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Baseball Choke Jobs: Regular Season

Monday morning in Gotham the tabloids were ablaze with headlines screaming the dreaded epithet "chokers" at the New York Mets following their second consecutive season-ending disintegration at the hands of the Florida Marlins. Sure enough the Mets, playing in their final season at homely Shea Stadium, did let a September lead slip away once again - but it really wasn't a choke.

Their season became doomed when they lost their closer Billy Wagner for the year and an already suspect bullpen became an evident and overwhelming liability. So the Mets never really had a chance or even deserved to make the playoffs this year.

But last year, certainly last year, the Mets did choke - in fact it's one of the great breakdowns of all time, certifying and solidifying their membership in this most (dis)honorable club of baseball infamy.

There have been many storied collapses in the more than 100 years of America's pastime, far too many to list in one summary. So for the sake of brevity and to avoid statistical overload (an unfortunate, daily occurrence in contemporary sports parlance), I've limited these epic failures to those that have taken place since the inception of divisional play in 1969. I've also organized them into three categories - a team's dissolution over the course of an entire season, postseason series and postseason game. There is significant overlap, as oftentimes a disastrous meltdown in a postseason game will lead to an historic series failure as well.

There are several ways to view a choke or collapse. After all, one team's choke is another team's incredible or miraculous comeback. Herein lies the dilemma, the matter of when it is appropriate to utilize the word 'choke' most aptly. The "greatest" chokes have a brutal psychological component to them, allowing writers and followers of the sport to wax poetic and downright novelistic about the historical implications these breakdowns possess.

So with this in mind, let's start with the five greatest regular season chokes. These teams of sadness and misfortune all let large, significant leads slip away and failed to make the postseason after it seemed an utter certainty.

CHOKES OVER THE COURSE OF REGULAR SEASON

No. 5 - San Diego Padres, 2007. This is perhaps a case where one can claim it wasn't purely a team breakdown but rather just being unfortunate in having another team play even hotter baseball down the stretch. The Padres held a 5-game lead in the loss column over the Colorado Rockies with only nine games remaining. San Diego had also been playing well in September, recording seven straight wins at one point. But the Rockies went on their historic tear, winning 14 of their final 15, including 11 in a row, to force that extraordinary one-game playoff.

But for Padres fans, there should never even have been a playoff game at all as Trevor Hoffman blew a save in the next-to-last game of the season against the Milwaukee Brewers. And to prove that indeed something sinister and mystical was in the works, it was the son of Tony Gwynn - the Padres Hall of Famer - who tripled against Hoffman to win that game.

San Diego went on to lose their final regular-season game as well and that loss put the Padres in that ever-tenuous position of having to play the Rockies at Coors Field. Sure enough, the overrated Hoffman once again blew a save when, after the Padres had scored twice in the top of the 13th, the Rockies rallied for three runs in the bottom of the inning to claim the NL Wild Card.

No. 4 - New York Mets, 2007. Last year's season offered up more than its share of wrenching drama and hence 2007 is granted another entry into this infamous roll. The Mets started the season strong and appeared to be progressing on cruise control toward a divisional championship, holding a 7-game lead on Sept. 12 with 17 left to play. Things were indeed looking even brighter as Pedro Martinez returned from the disabled list in September as this was sure to solidify their position and aid them in the playoffs.

But the Mets lost four in a row, including a three game sweep by the Phillies to narrow their lead to only 2½ by Sept. 17. They then proceeded to lose five out of six to the lowly Washington Nationals but were still in a position to win the division entering the final weekend of the season when they started their series against the Florida Marlins.

The Mets lost the first game to fall into second place for the first time since May. Even so, they still had a chance to win the division or at least force a playoff game on the last game of the season. But Tom Glavine imploded in the first inning, giving up seven runs and the fans at Shea were forced to witness the worst moment in Mets history. Last year's hellish finale was surely in the hearts and minds of Mets fans this year as they saw history - at least partly - repeat itself.

No. 3 - Boston Red Sox, 1978. There will be many who will scoff at not seeing these Red Sox occupying the pole position in this list of mighty collapses. After all, the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry is the best in sports. But Boston didn't merit that abominable distinction for one simple reason - the Sox really didn't choke that much.

Really, how much can a team be vilified after winning 99 games? Sure, the Boston Massacre was relived in New England when the Yankees outscored the Red Sox 42-9 during a four-game sweep, which concluded with the Yankees in first place after making up an unbelievable 14 games in less than two months. (The Yankees were 14 games out of first place in mid-July). But the Red Sox still played over .500 baseball after the All-Star break.

Also consider the Sox had an astounding 56-25 record at the halfway mark, with only six losses in that stretch at home. It would have been nearly unprecedented if Boston had kept up that pace. And the Yankees were nowhere near as bad the first few months of that season as many faulty memories would have it so. The Yanks were a more than respectable 46-35 at season's midpoint - certainly good enough for first place in other years.

So rather than say the Red Sox choked away their lead, I feel it best to state that the Sox choked during parts of the second half - more specifically two periods, one in July when they lost nine out of 10 and another stretch in late August and early September when Boston lost 14 out of 17, including the aforementioned sweep at the hands of the Yankees.

At the end of that series, few would have doubted it was a foregone conclusion that the Yankees would run away with the East Division title. But the Red Sox staged a comeback of their own, overcoming a three-game deficit, winning 10 of their final 12 eight in a row at one point - to force that spectacular one-game playoff at Fenway. We all know the story by now - Bucky "Freakin' " Dent's improbable home run along with Reggie Jackson's overlooked monster shot to the bleachers in center catapulted the Yankees toward their second consecutive World Series triumph.

No. 2 - Chicago Cubs, 1969. The 1969 edition of the Cubs were the perpetrators of the most famous regular-season collapse - in terms of net games lost in the standings - in baseball history. This is perhaps more than partially due to the fact that the Cubbies succumbed to none other than the previously laughable Mets. And no city hypes a comeback or failure in sports better than New York.

Chicago held a 10-game lead in mid-August. What is truly remarkable about this famous failure is that the Cubs not only finished in second place behind the eventual World Series champion Mets - but that they finished eight games behind, as they lost 18 games in the standings in only seven weeks! This is Greg Norman at the '96 Masters territory. But if one just takes a cursory glance at the 1969 Cubs season, it is not altogether unlike those 1978 Red Sox.

The Cubs had only one month where they played below .500 ball - unfortunately that was September when they could only muster a 8-17 record. Contrast this with the Mets who had arguably the greatest seven-week stretch in the history of the sport, considering the circumstances, when they won an unbelievable 37 out of their last 48 games to end the season with a remarkable 100 victories.

Many superstitious Cub fans will point to the "black cat incident", sealing the Second City's misfortune. On Sept. 9 with the Cubs still clinging to a one-game first-place lead while they took on the Mets in a crucial seriers at Shea, a black cat emerged from the stadium walls and ran back and forth in front of the Cubs dugout, a clear signal that heartbreak would once again reign over the Cubs.

No. 1 - California Angels, 1995. Though the Angels don't immediately conjure up the lyrical images and feelings that sports fans nostalgically associate with heartbreaking collapses from older teams, I nonetheless award the dubious honor of the No. 1 slot to the 1995 Angels for the sheer spectacular nature of their choke.

During this first post-strike season, California (they were still called California then as the name wasn't changed to Anaheim until 1997) led the Seattle Mariners by as many as 15 games during the season, including a 13-game lead on Aug. 2. The Halos still were ahead of the Randy Johnson-led Mariners by six games on Sept. 12. But the Angels, who already had a star-crossed past in their short lifespan as a franchise, had two separate nine-game losing streaks while Seattle kept on winning.

The Angels did win their final five games to force a one-game playoff in Seattle. However, there was little drama remaining as Johnson pitched the Mariners to an easy 9-1 victory. The Mariners went from being a perpetual league joke to a potent force in the American League West. This September failure by the Angels has perhaps been overshadowed by other events in the 1995 postseason, mainly Seattle's stunning defeat of the Yankees in the divisional series.

Wednesday - The top five postseason series chokes.

Award-winning columnist Tim Joyce provides regular commentary for RealClearSports on Sundays and Tuesdays. Email: joyce.timothy@gmail.com

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