Thursday, September 29, 2011

Oh, my, did that just happen?

For those who follow baseball with much passion, Wednesday's waterfall of decisive games, epic comebacks, and grotesque collapses was a once-in-a-fandom event.  That kind of thing Just. Doesn't. Happen.  Teams don't lose nine-game leads for playoff position in September.  It's impossible to be that bad after having been so good, right?  Nothing is impossible, my friends; after that display even skiing through a revolving door begins to look conceivable.

For most the headline-grabbing event is the long, horrific fall of the Boston Red Sox.  Atlanta Braves fans are in the unenviable position of either suffering in silence or interjecting, "Hey, what about us?  We fell apart just as badly . . . oh, wait . . . ."  And in truth there are reasons that the Red Sox collapse is in fact a bigger deal, which we shall address anon.  But to the Braves first.

Earlier in September the Braves had an 8 1/2-game advantage in the chase for the wild card position, the final playoff spot in the National League.  The St. Louis Cardinals, the team trying to close that deficit, looked a bit disoriented and lost, and the Braves were riding their old-style formula of devastating pitching (now with a real bullpen, something the Braves teams of the '90s never quite mastered) and occasionally scoring a run or two to win the game.  After Wednesday's games, the Braves resided one game behind the Cardinals, looking at an offseason beginning sooner than anyone had anticipated.

At least as of the time their game ended, no one had frittered away such a large last-month-of-the-season lead and missed out on the playoffs, ever.  But if one were going to look for a team susceptible to such a collapse, the Braves weren't the worst candidate to pick.  So much of their success was bound up in their pitching, particularly a bullpen featuring a couple of young flamethrowers in Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel, that if for some reason that pitching hit a rough patch there was no Plan B.  The kind way to say it is to call the Braves "offensively challenged."  Chipper Jones should cruise into the Baseball Hall of Fame someday, but he's on the downside of his career and so frequently injured or banged up as to be a shell of his former self.  Last year's rookie phenomenon, Jason Heyward, practically re-wrote the definition of "sophomore slump," to the point of losing the confidence of manager Fredi Gonzalez and being replaced for long stretches of time by a career minor-leaguer who had never really hit in the minor leagues.  (Here's a little-appreciated truth about baseball, particularly hitting: you can't get out of a slump by not playing.)  Dan Uggla, the slugging second baseman acquired in the offseason, played as if the last letter of his name had been replaced with a "y."  Aside from rookie first baseman and possible Rookie of the Year Freddie Freeman (no relation), there wasn't a lot of dependable offense there.  If the pitching faltered, even a little bit, the Braves were in trouble.  And that's exactly what happened.  It was hardly a total collapse, but Kimbrel and Venters became a little bit more hittable, the starters couldn't spare the rest of the bullpen by pitching eight or nine innings, and the Cardinals got hot at the right time to take advantage.  Now Cardinal fans can extend their good-byes to Albert Pujols a little bit longer.

Only an hour or two later, the Red Sox got the Braves off the hook, just a little bit, with their "yes we can!" answer to the Braves' "can you top this?" moment.  Boston completed a nine-game collapse with a loss to the Baltimore Orioles, while the Tampa Bay Devil Rays defeated the New York Yankees.  That rather mere description does not do justice to Wednesday night's turn (and turn again, and turn again...) of events.

Up to the ninth inning of their game, the Red Sox led, 3-2.  In the meantime, the Rays trailed the Yankees as much as 7-0 before beginning their comeback, which was not completed until the ninth inning with a barely-fair home run by one Dan Johnson, whose sole purpose in baseball seems to be to destroy the Red Sox.  In 2008 he hit a crucial home run in the Rays' pennant push, and did it again late last season.  In between, Johnson spent the 2009 season in Japan and most of the 2010 season in Durham, NC, home of the Rays' AAA farm team.  This spring something odd happened; the minor-league lifer actually got to leave spring training with the major-league team instead of shuffling off to Durham.  Faced with this unexpected karmic windfall, Johnson responded by mustering a batting average barely over .100 (in a sport in which a .200 average is a good sign you should seek alternate employment).  Quickly he was shuffled back to Durham, there to bide his time until the odd baseball quirk known as September roster expansion allowed him to return to the majors, in time to destroy the Red Sox yet again.

With the game thus tied, matters continued into extra innings, in which the 12th inning finally brought triumph in the form of a barely-fair home run from a much more conventional source, Evan Longoria, the Rays' most highly-renowned player.  This home run occurred just in time for Red Sox players to see it on their clubhouse TVs upon trudging dejectedly in after their ninth-inning loss, due to a sharp single by Robert Andino, who is now in the process of receiving a vulgar middle name in perpetuity from Red Sox fans, in the manner of Bucky Effing Dent (1978) and Aaron Bleeping Boone (2003).  Andino's single, appropriately enough, ticked off the glove of Sox left-fielder Carl Crawford, finishing up his own horribly disappointing first season in Boston as the recipient of a very pricey free-agent contract, allowing him to escape the horrors of playing for Tampa Bay.

Let the irony wash over you for few moments.  Enjoy that?  Good.

Now as to why the Boston collapse was so much more of an attention-grabber than Atlanta's:

The Red Sox, despite a history of being the plucky underdog to the Evil Empire in New York, are in fact their own Evil Empire these days.  Their payroll isn't a whole lot smaller than that of the Yankees, and their fan base has acquired the same level of smug obnoxiousness as that of the Yankees, despite trailing in World Series championships twenty-something to two.  Their chief offseason acquisitions before this year were classic examples of a large-market club plucking away the premium players small-market teams can no longer afford; Crawford from the Rays via free agency and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez from the San Diego Padres via trade.  With such offensive improvements added to what was believed to be a solid pitching staff, the Red Sox were widely picked to waltz through the American League and into the World Series. surveyed a group of forty-five writers, analysts, former players, etc. and all of them--yes, all forty-five--picked the Red Sox to win their division, forget that messy wild-card stuff.  (The Braves were a frequent, but by no means consensus, pick to win the NL wild card; in other words, they ended up about where those ESPN foofs picked them to end up.)

It should be pointed out that as of September 1, those forty-five experts appeared to be right on the money.  The Red Sox were in fact in first place, something not true of the Braves in their division; this simply adds another level of incredulity to the overall collapse.

Meanwhile, the Rays, to put it mildly, spend less on their roster.  A lot less.  By all accounts the Cardinals in the NL were much likelier playoff candidates in the AL.  The Rays, despite playoff turns in 2008 and 2010, were not expected to make the playoffs at all this year.  Since nobody goes to games in St. Petersburg (the Tampa Bay area does not deserve this team) and the stadium, a goofy-looking lopsided dome, isn't a moneymaker in the mode of iconic Fenway Park, the Rays operate with a limited budget.  Besides Crawford, the Rays bid goodbye to one of their top starting pitchers and virtually all their relief pitchers over the offseason, for budgetary reasons.  Their two on-the-cheap free-agent signings were Johnny Damon, most notable for rocking the Jesus look during Boston's 2004 World Series run, and the erratic Manny Ramirez, who ended up "retiring" five games into the season due to being busted for performance-enhancing drugs.

So, on paper at least, the disparity between Boston and Tampa Bay was more impressive, by far, than the disparity between Atlanta and St. Louis.  And yet there Boston was, looking if though they had suffered some sort of collective mind-wipe that left them unable to remember how to play baseball.  The Rays had a good month of September, but not great; such was the magnitude of Boston's slide.  The Rays play at Texas Friday night, the Red Sox go home to wonder what happened.

If you've waded through this whole thing waiting for some grand theme or mini-sermon to top it off, you are about to be grandly disappointed.  There is no grand theme.  Such unfathomable swings and falls defy thematization.  (I'm certainly not going to bring divine intervention into it; I do believe God has a flair for the preposterous, but this?)  Folks, stuff happens.  Wildly improbable, statistically unthinkable things happen, and trying to extract some lesson from it is a bigger fool's errand than my own.  Enjoy it, if you're a fan of the Rays, Cardinals, or underdogs; suffer through it, if you're a fan of the Braves, Red Sox, or corporate oligarchies or whatever.  This is that thing that sport (particularly baseball) does, every so often, that makes them irresistible to those who love it.  It certainly doesn't happen every season.  Most years a team like the Red Sox prevails, and handily, while the Rays go scraping for change between the sofa cushions.  But not this year.  Sometimes the underdog wins, and there's not a whole lot to do but shake your head and wonder, and enjoy.

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