Keeping Score

The Red Sox and Braves’ Swoon: Behind a Baseball Collapse

As the regular season winds down, Boston and Atlanta, which looked like playoff shoo-ins, are collapsing. How losing plays tricks on your mind

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Brian Snyder / Reuters

David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox walks back to the dugout during a game against the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park in Boston on Sept. 21, 2011

Here’s a question for all those Boston Red Sox fans who are about to jump into the Charles River: Is there any comfort in knowing that when it comes to September swoons, your tumbling team has some company? Many of you lived through 1978, when the Red Sox led the New York Yankees by 14 games in July and by seven and a half games with 32 remaining. Those notorious Red Sox went on to lose a one-game playoff to New York on that Bucky “F—ing” Dent home run. Does living through that disaster, and so many others in Red Sox history, ease the pain of this one?

This year another team is even going swan diving with Boston: the Atlanta Braves. On Aug. 31, Atlanta led the St. Louis Cardinals by eight and a half games in the wild-card race. Now that lead has dwindled to two games. The California Angels of 1995 and the New York Mets of 2007 and ’08 are other teams that have tanked in similarly spectacular fashion.

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Is any of this a relief to Red Sox Nation? Yeah, we didn’t think so either. Boston, like Atlanta, has been just too horrific for its fans to find any relief in having company. Boston is 5-16 in September: on Aug. 31, the Red Sox led the American League East by one and a half games over the Yankees and owned the second best record in baseball, behind the Philadelphia Phillies. They were nine games up on the Tampa Bay Rays. Now, with six games to play, Boston is seven games behind the division-champion Yanks in the American League East and barely holding on to its only remaining hope, the wild-card spot. Tampa Bay trails Boston by only two games, and the Los Angeles Angels are three down. The regular season ends on Sept. 28.

Going into September, many baseball fans whined about the dearth of close playoff races. No one saw these two coming. Both Atlanta and Boston have lost games in all sorts of ways. They’ve fallen to good teams; in Boston’s case, they’ve lost five of their past seven games to the Yankees or Rays. Atlanta is 0-6 against the Phillies and Cardinals in September. They’ve also fallen to bad ones: last weekend the Braves lost two of three home games to the New York Mets, who over the years have played like T-ball players at Turner Field, and the Florida Marlins just took two out of three from them. Boston, for its part, just lost three of four to the usually hapless Baltimore Orioles.

Both teams have also had a run of tough luck. Boston third baseman Kevin Youkilis has been sidelined on and off since August and hasn’t played since Sept. 15 because of a hip injury and sports hernia. On Sept. 21 the Braves happened to face a red-hot pitcher, Florida’s Javier Vazquez, who has now thrown 25 scoreless innings.

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And they’re suffering from self-inflicted wounds. Going into Sept. 23’s games, Boston’s starters had a 6.82 ERA for the month of September, the worst for any major league rotation in three years. John Lackey, whom the Red Sox signed to a five-year, $82.5 million contract in 2009, is beyond a bust. In his past four starts this month, he has a 10.70 ERA.

The Braves’ bats, no Murderer’s Row going into September, have been especially quiet. For example, rookie first baseman Freddie Freeman, who is hitting .286 for the year, is batting just .235 in September. Catcher Brian McCann, an All-Star, is practically an automatic out. He’s hitting .168 since the beginning of August. McCann has 24 home runs on the year; just two have come in September.

What can explain such an epic meltdown? “The psychology of baseball is interesting,” says Jim Abbott, a former pitcher who was a member of that 1995 Angels team that led the AL West by 11 and a half games on Aug. 9, only to finish 12-27 and drop a one-game playoff to the Seattle Mariners. (He was traded to California from the Chicago White Sox late that July.) “Things tend to spiral down. Once you expect bad things to happen, it’s difficult to turn around.”

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Abbott, who pitched 10 seasons in the majors and once threw a no-hitter — despite being born with no right hand — says the team tried everything to break their funk. They had a few casual get-togethers to lighten up the mood. “We tried talking about it. We tried not talking about it,” says Abbott, who went 5-4 with a 4.15 ERA in 13 starts for the Angels that year. “We had our fair share of players-only meetings.” The very nature of baseball also makes ending misery difficult. “Baseball is not a try-harder game,” Abbott says. “It’s not football, where maybe you can more easily dig deeper and play your way out of it.”

A football coach, for example, can give his best “Win One for the Gipper” speech in the locker room; the players will then fire onto the field and run circles around an opponent. A baseball manager can be a master motivator, but when you hit the ball back to the pitcher, no matter how hard you run, you’re out.

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Baseball also has more downtime than, say, basketball or football. In hoops, if you miss an easy shot, you’ve got to get back on defense. That effort at least can occupy your mind. In baseball, after you screw up, you may linger out in right field for an hour without seeing any action. “Since we play every day, you might think we’re always busy,” says Abbott. “But there are spaces between each at bat, between pitches. That’s where the mental game creeps in.”

Former catcher Paul Lo Duca, who played for the Mets team that imploded in 2007, says caring can be a killer. Those Mets enjoyed a seven-game lead over the Phillies with 17 games to go. They lost six of their last seven to miss the playoffs. Players on that team, which in 2006 had made the National Championship Series before losing in seven games to the Cardinals, had experienced recent success. So when they started losing, Lo Duca says, they took it personally. Their pride was punctured. “When you’re in a locker room full of guys that are depressed, that gets you even more down, man,” says Lo Duca, who actually played fairly well down the stretch (a .291 average and four home runs in September and October). “If we had been a team that was loosey-goosey and full of schmucks, that might have helped.”

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For their parts, neither Atlanta nor Boston is a wild bunch. Like those Mets, both teams have experienced recent success. Boston is a postseason regular and still has players from the 2004 and ’07 title teams. Atlanta has a mix of young players, especially on the pitching staff, and vets: third baseman Chipper Jones, still productive at age 39, has played for Atlanta since 1995, and he won 11 straight division titles with the team. Plus, Atlanta won the wild card last year. (The Braves lost to the eventual World Series champs, San Francisco, in the opening round in four games.)

So, indeed, maybe these teams are taking losses too hard. But Freud himself might be no help at this point. “I remember flying home after losing to Seattle [in the playoff],” Abbott says. “The depression, that awful feeling. It was the worst plane I’ve ever been on.” If they can’t shake out their malaise, Atlanta and Boston — and their fans — will soon find themselves on a similar ride.

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