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Rangers' Collapse Would Be Among Biggest

Baseball: Just over a week ago, Texas held a nine-game lead over Seattle. Now, the Rangers lead by two with nine to play.

September 21, 1996|From Associated Press

ARLINGTON, Texas — The '69 Cubs. The '78 Red Sox. The '64 Phillies. The '96 Rangers?

Baseball experts and former players on those teams say the Texas Rangers' collapse-in-progress, if it continues, would stand among the biggest in baseball history.

Scarcely more than a week ago, on Sept. 11, the Rangers' AL West lead over Seattle stood at nine games.

Insurmountable, right?

That's what pitcher Ferguson Jenkins thought. He pitched for the 1969 Chicago Cubs, who led the New York Mets by 9 1/2 games on Aug. 14. Then the Cubs went 8-17 in September and lost the divisional race to Tom Seaver's "Miracle Mets" by eight games.

"There's always one ballclub to go through it," Jenkins, now the Cubs' pitching coach, said Friday. "It's tough."

The Rangers, hoping for the first playoff berth in franchise history, are on the verge of folding the same way. Entering Friday night's game against the Angels, they were 1-8 since Sept. 11, including an improbable four-game sweep in Seattle. Their lead dwindled to two games with nine games left to play.

"That's right up there with us," said Billy Williams, right fielder for the '69 Cubs. "In fact, this is bigger than ours. They don't have that much time."

Jenkins, also a member of the 1964 Philadelphia team that blew a 6 1/2-game lead to the Cardinals after Sept. 21, said the collapses have similarities.

"It's a similar pattern," the Hall of Fame pitcher, now the Cubs' pitching coach, said Friday. "The offense tails off and it just steamrolls the pitching. Then comes the defense with errors."

That's what appears to have happened to the Rangers. They're not hitting -- a .187 average in the four-game Seattle series -- the pitching has started to struggle, and formerly reliable defensive players are botching routine plays. Fielding errors played critical roles in three of the four Seattle losses.

"This is as much adversity as we've faced all year," said manager Johnny Oates, who has been at a loss to explain the fade.

There's no official ranking of the biggest chokes in playoff history, but a glance at some historic collapses shows the Rangers would fit right in. In fact, no team has blown a bigger lead at a later date, according to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Jack Lang, longtime New York baseball writer, said the Phillies' '64 fade was the worst he'd seen aside from the 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers, who led the crosstown Giants by 13 1/2 games on Aug. 11.

The Giants ultimately won 16 consecutive games and landed in the two-game playoff that ended with Bobby Thomson's "shot heard round the world," the homer that kept Brooklyn out of the World Series.

Lang, who covered the series, said he wouldn't compare Texas' current demise with Brooklyn's.

"The Dodger collapse was not so much a Dodger collapse as a final run by the Giants," he said. "They didn't play badly, but the Giants were just so overwhelming."

What the Rangers need now, Jenkins said, is to beat somebody--badly.

"All the meetings you're going to have is not going to remedy it," he said. "It's the offense that has got to pick up. You just have to pummel another ballclub. It can change the atmosphere."

If the Rangers can somehow hang in there, they'll prove more resilient than many of their fans. Exuberant over an imminent division title two weeks ago, they're jumping off the bandwagon in droves.

"Look at the Rangers' history," one Dallas talk show caller said Friday. "They are losers. They have always been losers."

Others, meanwhile, remained faithful that Texas would hang on for the last week of the season.

"History's going to be made either way," said Jim Hargrove of Fort Worth, who was among dozens camped out at The Ballpark to buy the playoff tickets set to go on sale today despite Texas' tenuous lead.

"Either we're going to make the playoffs for the first time or we're going to go down in flames like nobody else."

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