On August 23, the Texas Rangers were sitting pretty. The were 75-53, 3.5 games up on second place Oakland in the American League Western Division, and they were tied with Detroit for the best record in the league. Their only concern seemed to be whether they could wrestle home field advantage from the Tigers. Upcoming on the schedule were the White Sox, Mariners, and Twins - easy pickings. The possibility of missing the playoffs for the first time in three seasons likely did not cross their minds.
They dropped the final two games of the series against the White Sox. A Mariners sweep righted the ship, but then they dropped two of three from the lowly Twins. They entered a big road series against Oakland only one game up on the A's, and dropped two of three to fall behind their Western Division rival. Dropping two of three to the Angels made it a losing road trip.
Texas headed home to right the ship, but sweeps to the Pirates and A's set off alarm bells. The Rangers lost the first game of their road trip in Tampa to stretch the losing streak to seven before stabilizing things with a split of the four game series. In all, the Rangers have dropped 16 of their last 24 games (the fourth word stretch in the league over that time), and have not won a series in September. Today, the Western Division title is out of reach, and the Rangers are tied with the Rays (who have been ice cold as well) for a Wild Card spot, and are just a half-game out of missing the post-season entirely.
Late season collapses are fascinating. Perhaps there is something to the psychology of a clubhouse that panics and chokes, or maybe its just pure mathematical outlier, but there is something amazing about a team that has played at a .600 winning percentage all year suddenly unable to take one out of every three ballgames. Here are some notable late-season choke jobs:
1951 Brooklyn Dodgers - "Dem Bums" held a seven-game lead going into September, and were still up 4.5 games in the final week of the season. The Dodgers dropped four out of the remaining five games while the Giants ended the year on a seven game winning streak to catch Brooklyn, forcing a three-game series to determine the National League champion. The final game came down to Bobby Thomson versus Ralph Branca, and the rest is history.
1969 Chicago Cubs - The cursed Cubbies had an eight-game lead on the Mets on August 18. It only took them 20 games to cough up that lead. A September record of 8-17 would put them far behind the "Amazin' Mets", a full eight games back by the time the dust had settled.
1978 Boston Red Sox - The Red Sox were up seven games going into September, but lost the lead after dropping nine of eleven. They actually went on an eight-game win streak to end the year and force a one-game playoff against the Yankees, only to have Bucky "F." Dent dash their hearts.
1984 Minnesota Twins - This choke job doesn't get as much attention and it isn't as severe, but the young Twins had a five game lead in the Western Division on August 22. They would then drop seven of eight before facing off against the second place Royals in Kansas City. The Royals would take two out of three, and a week later in Minnesota, would take two of three again. The Royals and Twins were neck-and-neck going into the final week of the year, but the Twins lost their final six games of the year to give the Royals the division.
1995 California Angels - The Halos were up 9.5 games on August 20 and enjoyed a six game lead on September 12. A nine-game losing streak in late September was followed up by a ten game-losing streak and soon the plucky Seattle Mariners had caught the Angels to force a one-game playoff. Seattle' Luis Sojo hit a bases-clearing double to break the game wide open and send the Mariners to their first ever post-season.
1995 Kansas City Royas - This isn't exactly a choke job, since the '95 Royals never had a lead. But on September 18, they were just 1.5 games out of the first Wild Card in league history, trailing only the Mariners and Yankees. Kansas City would drop eleven of their last thirteen games, putting them far out of contention, the last time they would be in a race this late in the year until now.
2007 New York Mets - The Mets were up seven games on September 12 before a pair of five-game losing streaks caused them to cough up the lead to Philadelphia. The Mets still could have forced a one-game playoff by beating the lowly Marlins at home to end the year, but a lackluster 8-1 loss dashed any post-season hopes for Mets fans.
2011 Atlanta Braves - On September 8, the Braves were 84-60 with a 7.5 game lead in the Wild Card race over St. Louis. The Braves would drop 13 out of 18, including five in a row to end the season to finish one game back of the Cardinals.
2011 Boston Red Sox - Going into September, Boston had the best record in the league. They would stumble badly in September, going 7-20, falling seven games back of New York in the Eastern Division (and blaming it on fried chicken and beer!). On the final game of the season, they dropped an exciting game to the Orioles on a walk-off Robert Andino single to fall behind Tampa Bay for the Wild Card spot that would cause the General Manager to resign and the manager to be fired.