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What a Choke!

What a weekend for sports! The Boston Celtics knocked off the Cleveland Cavaliers, in LeBron’s last chance before his upcoming free agency to show what he is made of. The Boston Bruins just died in a game 7 that was eerily similar to the series, as they went up 3-0 only to blow it and lose 4-3. The Celtics then went on to win game 1 in Orlando, at times dominating the Magic. Oh yeah, there was some baseball played too, but it wasn’t that exciting in comparison. With some rather big collapses happening, I decided to reflect on some of the biggest (as well as some of my personal favorite) collapses and chokes in history. With a lot of discussion about chokes in sports, I will start with what I used as a definition.

Choke [chohk] (verb,choked, chok·ing, noun) -A choke is a team failing to execute in a situation where they should be more than just a favorite to win. This often occurs in a situation where any par performance would have resulted in a sound victory. Some sort of failure on the team to execute is required. A choke may be viewed in the context of a single game, a series, or a season.

And with that, my top 13.

#13) 2010 NCAA Tournament: Kansas University loses to Northern Iowa in 2nd round

Kansas was not only the favorite to win this game but one of two favorites to win the tournament. Over 80% of ESPN Tournament Bracket players had either Kansas or Kentucky winning. Neither made the final four, but Kentucky wasn’t eliminated in the second round by a 9-seed. Brackets were decimated.

#12) 2007 ALCS: Cleveland Indians

Cleveland loves their collapses, as they were unable to hold a 3-1 series lead against the Boston Red Sox. For a team with 19 game winners C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona, as well as future Cy Young winner Cliff Lee, this team was completely unable to close, allowing the Red Sox to steamroll themselves to their 2nd world series in four years.

#11) 1964 Phillies Phold

After a magical season including Jim Bunning’s perfect game (first in the NL since 1880), the Phightin’ Phils had a 6.5 game lead with 12 to play. After losing 10 games in a row, with the first seven at home, the Phillies had sunk to 3rd place, and would not be a part of any postseason activity. Phail.

#10) 2007/2008 Regular Season: New York Mets

The Mets have recently become the poster child for late season failures. In 2007, the Mets had a 7 game lead on September 12th, with 17 games left to play. The Mets only won 5 of those 17. They lost 5 of 6 to the 4th place Nationals. This one went down to the last game of the season, only to have Tom Glavine let up seven runs in the first culminating in a great collapse.

The Mets then went out and signed two time Cy Young Award Winner Johan Santana, figuring that this would compensate for any weaknesses associated with their collapse. They went into 2008 as surefire favorites to win the NL East, only to be once again eliminated from playoff contention on the last day of season. This was just the beginning of the issues for the Mets as they would plunge to 4th place and a 70 win season in 2009, a team that was once again predicted to contend for a playoff run.

#9) 2007-2008 Pursuit of Perfection: 18-1 New England Patriots

You may note that in my definition above I said that a choke may be defined as a season and I would like to make that distinction here. This was a choked season which is not to be confused with a choked game. The only reason that they make this list was the potential implications of being the greatest NFL team of all time by obtaining a perfect 19-0 record. The Super Bowl itself does not quite qualify to me as a choke. Sure, the Patriots were up 14-3 going into the 4th quarter, but the Giants’ 14 point run bordered on the miraculous. “The Helmet Catch” was a freak play, something one could probably not reproduce in many attempts.  It turned out to be a game where the clock operators were under as much scrutiny as any coach’s decision. There didn’t seem to be a failure on the part of the Patriots to win the game, but more like a spectacular drive by the Giants to put them over the top. The NFL, probably more any other sport, is one where any team can win on any given day. For this reason, I categorize failure to capitalize on the pursuit of perfection as a choke and not the game itself.

#8) 1942 Red Wings / 1975 Penguins

Any team that has ever been up 3-0 in a series and doesn’t win certainly falls into the choke categories. Both of these teams lost to the higher seeded team in the end, after failing to complete their respective underdog runs. For this reason, they get only slightly more credit than #7.

#7) 2010 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals (Hockey): Boston Bruins

They had four chances to beat out the somewhat injured and defeated Flyers, who became only the third hockey team to accomplish such a feat. I thought about ranking this higher, but let us not forget that the Bruins were not a very good team to begin with this season. Two months ago, there were questions as to them even making the playoffs. The Flyers were a lower seed than the Bruins, making this slightly worse than #8. Give it five years for all to settle in, and this will be grouped in the same category as the Wings and Penguins.

#6) 2010 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals (Basketball): Cleveland Cavaliers

In a collapse that left LeBron James without a title in Cleveland, the Celtics may have not only made headlines for themselves, but they may have just cost LeBron a huge part of his legacy.  Cleveland was his city and his team. After numerous opportunities to make a championship run and numerous failures, one can accuse coaching, front office management, and the players themselves.

The fact is that LeBron will take the brunt of this, and Cleveland will suffer if he leaves. For a team that was the best home team in Basketball for several years, they squandered their last two home games. Boston may have earned this win with spectacular defense and a tremendously elevated level of play, but the fact remains that LeBron choked in his abilities to bring a championship to the Cavs.

#5) 1978 Red Sox

Boston held a 14 game lead over the New York Yankees, a lead that would dwindle only to be eventually erased after being swept in a four game set by New York, now referred to as The Boston Massacre. The Yankees forced a one game playoff tie breaker where Bucky Dent, who had hit an average of three HR’s per season in his career; hit a 3 run homer to lead the Yankees to a 5-4 victory over the Sox. The Yankees went on to win the World Series. Bucky ******* Dent.

#4) 1990-1994 Buffalo Bills

The only thing worse than being 0-4 in Super Bowl appearances (Vikings, Bills) is doing it in four straight years. The Bills made their first appearance in the Super Bowl in 1991, only to lose by one point to the New York Giants. They would repeat their Super Bowl run in the next three years losing to the Redskins, and then in back to back years to the Cowboys.

#3) 2003 NLCS: Chicago Cubs

Similar to #11, the Cubs squandered a 3-1 series lead. What makes this much worse than the Indians, was that in game 6, the Cubs had a 3-0 lead behind Matt Clement’s three hitter with just five outs to go. Lifetime Cubs fan Steve Bartman interfered with a foul ball off the bat of Louis Castillo, preventing Moises Alou from making the catch. The thread had been pulled, and the unraveling began. Bartman was escorted out of the stadium for his own safety, and has been ridiculed ever since. The Curse of the Billy Goat lives on.

#2) 1986 World Series: Boston Red Sox

It was game 6 and the Red Sox had a 3-2 series lead. After scoring two in the top of the 10th, the Red Sox had a 5-3 lead with two out. They were one out from their first championship since 1918, and one out from defeating the curse of the Bambino. A few hits later it was 5-4. Enter Mookie Wilson. Mookie Wilson was at the plate and fought out a ten pitch at bat. On the 7th pitch of the at bat, Bob Stanley’s wild pitch tied the game at five. Pitch number ten to Wilson was the infamous grounder through the legs of Bill Buckner, scoring Ray Knight to win the ball game. There is no guarantee that had Buckner fielded the ball that they would have won, however their inability to close out this game, as well as game 7, lands them in the #2 spot all time. I refuse to lower this on the list on the basis that the “curse” has been broken, or that Boston has more or less forgiven Buckner. At the time this was an epic collapse, and it should remain so when talking about it.

#1) 2004 ALCS: New York Yankees

The biggest collapse in sports history, as well as my personal favorite, was the New York Yankees failing to close out the Boston Red Sox after a 3-0 series lead with home field advantage. With a lead going into the 9th inning of game 4, Kevin Millar led off with a walk, off of arguably the best closer of all time, Mariano Rivera. Pinch runner Dave Roberts was Boston’s personal savior that night. The entire world knew that Roberts was stealing second, and after several pickoff attempts he went on the first pitch Rivera sent home. Safe.

This was the single turning point, as Bill Mueller would single him in for the tie. David Ortiz would then hit a two run shot in the 12th, giving the Sox their first win in the series. This was just a taste of what was coming. Rivera would blow the save again in game 5, this time with some help from Tom Gordon. Boston went on to win this game in the 14th where David Ortiz was the walk-off star again singling in Damon. Curt Shilling would pitch the “Bloody Sock” game in game 6 in Yankee Stadium, and the Boston bats beat up the Yankees in game 7 to cap the greatest comeback ever. Everything made this series epic. It was Sox/Yanks, it was Rivera, it was David Ortiz, it was long games ending well after midnight, it was the lovable idiots taking down the evil empire, and it was certainly the biggest choke ever.

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2007 Baseball Awards

It’s over ladies and gentlemen. 2007 was a great baseball season filled with records, magic, underdogs, and juggernauts. Now it’s time to take a look back and pick my Cy Young, Rookie of the Year, Manager of the Year, and MVP awards. These are my picks, not the actual winners, though I’m hoping they closely align.

 AL Cy Young: Josh Beckett
This is a lock, I’ve been saying it since August. Nobody beat Beckett when it mattered this year. 4-0 in the postseason (which isn’t supposed to count in voting) and the only 20 game winner, which he did even while missing a few starts with that “evulsion” earlier in the game.

NL Cy Young: Jake Peavy
In my mind, this is another no brain-er. I know San Diego didn’t make the playoffs, but they were right there. He had more K’s than many of the strikeout kings of Beckett, Santana, Kazmir etc. His ERA was almost .5 runs lower than the second place guy, at an amazing 2.54 runs per 9. He finished with 19 wins, most in the NL and Beckett’s 20 was the only thing keeping him from a pitching triple crown. His one weak resume point was game 163 when that super hot Colorado team was in their fantastic run to make an amazing playoff appearance. I don’t think that one loss is enough to discount what he did the rest of the season.

AL Rookie of the Year: Dustin Pedroia
Do I need to explain this one? After this kid hit less than .200 to start the season, the media and fans around Boston were calling for his exit. Terry Francona stuck to his guns, backed by Theo Epstien, and this guy was amazing all year. He was able to lead off, hit second, get on base, and hit a surprise home run now and then. In 520 at bats, he only struck out 42 times.
NL Rookie of the Year: Troy Tulowitzki
.291 Average, 24 HR, 99 RBI
Those are the numbers you expect a grizzled veteran to put up. Combine that with his excellent defense and you have a guy who is destined for good things with Colorado.

Manager of the Year: Terry Francona
I say this not as a Red Sox fan, or because his team won the World Series. I say this because of what he has accomplished with this club. The environment he has created allows each and every player to continue to learn and develop, wether they be a veteran or a rookie. Sticking with Pedroia in April can be looked at as one of his best moves all year, right up there with his fantastic bullpen management. Papelbon and Okajima did very well through the postseason and were able to pitch multiple effective innings strictly because of the way Francona handled the team. These players are just a bunch of guys having fun out on the field, not worried about consequence or failure. They can go out there day in and day out and just have some fun, and it’s all to the credit of Terry Francona.

AL MVP: Alex Rodriguez
Doesn’t even need to be discussed. Everyone already knows it.

NL MVP: Matt Holiday
I almost picked Ryan Howard for this one, it was very close. Holiday beats Howard in RBI by one, and average .340 to .268. Their OBP are about the same, but Howard has 11 more home runs finishing in at 47 dingers. At 26 more runs scored, 74 more hits, and almost twice as many doubles, I have to go with Holiday here. He was a better all around player.

Red Sox Gold Gloves:
Kevin Youkilis – Perfect. Enough Said. No regular season errors.
Jason Varitek – Not just his glove, but the way he handles pitchers and calls the game. I think that should be counted in gold glove discussions because it’s how he plays his position.
Dustin Pedroia – He might not actually win it, but he absolutely could have. He made amazing plays and highlight reels all year. Polonco had a fantastic year at second and very well may win it over Pedroia.
Coco Crisp – “Did you see that game where Crisp went horizontal and made that game saving catch?”   …   “Which one?”

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Red Sox 2 – Rockies 0: The Sox Can’t be Stopped

Ubaldo Jimenez? Really? As someone who generally follows the American League much closer than the National League, I was awfully surprised to hear Ubaldo Jimenez was pitching game 2. I’m just so used to seeing bigger names in postseason play. I didn’t know much about this guy, just that he threw hard.

 And throw hard he did. He kept the Sox from putting 10 runs up on the board. He got Pedroia out with one pitch to start the game, very unlike the disciplined Red Sox. The Sox could have given into this, they could have swung hard, and let him beat them. What happened instead? They made him work, they got men on base, he got out of jams, they got him into deep counts, and he would get them out.

But that’s the point! This guy had thrown 91 pitches when they took him out in the 5th inning. 91 PITCHES! Complete game performances usually fall in the 100-120 pitch range. This is what the Sox do! They knocked out yet another starter, made the bullpen pitch yet again.

And that’s only ONE dynamic of this Red Sox team! They have the ability to get the starter out of the game, they have the ability to put up 10 runs, they have the ability to pitch well, and have good to great defense pretty much everywhere on the field, Manny included. They have the ability to grind at bats, and take a clutch walk. They have the speed to steal the Dave Roberts base if need be. They have the power to get that 3 run home run, or the ability to lay down a bunt. The lineup is dangerous in different ways top to bottom. They will take the blowout if you hand it to them, but can fight to the death in a 1 run game better than any team I’ve seen this year.

The bullpen on this team is brilliantly constructed as well. Okajima is pitching like he did in April. Why? Because they gave him September time off, they rested him, controlled his usage, and didn’t over pitch him. Papelbon anyone? Why do you think he can go more than an inning right now? His first career 2 inning save happened in the Cleveland Series (despite the end score being a blowout.) That isn’t a coincidence! They didn’t let him do that this season so he COULD now! He didn’t over pitch, and he didn’t have an injury collapse like in 2006.

The Red Sox just have more ways to win than other teams. The Yankees this year could pretty much only win by slugging. San Diego had the best ERA in the majors and couldn’t make the postseason (at the hands of the Rockies in game 163 for those of you who forgot how Colorado got here.) San Diego finished in 20th or 30 in runs scored in the Majors, and 9th of 16 in the NL. That’s why the Sox are going to win, they are all around the best team.

Yes the Rockies can win some games in this series. (As I predicted Sox in 6)
Yes they could put up 10 runs and make Matsuzaka look silly.
Yes the Red Sox CAN lose games.

No I don’t see any way the Red Sox can lose a 7 game series already up 2-0.

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Postseason ’07

October. I love it. This is what baseball fans wait all year for. This year has a completely different look to it. Last year was a year where the Red Sox collapsed due to injury, the Tigers were the young guns proving they belong. Only the Yankees and Padres were in the playoffs last year and managed to make it back again this year. That’s right, only 2 teams. The other 6 all missed in ’06 and all have something to prove. Here are my predictions and reasoning for the 2007 Major League Baseball Playoffs.

 ALDS: Angles Vs. Red Sox

Prediction: Red Sox in 4

The Red Sox are in my mind the only team who really can take out the Angles. The Angles are a very strong team, and I do not doubt that they will pull off a win against either Matsuzaka or Schilling, but overall, I think this Red Sox starting rotation is going to keep the big Angles bats quiet. This series could go 5 games, but even if it does, I’m sticking with the Sox on this one. Trust that Beckett will get this team out to an early series lead.

ALDS: Yankees Vs. Indians

Prediction: Indians in 5

Yes that’s right ladies and gentlemen. I’m going to be the bold one here and say that the Yankees will not make it out of the first round of the playoffs. Yes the Yankees have been a hot second season team, and yes they have a fantastic offense, but I’m siding with Sabathia and Carmona. The Yanks will no doubt win 2 games by hitting the ball to the moon, but if we see Sabathia in a game 5 I have to side with the Indians.

ALCS: Indians Vs. Red Sox

Prediction: Red Sox in 7 (Maybe 6)

This is a very tough one for me to call. If this was Red Sox – Yankees, I say Red Sox no problem. I think Cleveland is the one team that can give the Sox real trouble in this playoff race. That being said, I expect this series to be absolutely amazing, some great pitchers duels, but I think the Red Sox and home field advantage will come out on top.

NLDS: Rockies Vs. Phillies

Prediction: Phillies in 3

If you want to talk about a streaking team, the Phillies are it. That combined with a huge Mets collapse got them to a Division Title. They are on fire, and they are all on top of the world right now. Expect them to come out swinging hard and to put up some big numbers in their first few games.

Okay, I know what you are thinking, the Rockies just won the 163rd game of the season in the 13th inning. They are equally pumped right now. The difference is that games 1 and 2 are in Philadelphia. Philly wants a championship and I expect Citizens Bank Park to be just as loud as a Red Sox / Yankees Playoff game in Fenway. Advantage Phillies.

NLDS: Cubs Vs. Diamondbacks

Prediction: Diamondbacks in 4

Youth versus Money. I’m going with youth on this one. I will admit however, I don’t see much of these teams. I get the occasional sports center recap, but on the whole, I don’t know these teams. This is probably the prediction I am most unsure about.

NLCS: Phillies Vs Diamondbacks

Prediction: Diamondbacks in 6 

I would love to see the Phillies win this, I think a Boston-Philadelphia World series would be amazing, unfortunately I think Philadelphia is in for another heartbreak. They just aren’t a world series team this year. Pitching is going to hurt them and the Diamondbacks will advance.

World Series: Diamondbacks Vs. Red Sox

Prediction: Red Sox in 5

Home field advantage, DH, strong lineup, strong rotation, stronger league. Everything here makes me think the National League doesn’t really stand a chance against any of the AL teams.

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Beckett for Cy Young

Josh Beckett just pitched himself a Cy Young award.

Beckett just became the first 20 game winner of 2007, and as ESPN keeps pointing out, the first since 2005. I think the “first 20 game winner since 2005” statement is being
overplayed. It was only one year, last year, that there wasn’t a 20
game winner, and Wang had 19. I don’t know it just seems less
important to me.

Despite that, I think he just pitched himself into a Cy Young award.
With the 20 game thing, he is going to get more votes, especially if
nobody else makes it, which is a real possibility. Carmona, Wang, Sabathia, and Peavy all sit at 18, and there aren’t many days left here.

Beckett’s ERA is down to 3.14 after only allowing only the
1 run yesterday. Carmona leads the AL with 3.03, and that’s not that far ahead of
Beckett. Sabathia is sitting at a 3.19, just behind Beckett. Sabathia
has that great number of quality starts and 7,8,9 inning stints, but I
don’t think that’s enough to take it from Beckett. Carmona has the best chance of beating Beckett for the Cy Young, but after a 1-10 record and a 5.42 ERA in 2006, I’m throwing his name into the ring for comeback player of the year.

This was also a BIG win for Beckett and the Red Sox. On a night when Wang failed to get his 19th win, killing his chance at 20 wins, Beckett came through big. The Sox stopped a losing streak and pulled back to 2.5 games up. If the Sox hold on to win the division, this will be looked at as a win that helped make it happen.

Josh Beckett is my AL Cy Young award winner.

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2007’s Best Playoff Races

I love September baseball. In recent years, it’s come down to the wire. Every game matters. I expect 2007 to be no different, giving fans a reason to watch right up until playoffs start. Here is a rundown of all 8 playoff races, in order of how good I think each race will be.

#1 NL Wild Card – Fantastic Race

Current Standings
San Diego —
Philadelphia 2.5 GB
Colorado 3.5 GB
Los Angeles (Dodgers) 3.5 GB

As it has been the last 2 years, the NL Wild Card will be the last playoff spot won. Yes I know wildcards are usually last, but once again, this may be a last-game-of-the-season type race. I personally will be rooting for the Phillies, but it is going to take a lot to take a lot to get San Diego off their roost. I’m declaring the Braves, Cubs, and Cardinals out of this race as they are not only 5 or more games behind, but have too many teams to leapfrog.

#2 NL Central – Good Race

Current Standings
Milwaukee —
Chicago 1.0 GB
St. Louis 4.0 GB

The best part about this race is that it’s a win or go home race. None of these teams have a high enough winning percentage to be considered in the wild card race. These guys will be scrapping for playoff glory. I’d like to see Milwaukee win this, just because they deserve the playoffs. They have been so bad in recent years I love to see a team like this get a shot. I also wouldn’t mind the Cubs there. If my Red Sox or Phillies aren’t winning a world series, I wouldn’t mind seeing a curse be broken.

#3 NL West – It is in fact, a race.

Current Standings
Arizona —
San Diego 2.5 GB

I think its great that the Diamondbacks have surfaced here. After their championship in ’01, they died off a little and weren’t really a threatening team. They are BACK, with or without Randy Johnson. They will win this race, but San Diego will be right there the whole way.

#4 AL Wild Card – Could be a race?

Current Standings
Yankees —
Tigers 4.0 GB

It pains me to say it, but I think the Yankees will be in the 2007 playoff picture. They have been far to hot to just go and miss it. The better the Red Sox do this weekend, the closer the Tigers can get to making this a race. Come on Detroit, you know you want it. Sorry Seattle, you buried yourselves and filled in your own grave on top of yourselves. At 6.5 out, I’m declaring you done.

#5 AL East – Talk to me on Monday.

Current Standings
Boston —
New York (Yankees) 5 GB

Just because I’ve ranked this at #5 doesn’t change my prediction that the Yankees will not win this. I still stand buy that. There is one and only one reason that the AL East even finished at #5, and that is this weekend’s head to head series.

Pettitte Vs. Matsuzaka
Wang Vs. Beckett
Clemens Vs. Schilling

Wow. Can you say playoff baseball? In a series where Roger Clemens makes his first return to Fenway Park since 2003, the Yankees COULD make this a playoff race. I say the Sox take 2 of 3 over this series, and then it will no longer be a race. If the Yankees sweep by some chance, this race could jump up to #2 or #3.

#6 AL Central – Possibility of a race, not likely.

Current Standings
Cleveland —
Detroit 6.5 GB

Only in a world where the Indians collapse and Detroit plays super hot is there any chance that the Indians blow this one. This is not really a race, but is more of a race than #7 and #8 because Detroit is only 6.5 out and is a good team.

#7 NL East – Race? What’s a Race?

New York (Mets) —
Phillies 6.0 GB

I think the Mets had this division won at the all star break. They are the best team there, and no matter how the Phillies do the Mets have this one won.

#8 AL West – Hahaha you are STILL falling.

Los Angeles (Angels) —
Seattle 9.5 GB

If you were to ask me what the biggest collapse of a team was this year, I’m going to point you right here. The Mariners had it going, and completely blew it. You guys were my hope for keeping the Yanks out of October. Thanks a lot. See you in the playoffs Angels, and good luck with home field Advantage.

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