One of the ways that baseball is unique is the 162-game season. Even the worst teams go on winning streaks and the best go on losing streaks. And because teams essentially play every day, the standings can change rapidly during the pennant race. An NBA or NFL team can't erase a five-game deficit in a week.
These teams learned the hard way that no lead is absolutely safe.
A franchise that's made a living out of giving its fans heartbreak did it in crazy fashion in 2011. The Red Sox led the AL East for most of the second half, but fell behind the Yankees early in the month. They had the wild card to fall back on, or so they thought. They led Tampa Bay by nine games on Sept. 4, but won just seven games in September as the Rays caught them on the next-to-last day. On the final day, the Red Sox blew a 3-2 lead with two outs in the ninth against last-place Baltimore, while simultaneously, the Rays rallied from 7-0 down to beat the Yankees and claim the wild card.
The hard-luck franchise that went 30 years without a pennant between 1950 and 1980 should have broken that string in the middle. The Phillies led by 6.5 games over the Cardinals and Reds with 12 to go in September, then lost 10 in a row and ended up one game back in a tie for second with the Reds despite winning their last two games. Manager Gene Mauch was criticized for tinkering with the pitching rotation down the stretch. The Cardinals beat the Yankees in seven games in the World Series.
At the same time the Red Sox were melting down in the American League, the Braves were doing virtually the same in the NL wild-card race. A lineup that had been potent all season suddenly stopped hitting, and they let the St. Louis Cardinals catch them on the next-to-last day of the season. The Braves were 9-18 in September. St. Louis trailed the Braves by 10 1/2 in late August, 8 1/2 on Sept. 6, and by three with five games to play.
They led by seven games on Sept. 12, and with Pedro Martinez back on the mound after missing the first five months rehabbing a torn rotator cuff, New York was a big favorite in a weak National League field. Then the bottom fell out as the Mets lost five in a row, then won four of five, then lost six of their final seven to finish the season one game behind the surging Philadelphia Phillies, who swept a three-game series at Shea Stadium in mid-September. An aging pitching staff and a terrible bullpen caught up with the Mets. Tom Glavine, who won his 300th game earlier in the season, lost on the final day, giving up seven earned runs in one-third of an inning of a 9-1 loss to the Florida Marlins.
The Angels led by 11.5 games on Aug. 9 but blew it, going 12-27 in their final 39 games and allowing the Seattle Mariners to make the playoffs for the first time. The Angels won their final five to force a one-game playoff with the Mariners, but Seattle ace Randy Johnson put the Angels out of their misery with a 9-1 win. Seattle stunned New York in the first year of the Division Series round, then lost to Cleveland in the American League Championship Series.
Boston led by 14 in July and still held a 7.5-game lead with 32 games remaining. A 14-of-17 swoon was the opening the Yankees needed to close the gap, which included a four-game sweep at Fenway Park. The Red Sox won their final eight, and needed a Cleveland victory over New York to force a one-game playoff at Fenway Park. And that's when the name Bucky Dent became an expletive in New England, as the Yankees' light-hitting shortstop hit a home run in a 5-4 New York victory. The Yankees won their second consecutive World Series.
The 2009 Tigers spent 164 days in first place in the American League Central - from May 10 until the final day - and had a home game four days before the season ended against the second-place Minnesota Twins with a chance to clinch the division. They lost that one, and the Twins swept the next three at home while the Tigers won once to force a one-game playoff after the regular season. The Twins won 6-5 in 12 innings in a classic game, one the Tigers led in the 10th inning in the final regular-season game in the Metrodome. Detroit is the only team to blow a three-game lead with four to play.
On Aug. 11, the Dodgers held a 13.5-game lead in the National League and seemed to be cruising toward the pennant. This wasn't a true collapse: In probably any other season, a 26-22 finish would be good enough to hold on easily, but the Giants caught fire, winning a 16 in a row and an incredible 37 out of their final 44 games, tying the Dodgers on the final day. The Dodgers' real mistake was at the coin flip to determine the home field in the three-game playoff series. The Dodgers won the toss and a ticket manager (the team was in Philadelphia) chose to play the first game at home and the second and third games at the Polo Grounds. Without that fateful decision, Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard Round The World" would never have happened.
With seven games to play, the Blue Jays were 96-59 and had a 3.5-game lead. On the second-to-last Sunday, the Blue Jays took a 1-0 lead into the ninth inning against the Tigers, but Kirk Gibson's home run tied the game, and Detroit won in 13 innings. The Blue Jays didn't win again. They finished 96-66, and the Tigers caught them with a sweep in the final weekend, winning three one-run games: 4-3, 3-2 and 1-0. Toronto finished the season two games behind.
Another historic moment - the 1969 Amazin' Mets - likely wouldn't have happened if the Cubs hadn't helped out. It was the first season of divisional play, and the Cubs had a 9.5-game lead on August 14 in the new National League East. But 13 days later the red-hot Mets had pulled within two, and they won the division by eight. The Cubs lost 14 of their final 20, and New York went on to win the World Series.
Dishonorable mention: 1962 Dodgers (up 4 with 7 left), 1938 Pirates (up 7 on Sept. 1), 1993 Giants (led by 9 on Aug. 11), 1983 Braves (led by 6.5 on Aug. 13), 1942 Dodgers (led by 7.5 on Aug. 23), 1914 Giants (led by 10.5 in July), 2005 Indians (lost 6 of final 7 after taking wild-card lead).