Wednesday night was not only one of the most thrilling nights of baseball in recent memory, it was also one of the most significant. Not one but two of the most severe regular-season collapses in the game's history were completed.
The dominoes fell throughout the night, each one more thrilling and improbable than the last. First the Cardinals' Chris Carpenter twirled a shutout to force the Braves to win to avoid elimination for the National League wild card. During the later innings of that game, the Braves blew a one-run lead in the ninth with the NL's saves leader and likely Rookie of the Year on the mound. Then the Rays, who had trailed 7-0 in the eighth inning and were down to their last strike, got new life via a game-tying home run from a pinch-hitter who had nine hits and one homer in 90 previous plate appearances on the season.
Roughly an hour later, the Phillies eliminated the Braves in the 13th inning. With the Rays in extra innings in Tampa, the Red Sox took a 3-2 lead into the bottom of the ninth in Baltimore and got to within one strike of forcing the Rays' to win or go home, only to blow the lead and the game over the course of Jonathan Papelbon's next four pitches. Just three minutes later, as the Red Sox entered the visitor's clubhouse in Camden Yards where the Rays' game was playing on the televisions, Evan Longoria hit just the second playoff-clinching walk-off homer in the final game of the regular season in baseball history. The first? Bobby Thomson's immortal "Shot Heard 'Round the World" in 1951.
When the dust cleared, the Cardinals and Rays were in the playoffs as the 2011 wild cards, and the Braves and Red Sox were facing the reality of having just become the first teams ever to blow leads as big as 8 ½ games in September.
On the morning of Aug. 26, the Braves were up 9 ½ games in the National League wild card race and 10 ½ games on the Cardinals, who were a game behind the Giants at the time. Former Baseball Prospectus statistician Clay Davenport calculated Atlanta's odds of making the playoffs at that point by simulating the remainder of the season a million times and gave them a 98.99 percent chance, or barely more than a one-percent chance of failing to make the playoffs.
On the morning of Sept. 4, the Red Sox had a nine-game lead in the American League wild card race with 24 games left to play. Davenport calculated their chance of making the playoffs at 99.78 percent, giving them less than a quarter of a one percent chance of missing out on October play.
Only four teams in baseball history had higher postseason odds than the Braves and failed to make the playoffs. One of those four teams was this year's Red Sox, and only two teams ever had better odds than them and still went home at the end of the regular season.
With the help of Davenport and this 2007 Baseball Prospectus article by Nate Silver, which was built off Davenport's data, I was able to compile the following list of the 18 teams with the highest playoff odds at any point during the season who ultimately failed to make the postseason:
Not all of those collapses were created equal, however. In fact, one could argue, not all of those teams collapsed, even though they all failed to make the playoffs. Consider, for example, the 1942 Dodgers, who had a 9 ½ game lead in the National League on the morning of August 16. The Dodgers played .595 ball the rest of the way and finished the season with an eight-game winning streak, but the second-place Cardinals went 37-6 (.860) over the same stretch and won the pennant by two games. Yes, the Dodgers had fallen off from the .705 pace they had established prior to August 16, but it was the Cardinals' comeback, not the Dodgers' mild cooling off, that caused the pennant to switch hands that year.
Though those 1942 Dodgers had the best post-peak-odds winning percentage of the 18 teams above, five others posted winning records after their peak. The 1993 Giants played .569 ball after August 7, won 14 of their last 17, and finished with 103 wins, but the Braves, buoyed by the mid-season addition of slugging first baseman Fred McGriff, went 39-11 (.780) over the same span and won the NL West by one game in the final season prior to the introduction of the wild card.
The 1978 Red Sox played .542 ball after August 12 and won the final eight games of their original regular season schedule, but lost a one-game tiebreaker at home to the Yankees, who went 34-12 (.739) leading up to the infamous Bucky Dent game.
The 1908 Giants and 1951 Dodgers were just one game over .500 after achieving their peak odds, but it still took exceptional performances from their rivals to capture the National League pennant. The 1908 Cubs went 14-2 (.875) to overtake the Giants, a run capped by a pennant-clinching win in the replay of the infamous Merkle's Boner game, and went on to win what remains their last World Series title. The 1951 Giants, meanwhile, went 37-8 (.822), including taking two out of three in a playoff against the Dodgers, to claim the pennant on Thomson's home run.
The last of the above teams to post a winning record after their playoff-odds peak was the 2002 Red Sox, but they don't fit the narrative of a collapse because their peak playoff odds came in early June, when the season was barely a third over, the result of them jumping out to a 40-17 (.702 start) in a year in which the wild card was in play. Ditto the 2003 Mariners, who peaked on June 18 after starting 48-22 (.686) and building up a 7 ½ game lead in the AL West.
Strike those seven teams from the above list and we get this list of the 11 greatest choke jobs in regular season history:
By peak odds, the 2011 Red Sox and Braves suffered the third and fourth greatest regular season collapses in baseball history. However there are two other ways to look at that list. The first is to rank the teams by their post-peak-odds winning percentage to see which won least often after peaking. Here is that version:
The other version is to rank them by the difference between their pre-peak and post-peak winning percentages, to see which declined the most:
Those two lists are fairly similar and create some distance between this year's Red Sox and Braves. Before we get into that, however, it's worth noting how late the '05 Indians' and '09 Tigers' playoff odds peaked. The Tigers had a three game lead on the Twins in the AL Central with just four games left to play, but lost the first three of those four games, the first to the Twins, who went 4-0 over the same span, to fall into a tie. Then, after pulling out a win in the season finale to force a one-game tiebreaker in Minnesota, lost that game in 12 innings.
The Indians were just 1 ½ games up in the wild card race with seven left to play, but the first four of those games came against the last-place Royals and Devil Rays. Also, over the last three the two teams that were tied for second in that race, the Yankees and Red Sox, who were tied atop the AL East, played each other. The Indians went 1-6 over their last seven games while Yankees and Red Sox both went 5-3 over the same span to finish two games ahead of the Indians, with the Red Sox claiming the wild card.
As shocking as those collapses were, they were also very sudden and didn't see the team in question suffer through an extended period of losing, so I'm almost tempted to eliminate them from the above lists as they were somewhat different animals. If I did, the 2011 Red Sox's collapse would rank as the second-worst collapse in major league history after that of the 1964 Phillies. That year, Philadelphia blew a 6 ½-game lead in the National League with 15 games left to play by going 3-12, including a 10-game losing streak to finish a game behind the eventual pennant winning Cardinals.
That "Philly Phlop" is among the most famous collapses in major league history, and what the Red Sox did this year ranks right there with it in terms of winning percentage and far outstrips it in terms of postseason odds per the first list on this page. The Braves collapse doesn't quite measure up to those two, but still ranks seventh on both of the lists above and fourth according to the comeback-free postseason odds list above. Using the lists above, however, one could argue that what we just saw from the Red Sox was the worst regular season collapse in major league history, and given the way it played out Wednesday night, it has a very good chance of being remembered as such.