The NFL season is officially underway, and the Cleveland Indians have a six game lead in the American League Central. With their 10-7 clubbing of the Astros on Thursday afternoon (aided by a two-run Lonnie Chisenhall foul tip), the Tribe wound up splitting the four-game series, further bruising Houston’s Wild Card hopes while easing the weary minds of their own fickle fan base. Sure, things are looking pretty comfy at the moment with all that breathing room and just 23 games to go. But like a Dwayne Rudd helmet toss with zero seconds on the clock, September can find cruel and unusual ways to sucker punch you when you’re feeling fat and happy.
We must remain mindful of those little tin signs hanging at the ballpark, “Be Alert For Foul Balls” . . . and over-confidence.
Yup, in old-school Cleveland fan fashion, unfazed by the fact that the Warriors Blew a 3-1 Lead in the NBA Finals, I am presenting some historical context today to keep us all on our toes these last few weeks. So if you’re looking for fun factoids—like how this is the first Indians club since 2002 with a pair of 30-homerun hitters; or the first one since 1999 with five qualifying players posting an OPS over .815; or the first since 1954 with five starting pitchers reaching 11 wins—you have come to the wrong place.
The question is simple: Can Cleveland blow a six-game lead with three weeks to go? Obviously, mathematically speaking, the answer is yes. But can they reaaaalllly? Is it plausible? Substantiated by historical precedent? Well…
Late season collapses certainly have become more complicated in the Wild Card era, particularly in the expanded Wild Card era, when you can slip on a banana peel, fall into a mud puddle, have a bucket inexplicably land on your head, and STILL manage to make it to a play-in game. In most cases, a team that blows a division lead in the final week(s) of the season would still be highly likely to earn one of the two available Wild Card spots. This year, however, the WC pile-up in the American League is big enough that even the unthinkable—a complete failure to make the playoffs—isn’t completely out of the question yet for the Indians. With seven games left against the Detroit Tigers, though, they will at least get to control their own destiny.
Since this is an intentional paranoia piece, however, let’s explore the ways in which the worse case scenario has indeed gone down in the past.
Exhibit A in the modern era has to be the 2007 New York Mets. As much as people remember the Colorado Rockies’ incredible hot streak to win the Wild Card that year, New York’s collapse over in the NL East stands as an almost equally remarkable feat on the flip side. This is the one clear-cut case in which a team with a dominant division lead in MID-SEPTEMBER managed not only to blow that lead, but to drop off the postseason map entirely. In fact, even if you gave the ’07 Mets our current expanded Wild Card format, they still would have finished one-game out of the second WC spot that year. Their meltdown is the ultimate cautionary tale for any team feeling overly good about itself coming down the home stretch. Metaphorically, it looked like this:
On September 9 of 2007, the Mets had 81 wins, identical to what the Tribe currently boasts. They also had a six-game lead in their division—again, same as our guys. By September 12, New York had extended that lead to seven games over Philadelphia with just 17 games left to play. That’s when the Phillies came to Shea Stadium and swept three straight, including two wins over Mets Hall of Fame starters Tom Glavine and Pedro Martinez.
By this point, there was little reason to panic. New York had 13 of its final 14 games against divisional bottom feeders Washington and Florida. And yet, unraveling like a $40 suit, they lost 8 of those 13, putting them into a tie with Philly heading into the final day of the season. Grizzled ace Tom Glavine took the hill with New York still in play for both the division and a possible Wild Card spot. Instead, Glavine was shelled for seven runs in a third of an inning, and the monumental collapse was complete.
While the Mets might be the most extreme and frightening case, it’s not an entirely isolated one.
Tito Francona himself has been through a much publicized September nightmare, when the infamous “chicken and beer” Red Sox of 2011 went 7-20 in the final month, dropping from first to third place in the AL East.
The 1995 California Angels ruled the West for two months, and still had a six-game lead of their own by September 9. That final stretch then proceeded to include both a 9-game losing streak and a 5-game winning streak, as the Halos manically tried to stave off an epic collapse. They did enough to earn a one-game playoff, but it was against Randy Johnson and Seattle. Lights out.
You might be wondering why I’ve waited this long to mention the late season collapse closest to our souls—the 2005 Indians, who dropped five out their last six to fall out of both the division and wild card races. Well, in fairness, that team was just as much an example of a miraculous September surge as a choke-job (and yes, this was the occasion in which White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen literally performed a choking gesture to mock the Indians in the season’s final series).
On September 5 of that year, Cleveland was actually 9.5 games behind Chicago and 2 games back of New York for the Wild Card. They then went out and won 17 of their next 20 to take over the WC lead and pull within 1.5 games of the Pale Hose. We really ought to remember September of ’05 as one of the great triumphs in club history, but that soggy ending, unfortunately, is what endures. After Grady Sizemore lost a ball in the late-September sun to let the Royals win in the ninth inning, 5-4, the Indians then dropped two of the three to the Devil Rays before suffering the season-ending sweep to the ChiSox. If the current Wild Card rules had applied back then, they would have earned themselves a one-game playoff in Boston. Instead, they went home despite a 93-win campaign.
This year, a mere 12-11 finish will give Cleveland 93 wins again. Hopefully this time that will prove worth its weight in pennant material. I feel pretty good about it, personally. I just like planting seeds of doubt and watching them grow. It’s a bit of a problem, I know.
At least it’s another reason to remember that the Warriors blew a 3-1 lead and lost the NBA Finals.