Not long ago, the postseason seemed a certainty for the Boston Red Sox.
Even for a fan base still traumatized by historic collapses, this season felt safe. The best offense in the majors could mask merely adequate pitching. September would be a month to get healthy and battle for divisional bragging rights.
A funny thing happened to that feeling of comfort: 27 games still had to be played.
If you thought it couldn't get any worse than the 1978 collapse, stay tuned. It might be happening right before your eyes. And forget just franchise history. A September collapse of this magnitude would be unprecedented in MLB history.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, no team has ever missed the playoffs after holding a lead of eight games or more in September. The Red Sox could be the first -- with a game to spare.
At 83-52, the Red Sox entered September with the best record in the American League. They had a 1½ -game edge over the New York Yankees in the AL East and a nine-game lead over the Tampa Bay Rays for the wild card. CoolStandings.com gave Boston a 99.4 percent chance at the postseason when the month began.
Pundits lamented the lack of playoff races in 2011. The Red Sox appear set on accommodating them.
Boston is 3-10 this month after falling to the Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday. Only the Twins (2-10) have been worse in the AL. The Red Sox are on pace for their worst September since World War II (they were 7-20 in 1952). They have lost six of seven and haven't had back-to-back wins since taking both ends of a doubleheader Aug. 27.
That nine-game playoff cushion is down to four. The Rays come to town Thursday for a four-game set. The math is pretty simple.
Tampa Bay arrives having won five straight against the Red Sox for the first time in franchise history. A sweep would have the Red Sox outside of the playoff driver's seat for the first time since May 23. Boston was 23-20 then, still digging out of the hole from a 2-10 start.
The largest September collapse in MLB history (as measured in games) was authored by the Angels in 1995, according to Elias. They began the month with a 7½ -game lead over the Mariners and Rangers in the AL West. With the Angels battling injuries and ineffective starting pitching, the lead evaporated by Sept. 20. The Angels finished 10-15 in September, missing the postseason after a loss to Seattle in a one-game playoff.
While that's the benchmark for faltering in September, a comparison to the 2011 Red Sox clearly falls short. For one, the Angels' collapse was already in full motion by September. They entered the month having lost nine of 10. On Aug. 24, the Angels had an 11-game cushion for the wild card. According to CoolStandings.com, that gave them a 99.9 percent chance at the postseason.
More importantly, the Angels probably shouldn't have been contenders in the first place. Shawn Boskie finished third on the team in wins with seven, while Jim Abbott's 4.15 ERA set the standard for the rotation.
Five other teams have blown seven-game leads in September. From the standpoint of expectations, the 1934 Giants and 1951 Dodgers might provide the best context for a potential Red Sox collapse.
The Giants were the defending World Series champs in 1934, and at 85-47 on Sept. 6 they appeared destined to make a return trip. Then came eight losses in 21 games, including five straight to close the season.
With four future Hall of Famers in the lineup, the 1951 Dodgers could probably relate to the offensive expectations placed on the 2011 Red Sox. Brooklyn entered September with the best record in the majors at 82-45. In this case, collapse may not be appropriate, given that the Dodgers went 15-15 the rest of the way. In most years, that would have been enough to maintain a seven-game cushion. But over that same span, the Giants went 22-6.
More recently, the 2007 Mets and 2009 Tigers allowed seven-game leads to slip away in September. In the Mets' case, that lead held through Sept. 12. A potential Boston collapse would be more drastic but not nearly as rapid.
All potential or actual Red Sox collapses will be measured against 1978. Boston led by nine games on Aug. 14, ultimately losing a one-game playoff to the Yankees. That included a 6½ -game lead to start September. The only other September collapse of more than two games in Red Sox history came in 1948, when they led by 3½ on Sept. 9.
Of course, there's good reason that no team has blown a nine-game September lead: It's hard to do.
Even at 3-10 in September, the Red Sox still have a four-game lead over the Rays, who have failed to capitalize against other opponents. If the Red Sox can manage to split their remaining 14 games, the Rays would need to win 11 of 14 just to tie. That's a tall task when 11 of the 14 remaining games are against the Red Sox and Yankees.
Indeed, the odds are still heavily in Boston's favor. CoolStandings.com now offers up a 93.2 percent chance at the postseason.
Could the Red Sox essentially back into the playoffs? At their current rate, that too would be historic. According to Elias, the 1998 Padres set the standard for poor September performance by a playoff team. From Sept. 1 on, they went 9-15. Yet that was still good enough to win the NL West by 9½ games.
A better comparison might be the 2008 Brewers, who entered September with a 5½ -game lead in the wild card. A 10-16 finish was enough to beat the Mets by one game.
The picture for the Red Sox will become much clearer over the next four days. But given how the season series with the Rays has gone thus far, there's plenty of cause for concern.
The Rays hold a 9-5 edge this season, including 4-1 at Fenway Park. The bulk of the blame falls on the vaunted Red Sox offense, which has been silenced by Tampa Bay. As a team, Boston has hit just .177 with a .609 OPS in those 14 games. In the past four games, the Red Sox were 1-for-20 with runners in scoring position.
Three of the key left-handed hitters in the lineup -- Adrian Gonzalez (.163), Carl Crawford (.158) and David Ortiz (.132) -- have combined to hit .152. The catching combo of Jason Varitek and Jarrod Saltalamacchia is 4-for-47 (.085).
Jeremy Lundblad is a senior researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He provides statistical analysis for ESPNBoston.com.