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Labor Day Standings Don’t Guarantee Anything

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Bobby Thomson cradles the bat that won the 1951 pennant for the New York Giants.United Press

By Dan Schlossberg

Teams in first place on Labor Day don’t always wind up there.

That’s especially true in an era where second-place teams can make the playoffs too, with 10 of the 30 clubs eligible to keep playing into October.

Now that we’ve arrived at Labor Day Weekend, teams with sure tickets to postseason play are the six division leaders: the Braves, Brewers, and Giants in the National League and the Rays, White Sox, and Astros in the American. But some of them are looking over their shoulders at hard-charging rivals who know that’s it’s better to win the division than qualify for a sudden-death Wild Card Game.

September can be kind or cruel, as more than a century of baseball history shows.

Check out this sampler of memorable collapses from the postwar era alone:

The 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers, 13½ games ahead of the New York Giants in August, finished in a tie decided by Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard ‘round the world” against Ralph Branca. An eight-game September winning streak by the Giants set the stage.

After moving to Los Angeles, the 1962 Dodgers blew another pennant to the Giants, dropping 10 of their last 13 and forcing a playoff decided with another ninth-inning rally in the last game.

In 1964, Gene Mauch’s Philadelphia Phillies led by 6½ games with 12 to go but lost 10 straight as the Cardinals finished first, one game up on the Phils and Reds.

Five years later, Leo Durocher’s Chicago Cubs blew a 9½ game August lead and finished a distant second to the “Miracle” Mets of Gil Hodges in the first year of divisional play. The Cubs dropped eight in a row in September, dropping 17 of their last 25.

Even worse was the example set by the 1978 Boston Red Sox, who led the New York Yankees by 14 in July, finished in a tie, and dropped the sudden-death contest forever known as “the Bucky Dent game” – even though it was played in Fenway Park. Boston had to win its last eight games just to force a divisional tie.

The 1980 Houston Astros blew a three-game lead over the Dodgers in a three-game, season-ending series in Los Angeles, won the single-game divisional playoff that resulted, but then lost the NL Championship Series to Philadelphia.

Almost but not quite: the Milwaukee Brewers blew three straight games to the Baltimore Orioles on the final weekend before winning the finale to clinch the 1982 AL East title – their first.

In 1987, Sparky Anderson’s Tigers outlasted the Toronto Blue Jays, who lost their final seven after holding a 3½ game lead over Detroit with a week left. The Tigers won each game by one run.

Then there was 1993, when the Giants blew a 10-game NL West lead to the Atlanta Braves, finishing with 103 wins and a ticket home while the Braves wound up with 104. The wild-card series was created to prevent anything similar from happening again.

Just two years later, however, the Angels blew a 13-game August lead and lost a sudden-death divisional playoff game to Randy Johnson and the Seattle Mariners. Two nine-game losing streaks by the Halos didn’t help.

Proving that Home Sweet Home doesn’t always help, the 2007 New York Mets – up seven games on September 12 – lost 12 of their last 17, including a 1-6 final homestand.

That same year, the San Diego Padres, seeking their third straight NL West title, needed one win in a three-game series against the Colorado Rockies but never got it, even dropping a one-game unscheduled playoff game that went 13 innings.

The Mets had no miracle in 2008, when they had an 82-63 record and 3½ game lead on September 10 but 89-73 mark 18 days later as the Phillies caught them again. That made the Mets the first team to squander 3½ game leads in consecutive years.

Only a year later, the Detroit Tigers became the first team to blow a three-game lead with four games left – and then added insult to injury by losing a 12-inning AL Central tiebreaker against the Minnesota Twins. The Tigers had a seven-game lead after the first week of September but then went 11-16 to set up the playoff game.

The 2010 San Diego Padres, barely recovered from their 2007 last-weekend debacle, blew an August 25 lead of 6½ games by losing 10 in a row and failing to sweep San Francisco in the final series, winning only the first two.

Two of the worst collapses of the 21st century occurred in the same year.

The Red Sox relinquished a nine-game September lead, posting a 7-20 mark for the month, as Tampa Bay rallied from a 7-0, eighth-inning deficit against the Yankees to win the last game and the AL wild-card spot.

In the National League, the Atlanta Braves lost their last five and 18 of their last 26, allowing the Cardinals to win the wild-card after trailing by 10½ games on August 25 and 8½ on Sept. 1.

A couple of other collapses worth noting involved the 1914 and 1934 New York Giants. Even with Christy Mathewson en route to 24 wins, John McGraw’s crew plodded along with a .500 record in September as the Boston “Miracle” Braves finished 34-10 and took the NL pennant by 10½ games.

Twenty years later, the Giants became the first club to enter September with a seven-game lead it couldn’t hold. As in 1914, the team played at a .500 pace in September – losing to the Gashouse Gang Cardinals, who finished 33-12.

Now that baseball has six division races, it’s a good bet several will have similar storylines.

HTP weekend editor Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ is a baseball historian who writes for forbes.com, Latino Sports, USA TODAY Sports Weekly, Ball Nine, and Sports Collectors Digest. His e.mail is ballauthor@gmail.com.

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