September Stretch Promises Surprises

ALSO: BELEAGUERED BULLPEN COULD SINK BRAVES' BID FOR 4TH STRAIGHT TITLE

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Pregame Pepper

Did You Know?

After more than two months on the IL, Houston third baseman Alex Bregman had two hits and had an RBI in his first game back . . .

Eddie Rosario also returned with a bang, collecting a two-run triple against the Giants in his first start for the Braves in a 9-0 Truist Field romp to close out a homestand . . .

Brandon Belt is the first Giant since Pablo Sandoval in September 2011 to have two or more multi-homer games in the same calendar month . . .

Yankees rookie Luis Gil is the only major-league pitcher since 1893 to throw at least 4 2/3 scoreless innings in each of his first three career appearances . . .

In this strikeout-prone season, both Aaron Nola and Corbin Burnes tied the Tom Seaver feat of 10 straight strikeouts . . .

In his first three starts since 2019, Boston’s Chris Sale went 3-0 with a 2.35 ERA, 12.3 strikeouts and 1.8 walks per nine innings, and a .228 opponents’ batting average.

Leading Off

Labor Day Standings Don’t Guarantee Anything

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.

Cleaning Up

Atrocious Atlanta Bullpen Sabotages Team’s Title Drive

By Dan Schlossberg

What a difference a year makes.

Last year, the Atlanta Braves went 27-0 in games they were leading after seven innings.

This year, quite the opposite.

After letting closer Mark Melancon jump to San Diego via free agency and ignoring the signs that veterans Chris Martin and Shane Greene were rusting, Brian Snitker’s relief corps has been more bull than pen.

With the exceptions of Tyler Matzek and the rejuvenated Luke Jackson, it’s been impossible to find reliable late-inning help.

The just-concluded series in Los Angeles, where the Dodgers swept, is a case in point.

The Braves blew late leads in two of the games, including a heart-wrenching 4-3 defeat when the home team plated two runs with two outs in the eighth against Martin – who had just relieved Matzek.

As a result, Atlanta finished its eight-game stretch against the Yankees, Giants, and Dodgers with a 2-6 record – and two-game lead over second-place Philadelphia in the NL East.

The Braves bullpen is not just a gaping hole – it’s a lunar crater.

Even closer Will Smith can’t be counted on. He has a nasty tendency of throwing home run balls to the first batter he faces. Or sometimes the worst batter he faces.

In one game, a rookie catcher with the weak-hitting Washington Nationals came to the plate with a .089 batting average but walked away as the hero.

The Philadelphia Phillies patched together a two-out walk and home run – the first Luke Williams ever hit – to take a 2-1 win at Citizens Bank Park.

Entering play Friday, he has given up nine home runs – NINE – in 54 innings pitched. That’s more than some starters give up in a whole season. No wonder he has six losses and four blown saves.

On the plus side, however, Smith did save Atlanta’s 6-5 win at Coors Field, a notorious hitters’ paradise, with a scoreless ninth Thursday night. Jacob Webb, back from Gwinnett, even threw two innings without yielding a run.

If Snitker had any hair, he would have pulled it out by now in frustration.

It seems that the best thing the manager can do as his division lead disappears is to deploy some of his starting staff in relief. Drew Smyly, who also suffers from gopherball disease, might prove an inning or two of lefty help once in awhile. And any of three young southpaws – Kyle Muller, Tucker Davidson, or even Sean Newcomb – might be better than the likes of Josh Tomlin (now on the IL) or te fast-fading Martin.

With Ian Anderson and Touki Toussaint joining Charlie Morton, Max Fried, and breakthrough starter Huascar Ynoa in the rotation, the pitching problem certainly centers on the pen. Whether Sniker and pitching coach Rick Kranitz can fix will determine whether the team reaches the playoffs – and beyond.

With the Mets and Phillies fattening up on the Nationals and Marlins every night, that razor-thin lead looks anything but safe. The next three games — all at Coors — are critical, especially since the Rockies have more wins at home than the Giants.

HTP Weekend Editor Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ also covers baseball for forbes.com, Ball Nine, USA TODAY Sports Weekly, Sports Collectors Digest, and more. His e.mail is ballauthor@gmail.com.

Timeless Trivia

During their madcap run to the 1951 NL pennant, the New York Giants unfurled a 16-game winning streak in August . . .

The Milwaukee Brewers, now in the National League, hold the American League record for most hits (31) and most singles (26) in a game – set Aug. 28, 1992 in a 22-2 romp over Toronto . . .

Thanks to Kyle Hendricks, who somehow survived a severe payroll purge to become the first 14-game winner this season, the Chicago Cubs eked out a 2-1 win over the Reds to end a 12-game losing streak . . .

Yadier Molina is retiring after 2022 but Miguel Cabrera says he wants to play two more years . . .

Darryl Strawberry, reacting to an article comparing him to Ted Williams, said “Who’s Ted Williams?”


Know Your Editors

HERE’S THE PITCH is published daily except Sundays and holidays. Brian Harl [bchrom831@gmail.com] handles Monday and Tuesday editions, Elizabeth Muratore [nymfan97@gmail.com] does Wednesday and Thursday, and Dan Schlossberg [ballauthor@gmail.com] edits the weekend editions on Friday and Saturday. Readers are encouraged to contribute comments, articles, and letters to the editor. HTP reserves the right to edit for brevity, clarity, and good taste.

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