the game for drinks. One drink led to another, and another, and another…until Cabrera’s blood alcohol content hit three times the legal limit. He came home very late, reportedly scuffled with an irate wife, and was taken to a police station where Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski was given the thankless job of rescuing him. (Cabrera’s wife refused to press charges.)
Hung over with scratches and bruises all over his face, Cabrera suited up the next day and was an empty 0-for-4 with six men left on base in an 8-0 loss that dropped the Tigers into a first-place tie with the Twins. Detroit salvaged the Sunday finale, but the Twins won, too—bringing the two back together again for a wild one-game playoff at the Metrodome lost by Tigers in 12 innings, 6-5. Many to this day still wonder whether a sober Cabrera might have prevented the Tigers from playing that 163rd game.
Atlanta Braves and Boston Red Sox, 2011
Like decomposing brothers in arms, the Red Sox and Braves turned what looked for all the world to be ironclad postseason spots into baseball’s most memorable dual collapse.
The Braves knew their chances of winning the National League East were slim as they trailed Philadelphia by 7.5 games on September 1—but they had a firm grip on the wild card, as their nearest threat was 8.5 games behind in St. Louis. On that same day, Boston held a half-game lead over the archrival New York Yankees in the AL East—and even if they fell into second place, the AL wild card spot was considered an easy fallback as Tampa Bay, next in line, was a full nine games back.
But both teams went into tailspins while their distant competitors gained quick ground. It didn’t help that they lost badly in head-to-head encounters in mid-September; the Red Sox lost six of seven games to the Rays, while the Braves were swept in a three-game series at St. Louis. These losses rattled both clubs, emboldened the chasers and closed the margins until everyone woke up on the final day of the season with both teams in a dead heat with their wild card rivals. The Braves and Red Sox tried hard that night and each held 3-2 leads in the ninth inning against, respectively, the Phillies and Orioles—but both leads were blown and the games eventually lost. The Cardinals rolled elsewhere to take the NL wild card, but the Red Sox still held hope of a one-game playoff with the Rays, who were trailing 7-0 in the bottom of the eighth at home against the Yankees—all before Tampa Bay plated eight unanswered runs, the last in the 12th inning to complete a remarkable double-KO of two teams left dazed and confused on the canvas.
New York Mets, 2007
The Mets’ final years at Shea Stadium were known for some strong postseason-worthy rosters that failed to meet expectations through heartbreaks in the stretch run. And the heart was never more shattered than at the end of the 2007 season.
On September 12, the Mets not only looked to have the NL East sewn up with a seven-game lead over the Phillies, they held the upper hand on home-field advantage for the NL playoffs by boasting a league-best 83-62 record. With an offense fueled by David Wright (.325, 30 homers, 107 RBIs), Jose Reyes (78 steals) and Carlos Beltran (33 homers, 112 RBIs), the Mets didn’t look like the kind of powerful team to suddenly tank with a mere 17 games left in the season. Right?
Wrong. The Mets’ freefall began by losing three straight at home to the Phillies. After a decent road trip in which they won four of seven against divisional lowlifes Washington and Florida, New York came back home for seven final games against those same two teams, with a make-up against St. Louis thrown in. They lost all but one of those contests, and the season came down to the last day with the Mets and Phillies tied for first. The Phillies won their game. The Mets lost theirs. Badly. Starter Tom Glavine was removed after retiring just one Florida batter while allowing seven others to reach; all seven scored. Not only did the Mets lose out on the division by a single game, but the wild card as well by the same margin. The New York Post shamelessly summed up the Mets’ collapse with a full-page cover photo of a very young Mets fan bawling his eyes out, adorned with the headline, “Cryin’ Shame.”
California Angels, 1995
Until the Rally Monkey finally helped push the Angels over the top and onto the championship podium in 2002, the Halos’ history read as a book entitled “Choking for Dummies.” Blown divisional leads in 1984 and 1985. Blown ALCS leads in 1982 and, most painfully, 1986. But then there came the strike-shortened 1995 campaign and the Angels’ most remarkable fall from potential playoff heaven.
Buffeted by an everyday lineup featuring five players with 20-plus homers, California built up an 11-game lead in early August over mediocre AL West competition. But out of nowhere came the Seattle Mariners, who had never won anything in their nearly 20 years of operation and, now with a star-studded roster, had been underperforming throughout much of the campaign. The Angels’ lead was gradually pared down, but with two weeks to play still commanded via a six-game advantage. That’s when they decided to embark on a nine-game losing streak—their second such snap within a month—to drop three back of the surging Mariners. Unlike most of the other teams on this list, the Angels bounced back and forced a season-ending tie with Seattle, but fell short in a one-game playoff as the Mariners advanced behind Randy Johnson’s 150-pitch effort at the Kingdome.
One could say that the Angels’ collapse helped make Safeco Field possible. With the Mariners zooming on by in the fast lane, pennant fever overwhelmed the Northwest, and the Washington State Legislature overrode an earlier ‘no’ vote by Seattle-area citizens and okayed funding for the Mariners’ new home, which opened in 1999.
Los Angeles Dodgers, 1962
When most people think of the dramatic pennant races of lore involving the Dodgers and Giants, the 1951 campaign usually is the first thing to come to mind. But even the ’51 Brooklynites have nothing on how their future Angelinos messed up the 1962 season in its closing moments.
For the first 155 games, the Dodgers were living their dream season. They had just won their 100th game and led the ten-team NL by four with seven to play. Helping out were memorable campaigns from speedster Maury Wills (a then-record 104 steals), Tommy Davis (NL-best .346 average and 153 RBIs), Don Drysdale (25-9 record) and Sandy Koufax (his first of five straight ERA titles). The Los Angeles fans ate it up, christening brand-new Dodger Stadium by setting attendance records.
Suddenly, in the regular season’s final week, the Dodgers couldn’t save themselves. An easy three-game series at home against the expansion Houston Colt .45s was supposed to provide the knockout blow upon the rest of the NL, but the Dodgers instead lost two of three. Then the Cardinals came to town and swept a three-game series by completely shutting down the potent Dodger offense (which ran up a string of 35 straight scoreless innings), plunging Los Angeles into a 162-game tie with the archrival San Francisco Giants.
The best-of-three playoff that followed provided eerie comparisons to 1951. The Giants won the first game. The Dodgers took the second, and readied to grab the rubber match by taking a 4-2 lead into the ninth. But the Giants, themselves loaded with Hall-of-Fame talent, made it déjà vu all over again by notching four runs to hammer the final nail in the coffin. There was no Bobby Thomson moment to remember; just the Dodgers collapsing upon themselves by serving up four walks, an error and wild pitch to aid another improbable Giants comeback.
Philadelphia Phillies, 1964
When it comes to pennant race meltdowns, nobody—we mean, nobody—tops the botch job committed by a young, talented and evidently inexperienced Philadelphia Phillies ballclub in the fateful early autumn of 1964.
Just three years removed from an atrocious 107-loss campaign, the Phillies grew surprisingly fast into a contender, but remained quite green. Only a handful of players were above 30, one of which being ace pitcher Jim Bunning. Sidekick Chris Short was breaking into his own at 26. The offense was powered by 22-year-old rookie Dick Allen and 25-year-old Johnny Callison. Leading it all from the dugout was Gene Mauch, the NL’s youngest manager at 38.
For much of the summer, the Phillies sustained a healthy lead and showed no signs of breaking apart. By September 20—with just 12 games to play—the Phillies’ 6.5-game lead seemed so safe, the team began printing World Series tickets while Sports Illustrated performed a cover photo shoot of Bunning in anticipation of a Fall Classic appearance by the team.
All this, and the Phillies picked a fine time to start a ten-game losing streak.
The horror began with a seven-game homestand. Cincinnati came to town and swept the Phillies in three games. Then it was Milwaukee’s turn, as the Braves handed Mauch’s men four more home losses; not even Callison’s three homers in the series finale could save the Phillies from a 14-8 drubbing. While Philadelphia was going 0-7 for the week, the Reds countered with an 8-0 mark—and took first place away from the Phillies.
By now badly traumatized, the Phillies next traveled to St. Louis—a contender also on the rampage—and lost three more games. They finally corrected course to win the final two games of the year at Cincinnati, but by then it was too little, too late; Philadelphia finished the year tied with the Reds, but a game behind the pennant-winning Cardinals.
There was plenty of blame to go around, as one might expect for a collapse of epic proportions. The offense wilted. Errors were aplenty. But perhaps the most inexplicable move was by Mauch, who tried to overcome a rotation thinned with injury by repeatedly starting his two best arms, Bunning and Short—a panicked move before there was a need to panic. Exhausted with having to repeatedly start on two days’ rest, neither pitcher could respond to the challenge.
Mauch would become no stranger to late-season heartbreak. As manager of the Angels 20 years later, he would twice blow two-game leads in the ALCS—most notoriously in 1986 when he had the Boston Red Sox down to their last strike in Game Five, only to eventually lose the series.
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