NEW YORK- Within 15 minutes of wildly exciting baseball in the wee hours of Wednesday night turned to Thursday morning, the Red Sox and Braves had their postseason Wild Card aspirations evaporate like so many hopes and dreams on a baseball diamond.
Heading into Labor Day weekend on Sept. 2, the Red Sox led Tampa Bay by nine games, the Braves held an 8 1/2-game edge on St. Louis, and fans were lamenting the absence of pathos for the first time in the American and National League Wild Card races.
In the end, though there might have been greater pennant-race collapses in Major League Baseball history, never have the mighty fallen so quickly at the same time, leaving the Cardinals and Rays as the Wild Card teams representing their respective leagues.
"It's definitely disappointing," Braves second baseman Dan Uggla said after his club lost 4-3 to the Phillies in 13 innings while the Cardinals trampled the Astros. "Whatever happened, we played our [rear ends] off all month. It just wasn't in the cards for us, I guess. It's a feeling of missed opportunity, disappointment. The fact that we're going home now won't sit well with any of us."
Both teams had 3-2 leads heading into the ninth inning and neither closer -- Jonathan Papelbon for Boston and Craig Kimbrel for Atlanta -- could close the deal.
Kimbrel walked the bases loaded and watched the tying run score on a Chase Utley sacrifice fly. Papelbon had two out and nobody on when the Orioles suddenly stirred. Two doubles and a single later and both the game and Boston's season were over.
For the Red Sox, the night of their 162nd game came down to 162 seconds. In that span, they went from having hopes of a Wild Card berth, or a play-in game, to an abrupt, agonizing end and questions about the possible last game for a two-time World Series-winning manager, Terry Francona. As much as the twist was epic for Tampa Bay, it was agony for Boston.
"What do you expect my reaction to be?" Papelbon said rhetorically when asked about the collapse within the collapse. "I was pumped up to be in that situation. It's a situation that I enjoy, but I think I was overthrowing the ball. It just boiled down to not executing."
There were no greater expectations than on the $164 million Red Sox, who signed Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez to a combined $306 million worth of long-term contracts. No team in history had held a nine-game lead in September and failed to go to the postseason. Boston finished 7-20 in September and the $42 million Rays were 17-10.
The Braves, in contrast, were not highly touted. Last year, they earned the Wild Card berth and avoided a three-way tie with San Francisco and San Diego only when the Padres lost to the Giants on the last day of the regular season. Still, the Braves lost control of their Wild Card lead this year by playing 9-18 ball in September while the hard-charging Cardinals went 18-8.
"This is a year, we can use as a learning curve," Uggla said. "We had a lot of young kids do a lot of special things this year."
Great collapses? Three come immediately to mind. In 1951, the Brooklyn Dodgers led the New York Giants by 13 games on Aug. 11. The two were tied by the next to the last day of the season and went into a best-of-three-game playoff for the NL pennant. The Giants won it on Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard 'Round the World" at the Polo Grounds off Ralph Branca.
In 1964, the Phillies led the pack in the NL by 6 1/2 games with 12 to play. The Phillies lost 10 in a row and manager Gene Mauch decided to start Jim Bunning and Chris Short six times in the last 11 games. The Cardinals were the beneficiary of that collapse and went on to beat the Yankees in the World Series.
In 1978, the Red Sox held a 14-game bulge over the Yankees on July 19. That lead was gone by Sept. 10 as the Yankees slipped ahead of them into first place after a four-game sweep at Fenway Park dubbed "The Boston Massacre." The season ended in a tie and the Yanks won the AL East in an epic one-game playoff at Fenway, with late homers from Bucky Dent and Reggie Jackson.
Even as little as two years ago, the Tigers became the first team in baseball history to squander a three-game division lead with only four to play. They lost a one-game tiebreaker to the Twins in 12 innings.
But ultimately there's nothing to compare to this season-ending 15 minutes of baseball that began with the Braves losing to the Phillies, continued with the Red Sox losing to the Orioles, and concluded with Evan Longoria's Wild Card-winning walk off homer in the 12th inning against the Yankees at Tropicana Field.
While it may have been exhilarating for some to watch, it was excruciating for others to be a part of.
"We really had ourselves in prime position to go to October," said Braves veteran third baseman Chipper Jones. "Our slump combined with the Cardinals playing great baseball made for a shocking situation. You set out in Spring Training to get to this point, to get to the postseason and get to the World Series.
"When you get there, even though you get beat, you've achieved your goal. This is different because we didn't achieve our goal. We had it right there and we let it slip away for one reason or another. That's a tough pill to swallow."
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