By Ben Walker
A bad-hop grounder. A wind-blown fly that somehow lands fair. A balk or maybe a bases-loaded walk.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly what sends a team into a deep spiral. The slide can come from nowhere, like a Triple-A rookie thrown into a pennant race. Suddenly, a club with visions of a World Series - say this year's New York Mets or Boston Red Sox - finds itself trying to avoid a historic fold.
Don Zimmer knows. Three decades ago, his Red Sox were cruising. Next thing, they were collapsing.
"What happened in '78?" the Tampa Bay senior adviser said Friday night. "I've heard about it about nine times in the last hour and a half. What happened in '78?"
Zimmer's club led the New York Yankees by 14 games in mid-July, yet lost it all and wound up in a playoff at Fenway Park for the AL East title. The Bucky Dent game.
Right there, the Red Sox joined that dubious list, the one that includes the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies, 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers and 1995 California Angels.
"It happened in a hurry, I'll tell you that," Zimmer said. "We had an offense, and all of a sudden it was like turning out a light switch. Nobody hit. The whole team just went into a total slump. Naturally, then you started hearing, Red Sox 'choke.' I hate that word. I really do. You go into slumps."
This year's Red Sox led the Yankees by 14 1/2 games on May 30, but New York closed within 1 1/2 games this week. Boston ended a four-game losing streak Friday night with an 8-1 victory at Tampa Bay.
The biggest gap overcome? The 1914 Boston Braves trailed by 15 games on July 5 before rallying to win the title.
Many of these late-season slumps come to a stop. The 2005 Chicago White Sox led the AL Central by 15 games on Aug. 1, watched Cleveland pull within 1 1/2 games in late September, and recovered to win the World Series.
Besides, these Red Sox have a safety net. Even if they lost the division, they'd almost certainly win the wild card.
"Winning the division is huge," Boston manager Terry Francona said. "Does it mean you're going to the World Series? No. Does it mean you're not? No. That's the competitiveness in all of us. We want to win everything we do."
The Phillies hoped 1964 would be the year they'd win their first World Series. They led the NL pennant race by 6 1/2 games with 12 games remaining, but blew it all and finished one game behind St. Louis.
Mike Shannon played on the Cardinals team that overtook Philadelphia and went on to beat the Yankees in the Series.
"The Phillies had some injuries and only had couple of starting pitchers. And when you get on a roll and that team in front of you is not, the lead can disappear like that," the longtime Cardinals announcer said Friday night.
The Mets led the NL East by seven games on Sept. 12, then lost six of seven, allowing Philadelphia to trim the deficit to 1 1/2 games. It was those Phillies - so closely identified with a monumental collapse - who swept a pair of series from New York to cut the gap.