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‘Baseball Gods’ Wind Down Regular Season With Dramatic Twists

September 29, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Major League Baseball ended its regular season Wednesday with a dramatic series of games that left the Boston Red Sox and the Atlanta Braves out of the playoffs. Jeffrey Brown speaks with sportswriter John Feinstein about the season thus far, "Wild Card Wednesday" plus what to expect in the playoffs.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sportswriter and author John Feinstein joins me now.

John, what’s funny about this is, just a few weeks ago, I think, baseball writers were talking about what a gloomy, uninteresting season it was, right?

JOHN FEINSTEIN, sportswriter/author: There was nothing going on.

All the races were over. The six divisions had been decided. The wild cards, the two extra teams that make it into the playoffs in each league, with — along with the three division winners, looked decided. The Braves had an eight-and-a-half-game lead with only a few weeks to go. The Red Sox, who had had the best record in baseball through the month of August, were nine games ahead in the wild card race for that last spot.

Everybody was saying, gee, we hope we have a good October, because September is boring.

JEFFREY BROWN: And then the other part of this night that we weren’t able to get into our piece here, rain delay in one game…


JEFFREY BROWN: … extra innings in other games, and all these things happening within about — games ending within about an hour of each other, and some within minutes.

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Yes. If you believe in the baseball gods, they were certainly at work last night, creating this extraordinary, karmic activity within this period, because what the rain delay did was, at 11:40 last night, the Atlanta Braves lost to be out of the playoffs, blowing the biggest lead a team had blown in 111 years, to finish out of the playoffs.

JEFFREY BROWN: Not that anybody keeps track.

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Nobody keeps track of that.


JOHN FEINSTEIN: They keep track of everything in baseball, every stat.

Twenty-five minutes later, the Boston Red Sox broke that record. So it had stood for 111 years. Then it stood for 25 minutes. And the Red Sox lost in Baltimore, and, three minutes later, Evan Longoria hits the game-winning home run in Tampa.

But what was more unbelievable was three of the four teams that lost last night, two of them were one out from winning the game, and one of them, the Braves, were two outs from winning the game, and none of them won.  

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the great mysteries of sports — and you talk about Atlanta and Boston in this case — has anyone ever figured out what happens that suddenly a team, in this case, those two teams, doing so well, the best teams in baseball, among them, they can’t win a game?

JOHN FEINSTEIN: The answer is yes and no, Jeff.

I mean, you can look at some tangible things. Two of the Braves’ starting pitchers got hurt. That’s a huge thing in a pennant race, to lose two of your key starters. The Red Sox had some key injuries also to their pitching staff.

But the flip side of it is, guys who have been good all of a sudden aren’t good. The simple term for it is choking. You start squeezing the bat a little bit harder. You start squeezing the baseball when you’re pitching a little bit harder.

There is an old saying in sports that sometimes you need to try easier. And it’s hard to remember that when all of a sudden you weren’t in a race, and now you’re in a desperate race, and you know, if you blow it, people are going to remember it forever.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re saying that in spite of the fact that, in the interviews, they’re always saying, oh, we’re just playing — you know, we know we have got to get better…

JOHN FEINSTEIN: One game at a time.

JEFFREY BROWN: One game at a time.

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Right. Exactly.

JEFFREY BROWN: Impossible, huh?

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Well, it’s the old joke about don’t think about elephants for the next five minutes.


JOHN FEINSTEIN: Don’t think about the fact that you’re about to become part of an historic collapse. You can’t stop thinking about it.

JEFFREY BROWN: I always said about my Red Sox that, when they lose, they lose epically, right? So they managed that.

JOHN FEINSTEIN: They’re never boring.


JOHN FEINSTEIN: You know, if you go back to 1978 and the blown lead, and the Bucky Dent home run in the one-game playoff with the Yankees, 1986, when they were one out from winning the World Series against the Mets.

By the way, when Bill Buckner made that historic error…


JOHN FEINSTEIN: … the game was already tied.


JOHN FEINSTEIN: People often forget that.

But then they had the epic comeback against the Yankees in 2004 to finally break the streak, and then this year.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, for every loser — and a lot of focus today on the losers…


JEFFREY BROWN: … there are winners.


JEFFREY BROWN: And there was some excitement. And what Saint Louis and Tampa did deserves some real recognition.

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Absolutely. They played — they both played very good baseball. They didn’t give up, when it would have been very easy to give up, given how far behind they were.

They kept grinding, which is what you have to do in baseball. It’s such a marathon, 162 games in the regular season. You start in April, when it’s cold. You play through the heat of summer, and then you come back around to October, when it’s cold again. There’s no sport like it that way. They kept grinding.

The Tampa Bay Rays, in particular, looked so far out of it. They had lost key players, including Carl Crawford, who went to Boston and made the botched last play that ended the game for the Red Sox last night.

JEFFREY BROWN: The gods of baseball at work again, right?


And they lost all these key players. They have one of the lower payrolls in baseball. Red Sox have one of the highest. And they hung in there and found a way to do it.

JEFFREY BROWN: And now the real playoffs begin.

JOHN FEINSTEIN: And now the playoffs begin. We have got four weeks of extraordinary baseball, but I don’t know how you top last night.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, John Feinstein, thanks, as always.