Jayson Stark to the microphone please:
“The funny thing is, 3 weeks ago we had NO races to talk about. NONE. And now Boston and Atlanta, well, they’re scuffling. If the Rays catch the Red Sox it’ll be the first time in the HISTORY of divisional play that a team made up a 9 game deficit this late in the season. So, is it likely? Well, you’re talking about something that’s NEVER happened. But, it certainly COULD happen this year.”
Tim Kurkjian Interjection:
“And the Braves, the Braves lost their 4th game in the last two weeks when they had a lead in the 8th inning and the entire year up to that point they’d only lost 3 such games. In fact, the last time a team with a rookie closer with an over 95% save conversion rate, blew three games this late in September was 1964. And, who was that closer? Jack Baldschun of the Phillies. After Jack Baldschun retired he became a Little League pitching coach in Huntsville, Alabama until he decided to finally retire in 1999. Who was his last pupil? You guessed it, Craig Kimbrel.*”
*None of that is True.
You get the point, though, right? The Red Sox and Braves are in dire straits. The Rays are hot. The Cardinals are extremely warm. It’s got the attention of people in Philly, because we’re suddenly panicked about facing the Cardinals in round one. They were supposed to be out. When your team has Brad Lidge, you don’t want to face Albert Pujols. That’s the rule. But, the Cardinals keep winning and the Braves keep blowing games. The Red Sox lost 6 of 7 to the Rays to usher them back into the race. They’re struggling with the Orioles. Both these teams have blown the lion’s share of huge leads. So, they must be choking, right?
The gold-standard of baseball choking is the 1964 Phillies. I’m fairly sure they blew a five game lead with four to play. At least that is how it feels when you hear the story recounted. No doubt they blew a very comfortable margin. Gene Mauch will forever take his lumps. I wasn’t around in 1964, and so I can’t account for what happened game by game (and I’m certainly not going to research it), but I imagine it wasn’t just a pure choke. In baseball, these things tend to be cumulative team efforts, and unfortunately timed cold spells.
I will buy the fact that you can choke in an individual sport. Go watch the highlights from any Ryder Cup. Seriously, pick any year. 2010–Hunter Mahan hits a chip 13 inches. 1995–Johnny Miller said of Jay Haas, “You know you’re choking when your pop-ups start going crooked.” 1991–Mark Calcavecchia played the last four holes at Kiawah in something like 23-over par. That’s choking, but how does that translate into a team sport? Was Chipper Jones “lost in the lights” ground ball last night a choke? Did that in turn make Kimbrel choke? It’s unlikely.
The biggest problem the Red Sox have is their pitching isn’t even good enough to choke, they just stink, and their offense (suffering from some injuries) can’t carry the whole load anymore. Can a team that starts John Lackey and Andrew Miller on a regular basis choke? Maybe, but it seems to me that the Red Sox pitching is just finding its level at an inopportune time. I understand it was a huge lead, but they could still easily make the playoffs. They’re still going to win over 90 games with the 21st best ERA in the league and the 3rd fewest quality starts of any team. That doesn’t sound that chokey.
And, the Braves, well I imagine no one remembers now, but at the All-Star Break I wondered how long the Braves bullpen could maintain this workload. We’re now at 77 games for Craig Kimbrel. Eighty-two for Venters. Venters’s September ERA is 4.82. Kimbrel’s is 4.62 after being 0.00 in August. You look at these guys and the first thing I think of is Antonio Bastardo. Bastardo’s September ERA is a robust 9.00. That’s after a 1.74 in August. I haven’t heard that Bastardo is choking. I’ve heard he’s completely out the gas. The difference is, the Phillies held their big lead and have everything clinched, but if the Phillies were entirely dependent on a couple of Bastardos, well they might be “choking” too.
The great thing about the 162-game season is that it can’t be faked. If the season was half as long, we might have ended up with Pittsburgh in the playoffs. We know now how unjust that would have been. Or, if the season was 40 games long, the Marlins could have been a wild-card contender. I guess the Marlins did their choking in May and June when they could hardly win a game.
The fact is the Braves had been skating by on pitching all year and it’s catching up to them and the Red Sox had been covering up a glaring weakness and they’re no longer doing as good a job. Could they choke in the end? As entire teams? I suppose they could, but it’s their deficiencies as teams that got them in this predictament to begin with.