Pennant Race Chokes, Goats and Heroes

For every winner, there's a loser. But does that commit us to spotting a goat for every hero? The question arises from the AL Central race; a lot of people are missing a good story. The Chicago

Sep 21, 2005 at 2:06 pm
Jerry Dowling

For every winner, there's a loser. But does that commit us to spotting a goat for every hero? The question arises from the AL Central race; a lot of people are missing a good story.

The Chicago White Sox held a nine-game lead at the All-Star break, then broke out with a four-game sweep in Cleveland and extended their lead over the Indians to 13 1/2 games. Now that the Indians have rallied to within 2 1/2 games through Sept. 19, the Sox are being cast as chokers.

There is so much interest in documenting another Chicago collapse that it doesn't matter what's really happening — a furious Indians charge. As of Sept. 19, the Tribe are 41-17 since the White Sox swept them right after the break. If the Indians should wind up winning the division, they shouldn't stand accused of sneaking in through the back door.

The White Sox know the Indians are coming through the front door, especially after the Tribe took them 7-5 in the first of a three-game series Sept. 19. The Sox could play poorly the rest of the way and still win 95.

It's completely out of line to say a club that wins 95 blew the division.

The White Sox haven't blown anything. Since the All-Star break, they're better than even through Sept. 18 (33-29). With the lead they owned, that would be good enough to hang on — if the Indians hadn't put on such a strong push.

Individual games might expose heroes and goats. Pennant races generally expose either heroes or goats, but not both. Of those, true chokers are the less common. A true choke occurs when the team with the lead plays so poorly that it loses the title without anyone else playing especially well. Go through the most unlikely pennant drives in baseball history, and the race is won much more often than it's lost.

The most recent exception is probably the worst tank job ever. On Aug. 15, 1995, the Anaheim Angels held a 13-game lead over the Seattle Mariners in the AL West. The Mariners were only 51-50. If the Angels had played even the rest of the way, they would have won the division by eight games.

Instead, the Angels produced two nine-game losing streaks as they dropped 27 of 41, playing like a last-place team down to the wire. The Mariners caught up with 27-16. Solid, but not incredible. At the end of the season, the teams were tied and the Mariners won a one-game playoff, 9-1. That's a choke.

The 1964 Phillies are a little less of a choke, only because the St. Louis Cardinals played so well to catch them. On Sept. 20, with 12 games left, the Phillies led by 6 1/2 games. Then they lost 10 straight, the last three to the Cardinals, who capped an eight-game winning streak. The Cards created a little suspense by losing two to the New York Mets at the start of the final series but clinched on the last day with a win.

The 1978 season is most remembered for the Red Sox blowing the AL East. But the Red Sox didn't lose that division — the New York Yankees won it. On July 17 the Yankees were 47-42, fourth place, 14 games behind the Red Sox. Yankees manager Billy Martin started picking fights with Reggie Jackson and George Steinbrenner, who forced his resignation and replaced him with Bob Lemon. From July 17 to Sept. 6, the Yankees were 35-14, while the Red Sox were 25-24.

Which meant the Yankees were within four games of the Red Sox when they met for a four-game series in Boston beginning on Sept. 7. Within a couple days, the Yankees took the lead. The Red Sox won their final eight, however, and a Yankees lost on the last day of the year, setting the stage for a deathless playoff game defined by Bucky Dent's home run.

Both teams finished the season with 99 wins. From July 17, the Reds Sox were 38-35, the Yankees 52-21. The Red Sox choked? The fact that the 1978 AL East race is remembered as a choke says the style of sports narrative took a distinctly negative turn since the last comparable race, the 1951 NL pennant chase, remembered as an incredible surge by the New York Giants and another heartbreak for the Dodgers.

From 1946 through 1953 the Dodgers never won the World Series though they won four pennants and finished two games out twice. Then there was 1951. Through Aug. 11, the Dodgers sat at 70-36, 13 games ahead of the Giants.

The Giants then tore off a 16-game winning streak and closed the gap to five games. When the season ended, the two were tied at 96-58, and the Giants proceeded to win a three-game playoff, ended by the most famous home run in history, Bobby Thompson's Shot Heard Round the World.

Chicago is starting to talk about 1969, the most horrifying collapse it's ever seen. On Sept. 2, the Cubs held a five-game lead on the Mets in the NL East. Almost simultaneously, the Cubs lost 11 of 12 while the Mets won 13 of 14. When all that ended on Sept. 18, the Mets held a five-game lead, which they expanded in the final two weeks of the season.

Did the Cubs choke? They were 84-52 on Sept. 2. If they maintained that pace, they would have won 100. They lost that chance with a 10-game losing streak. Really, though, they were overtaken by the Mets, who blasted from Sept. 2 through the postseason with a 30-7 record.

The Cubs lost all four games they played with the Mets that September, but the Mets still would have won the division if the Cubs won three of those games. The Mets finished the regular season with 100 wins.

The White Sox have been in first place every day this season, but that doesn't qualify them as a choke, not the way the Indians are playing. C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee are 14-1 between them since Aug. 1, Bob Wickman has made 14 straight saves and the Indians are every bit as hot now as the White Sox during the first half.

The Indians went to the last two weeks with a slight schedule advantage, playing the White Sox six times. Their other games come against Kansas City and Tampa Bay. The White Sox play their others against Minnesota and Detroit.

Whoever wins it wins it fair and square. Don't cough.