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Castle's Corner

MLB: Mark Down 2014 As The Year Of The Collapse

Be it bad bullpens, bad batting approaches, bad karma, whatever, teams are going into startling tailspins like never before.

baseball field, sunset

And you thought 2014 was going to be the Year of the Replay. If you want, sub-title it the Year of the Confusing Catcher Blocking The Plate Rule.

If you want the brutal truth, 2014 is the Year of the Collapse. Never have so many frittered away so much ground in so little time.

Big division leads and glittering records mean nothing anymore. Be it bad bullpens, bad batting approaches, bad karma, whatever, teams are going into startling tailspins like never before. The disease that used to infect the Cubs, Red Sox and the 1964 Phillies – all masters of the massive collapse – has spread like an epidemic throughout the game.

You even have the double collapse this year. Can you name a team that has twice given up seven-game leads? Step up to the plate, gilded but relief-challenged Tigers. Detroit surrendered a pair of seven-game leads two months apart, the latter time falling three games behind the Royals in a 10-game swing in just 2 ½ weeks. Only the Royals’ offensive ineptitude has prevented an absolute embarrassment, and thus the Tigers had time to recover to win the AL Central.

Biggest lead lost had to be the Giants, coughing up a 10-game margin over the Dodgers in a single month. But with good pitching and team camaraderie, and master manager Bruce Bochy at the helm, the Giants have the chance to spin their post-season magic again.

The smell of a rotting baseball team replaces that of brats smothered in Secret Stadium Sauce at Miller Park. The Brewers have done well to the memories of the master collapse 90 miles down the road. Here’s their tale of woe. Fast starters in April, Milwaukee was 51-32 with a 6 ½-game lead in the NL Central on June 28. After some wobbly play, they recovered to stand 71-55, 2 ½ up on Aug. 19. You knew the trailing Cardinals would make a move, but not with so much help from the Brewers. On Sept. 10, Milwaukee appeared to have cashed it in with a 74-71 record, six games behind.

The Blue Jays, sparked by Mark Buehrle’s 10-1 record, appeared to finally provide a fresh face atop the AL East after so many tiresome seasons of Red Sox and Yankees dominance. The Jays got hot in late spring and appeared to be for real. But they also caught the disease with a twist, prolonging their agony compared to the other rapid-fire collapse gang. Toronto went from 14 over .500 and six games up on June 6 to .500 (66-66) and 10 games back Aug. 26.

Smart alecks might suggest Jeff Samardzija brought his “Strain” of Cubbie Occurrences (a term coined by Lou Piniella about seven years ago) from Chicago to Oakland. Billy Beane appeared to load up his roster with pitchers to match up in the postseason by trading for Samardzija and Jon Lester in July. The tactic appeared to work at first. On Aug. 9, Oakland was 72-44, four games up on the on-charging Los Angeles Angels.

Then the A’s simply stopped hitting. Any Samardzija or Lester mistake – at one point the Shark had fewer walks (10) than homers allowed (11) – cost them. The A’s dropped to 80-63, eight games out, on Sept. 8, a 12-game swing in just one month. They had a real special loss to the White Sox to achieve that low point. Catcher Tyler Flowers tied the game with a two-out, two-strike ninth-inning homer in the ninth, then won it with another homer in the 12th.

I’m no masochist. But it’s damn democratic to expose other markets to the concept baseball is the cruelest game in which failure is always close at hand. Success can simply be snatched out of your hands with no warning.

I work for a boss named Fitz here. He’s experienced the Red Sox collapsing in Sept. 2011 amid the chicken-and-beer clubhouse row, finishing last in Bobby Valentine’s swan song in 2012, winning it all in 2013 and back to the cellar this year. The poor man, though, is young enough to have been spared the all-time Red Sox collapse in 1978. That’s the crazy summer in which the Red Sox coughed up a 14-game lead over the Yankees on July 19, then had the corker of Bucky Dent thwarting their last-week comeback attempt in a one-game play-in game.

There were other impressive Red Sox pratfalls, including a 1974 team that had a seven-game lead on Aug. 23, only to finish seven games behind the Orioles at season’s end.

The Cubs’ tortured history, of course, drawfs that of the Red Sox, even if the mass neurosis of the latter’s fan base can’t admit it. The Chicagoans have been collapsing since 1947, the first sub-.500 season after their last pennant in 1945. Most famous was the 1969 reversal of fortune, in which a mid-August 10-game lead over the Amazing Mets turned into a final eight-game deficit at season’s end.

But I’ll offer up some staggering numbers. In 1977, the Cubs had a 47-22 record and 8 ½-game NL East lead on June 28. Then the air started leaking steadily out of the competitive balloon. The Cubs fell out of first in early August. They were still 12 games above .500 on Sept. 9. You hadn’t seen the highlight. The Cubs had to lose their final five in a row to finish exactly .500 at 81-81, 20 games out. I challenge any reader to offer up a similar collapse scenario.

Only four years previously, the Cubs were 47-31, 8 ½ in front on the division, on June 29. An old team then showed its age all at once. By Aug. 16, the Cubs were 56-64, 5 ½ games out in fourth place. I could bore you with assorted other examples, but you get the drift over why the Cubs have sports’ longest championship drought.

With collapse examples both fresh and consigned to history, the winning formula in the game appears to be just hanging around, a few games above .500 and a few games back, through the dog days of August. Then wait for a proud, formerly momentum-filled team to come back in the pack to you before they fall behind in a death spiral. Get hot, seize first and clinch it – not too early – to set up your playoff rotation.

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