Saturday, October 18, 2008

Attention, Sports Commentators! The Past and Future Are Different Things

The Red Sox had an historic comeback to stay alive in the American League Championship Series. This led, as one suspected it would, some sports observers, notably Dan Shaughnessy in today's Globe, to examine prior cases where a team was on the verge of a victory, blew a game it should have won, and then collapsed for the rest of the series for an abject defeat.

Dan's case study was the 1986 ALCS and the Red Sox' memorable Game 5 comeback. It happened, both the Sox comeback and the Angels' subsequent surrender. I covered it. But, one hastens to add, it wasn't exactly the only playoff series where a team took a gutbusting loss in a game it should have won to either eliminate its opponent or put its foot on their throats.

That's the trouble with sports history in general and baseball history in particular. There's a lot of it, which makes drawing historical parallels dangerous. WHATEVER situation prevails in a current playoff, it's happened before. More to the point, it's happened more than once.

It didn't take one sip of coffee for me to come up with a situation similar to what happened to the Rays Thursday night that ended rather differently than the 1986 ALCS. In the 2001 World Series, the Diamondbacks blew back-to-back ninth inning leads to lose Games 4-5 to the Yankees, and trail 3-2. They won Game 6 by about 20 runs, and came back against Mariano Rivera to win Game 7. So much for momentum.

Switching sports, we have a purely Boston example. In 1981, the Celtics came back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the 76ers in the Eastern Conference Finals. In 1982, the Sixers took a 3-1 lead, and then lost the next two, losing a big early lead AT HOME in Game Six. They came back to Boston Garden for the 7th game about as full of negative emotion and momentum as a team could be.

The Sixers won that Game 7 120-106, and it was never in doubt, an ass-kicking from start to finish. That's why the Garden crowd chanted "Beat LA." They were impressed and wanted to pay tribute to an honored foe.

Momentum exists. But it comes from what happens in a game, not the games before it. Let me put it this way. If the Rays' bullpen continues to implode, then they will continue to collapse. If, on the other hand, the Rays score 7 or more runs tonight, as they have in the last four games, Game Five's momentum will be considerably decreased.


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