Lots of people were anticipating a major collapse in the American League, but no one expected it to be the Texas Rangers. When the Yankees saw their 10-game division lead whittled down to a tie in September, it looked like the Bronx might be the site of an epic capitulation, but instead, Oakland played host to the ambush and the Rangers were the victims.
At the end of the June, the Rangers enjoyed a season high 6.5 game lead in the West, but the cushion between them and the Athletics was double. Gradually, Oakland inched closer over the final two months, but with only 10 games remaining, the deficit still remained at five. For all intents and purposes, Oakland was playing to host the Wild Card game, but as the team continued to win, the stakes grew higher.
Over the last two weeks of the season, the Rangers were basically playing a game of Texas Hold’em. After being in first place uninterrupted since the fourth game of the season, all the two-time defending A.L. champions needed to do was win a handful of games. Instead, they folded. Not only did Texas lose nine of their last 13 and seven of their last nine, but they were bested by the Athletics in five of the seven games played between them. As a result, the Rangers became the first team to cough up lead after spending 159 game dates in first place, while the Athletics became only the third team to have sole possession of the top spot in the standings for the first time on the last day of the season.
The last team to have a long-term hold on first place usurped by a first timer was the 2006 Tigers. That season, the Twins erased a 12.5 game deficit by taking over first place from Detroit on the last day of season. If it’s any consolation to the Rangers, the Tigers rebounded from the disappointment to win the A.L. pennant. Of course, that year, Detroit did not have to contend with a one-game play-in.
The only other team to wait until the end of the season to claim first place was the famous, and now infamous, 1951 New York Giants. Long before the advent of the wild card, the Giants, who trailed the rival Dodgers by 13 games in the middle of August, seemed to be playing out the string before a 16-game winning streak got them right back in the race. It took the rest of season for the Giants to final draw even with the Dodgers, but when the dust had settled, the two teams were in a flatfooted tie. A best of three playoff series was held to decide the pennant, which the Giants won when Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard ‘round the world” broke the hearts of Brooklyn once again.
Note: Based on position at the end of game dates only (i.e., off days excluded). 1981 finish is based on total record from both season halves. Years not included had no dates within one game of first during the period.
Appropriately, the last time the Yankees were involved in such a close pennant race was also 1951. For 23 game dates (18 of which took place in September) beginning on August 25 and lasting until September 20, the Yankees and Indians remained within a game of each other, which, until this year, constituted the longest such span for the franchise during the final month. This season, the Yankees and Orioles spent 19 consecutive game dates (from September 3 to September 23) separated by no more than one game. In addition, the Bronx Bombers spent 81% of all game dates within one game of their closest competitor, surpassing the previous high of 75% set in 1904.
Even though the Yankees’ perseverance stands out even more when compared to the collapse of the Rangers, that won’t matter much if the two teams wind up meeting in the ALDS. In order to do that, however, Texas will have to first beat the Orioles, whose relentless play over the final two months was bettered by only the Athletics. Can Texas hold off another hard charging up start? If not, consider it round two between the Yankees and Orioles.