I think that would be an amazing title for a book chronicling the events of the last day, week and month of the 2011 regular season. The evening of September 28, 2011 provided baseball fans (and probably some casual observers) with the single most exciting night in the history of the sport. Perhaps any sport. To get some sense of what it was like, run over and visit my friend Christine Coleman at Aerys Sports and read her article, That’s a Historic Comeback Winner. I’ll wait.
Multiply that by two for the fans in Tampa, and double it again for the disappointment coming out of Atlanta and Boston.
As you do, consider the following
- Two teams entered the final game of the season tied for the wild card in both leagues
- Two teams had to play the best team in their respective league, that also happened to be in their division
- The other two teams played the team with the worst record in their division, and were among the worst in their respective league.
- Two games went into extra innings
- At one time, two of the games had an identical score of 7-0 while the other two were 3-2
- Two teams playing for the wild card were overcoming the greatest deficit in the era, while the other two teams were trying to prevent the greatest collapse.
- Three of the four games featured unimaginable drama in the late innings (one was a relative snoozer)
- The playoff fates of four cities were determined within a matter of minutes, with fans scrambling to switch channels or internet feeds to watch
- Two of the games featured blown saves from two of the most reliable closers in the game (one young, one veteran)
All of this from a sport that one of the nation’s largest sports networks has virtually abandoned in favor of “America’s New Pastime”. The best part about the evening – knowing that the producers at Fox and TNT are scrambling to piece together new promotional materials for their playoff coverage that include two teams they never thought would be in them.
It was a magical night indeed.
But not 1964
For the last six weeks, fans in Cardinals Nation have been hanging on to a frail thread of hope as if it were attached to the last life preserver from a sinking ship. Of course, I am referring to the historic comeback of the 1964 St. Louis Cardinals. The best thing to come out of the Cardinals recent play has been a renewed interest in how Bob Gibson, Bill White, Ken Boyer, Lou Brock, Dick Groat, Julian Javier, Ray Sadecki, Tim McCarver, Mike Shannon and the rest of the 1964 Cardinals accomplished the unthinkable. In many respects, this team accomplished a similar feat, but only in the last few games.
The 1964 team started their amazing run in early August (August 6 to be specific). The turnaround was slow, but it was there. It hit full throttle in the 8th inning of a game on August 24 when a pair of back to back home runs by Bill White and Ken Boyer put that game out of reach, and Bob Gibson turned into the dominating monster we all remember him to be. OK, so far that sounds like Allen Craig, Albert Pujols and Chris Carpenter. The difference is that the 64 Cardinals played at that level of intensity for nearly two months with very little, if anything, coming off their deficit. The Phillies were keeping pace, if not doing just a little bit better.
If you are curious, the Phillies collapse started in the top of the sixth inning of a game on September 21, more than six weeks after the Cardinals turnaround. In that game, Reds third baseman Chico Ruiz pulled a Glenn Brummer and stole home. Frank Robinson, one of the games greatest players, was at bat and the Phillies never saw that play coming. A rookie in 1964, Ruiz would only steal 11 bases, and just 34 in his major league career. Ruiz’s run would be the only one scored in the game. Before the Phillies could win an other game, the Cardinals had caught up and taken a 2 1/2 game lead – with just two games to play !
Looking back at the 1964 Cardinals, it is amazing how they found so many different ways to win a game. It was something different each night. No lead was safe, and no team was unbeatable. Whether you like him or not, you have to give Tony La Russa a lot of credit for embracing this approach in the last two weeks of the season (hit and run, double steals, squeeze bunts, an Escher like precision with the use of his bullpen). It also begs the question of why didn’t he do this earlier and avoid the drama ? We will have to table that for another day.
While the 2011 team accomplished the unthinkable, they are more like the 1974 Cardinals than those miracle Redbirds from 1964. This team is methodical, unflinching, focused and determined to be in the playoffs. Both teams had their ace on the mound in the final game. The difference is that the 2011 bats picked up Chris Carpenter on their shoulder instead of the other way around. As we had hoped, but secretly feared wouldn’t happen. Finally, 37 years later, the disappointments of the 1974 season can be put to rest, thanks to a 2 hit shutout from the ace of the era, and an offense that looked more Quinten Tarantino than Tony La Russa.
Historical or Hysterical
In all of our post-final-game hysteria, we are throwing around words like unprecedented, greatest ever, historic (and yes, I included a few of those earlier in this post). But is it ? Really ?
There is no question that nothing like last night has happened in the three division wild card era. But that only goes back to 1996. That’s just a blink of an eye to a game with history going back for more than a century. Individually, the closest comparison would be the 2007 Mets who fell from division leaders all the way out of the playoffs in the final week. The cause – poor pitching, both from the starters as well as the bullpen. The cause of the Atlanta collapse in 2011 – the same thing.
It gets far more interesting when you couple this with a similar situation in the American League. But is it historic ? And can either of these teams be compared to protagonist and antagonist from 1964 ?
For the first question, we just don’t know. The research is a bit tricky to do, and probably not worth the time and effort. It’s easier to forget how the game used to be played, breathe in the magical air from last night, and go about our business. But let’s not kid ourselves, what happened last night was not 1964.
In 1964, the team that collapsed had been in first place for 112 games, 87 of them in a row (Jul 16 – Sep 26). They hit a high of 31 games over .500 and were never under .500. At no time in the season were the Phillies more than 2 1/2 games out of first place. Furthermore, the collapse came out of nowhere and happened all at once.
Both the Red Sox and Braves had been in first place, and the Red Sox did manage to hit 31 games over .500 at the end of August, but neither team dominated their league like the Phillies did in 1964. Neither the Braves nor the Red Sox would have led the other two divisions in their league, and as such, were the third or fourth best team in the league. As for Tampa and St. Louis, they can only lay claim to being the third or fourth best in their respective leagues. Yeah, let’s crack the whip on some researchers so we can find out if any other third or fourth place teams made a similar nose dive. Heck, if you want an epic fail, just look at Pittsburgh, who were hanging around first place at the All Star Game.
No, this was all great fun, with an excitement level you could measure on the Richter Scale. Historic collapse (or comeback), less than you might think. Regardless, it was the single most exciting night of baseball in my lifetime, and I look forward to seeing how it is talked about a decade or more in the future. I sincerely hope that young Cardinals fans are taking all this in, and will pass it on to the next generation.
To Philadelphia and Beyond …..
Yes, my daughter grew up in the Toy Story era, so I apologize for that one. But it does give some indication what is in store for the Cardinals.
Their next stop is the Friendly City, which is never friendly for visitors in post-season. As we are still riding the wave of disbelief from winning the wildcard, let’s not get too carried away with the season record between the two clubs. The Cardinals have won six of the nine games, including a recent 3 out of 4 series in Philadelphia. As much as we want that to represent how the Cardinals will play in the series, we have to be realistic and expect that Philadelphia will be much different.
More to the point, the Phillies have a wealth of playoff experience. To complicate matters, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels can all turn in a game just like the one that Chris Carpenter pitched on the last day of the regular season. Edwin Jackson and Kyle Lohse are capable of doing that too, but likely is a word you aren’t – well, likely to throw around those two. And who knows which Jaime Garcia will show up. I suspect that Garcia will be limited to pitching at home where he has been very effective.
All I know is that the season just got at least three games longer, and I am going to enjoy every minute of them. How about you ?