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December 21, 2007

Prospectus Matchups

The Mismatches

by Jim Baker

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With the 14-0 New England Patriots hosting the 1-13 Miami Dolphins on Sunday in one of the greatest mismatchups in modern NFL history, I got to wondering about similarly lopsided late-season meetings in our own discipline, baseball. While baseball can never produce the disparity football can (a disparity albeit somewhat reduced from true polarized success after the Dolphins took out the Ravens last week), there have been some very large gaps between opponents. In order to qualify, the games had to take place in the final one-eighth of the season, just like the Miami-New England contest is. As you will see, most of these mismatchups are from the old days when there was often a stunning difference between the very best and very worst teams in each league.

For purposes of one-sided results, however, these are generally not a source of amusement. A number of these series took place long after the superior team had clinched, leading to it decidedly not putting its best foot forward.

63 games: New York (105-46) @ Boston (42-109), September 23-25, 1932

With the pennant long since clinched, the Yankees were merely resting up for the World Series on this, the final weekend of the 1932 season. For the first game of the series, they gave the ball to Jumbo Brown, a man who would not have looked out of place in today's enlarged populace, but who, at a listed 6'4" and 295 pounds, must have been quite a sight in those shorter, leaner times. It was only Brown's third career start, and he pitched a 3-0 shutout of the hapless Red Sox, one of the worst teams of all time. (How bad? They scored, on average, three runs less per game than both New York and Philadelphia. It was as if their offense was playing in an earlier, less productive era.) The second game starting assignment went to Charlie Devens, who, not too far removed from Harvard University, was making his major league debut at the age of 22. He went the route, giving up six hits and no less than seven walks, but New York prevailed, 8-2. Boston avoided the sweep by taking the season finale 8-3 over Johnny Allen. Ivy Andrews was credited with the victory in relief; he had been traded from the Yankees three months earlier in what has to be the most pronounced example of penthouse-to-outhouse downward mobility in baseball history.

62 games: Chicago Cubs (105-32) @ Boston Braves (42-94), September 18-20, 1906

When you go 116-36, you're going to run up some alarming statistics. Take the Cubs' record in series: heading into Boston late in the season, they had won 30, lost three, and split five. They lost two games in a row once and three games in a row once. That was the sum total of their losing streaks. And, yet, they lost two of three to Boston on this occasion, 4-6, 3-1, and 0-1. It was the last time Chicago would be beaten in a series in 1906, as they would go 10-2 the rest of the way. Boston would finish a record 67 games behind Chicago. As a side note, the final game of the series marked the only time in baseball history that opposing pitchers with names starting in "Pf" faced one another. Big Jeff Pfeffer--whom the Cubs had traded for Jack Moran the previous winter--got the win over Jack Pfiester, Chicago's 20-game winner.

60 games: Boston (39-96) @ Pittsburgh (100-36), September 21 & 22, 1909

The National League had some disparity issues in the first decade or so of the 20th Century. Six of the 11 highest gaps between first and last place came between 1902 and 1911. This series went as one might expect: Boston failed to score in the doubleheader on the 21st, getting blanked by rookie Babe Adams and eventual 25-game winner Howie Camnitz. The third game went Pittsburgh's way as well, 12-7.

59 games: St. Louis (38-99) @ New York (98-41), September 17 & 18, 1939

Let's pause to ponder something here for a moment. The 1939 Yankees were one of the best teams ever, if not the best team ever. They played in the most populated metropolis in the country, and yet they drew under a million fans that year--and not by a little bit, although they led the league. At that time, gate revenue accounted for a huge percentage of a team's income, much larger than today. And yet, we are constantly told that baseball no longer has a hold on the public's imagination, unlike the old days when it was truly the national pastime. The Yankees of 2007--who don't have to rely on the gate the way this team did--drew five times as many people. Am I missing something here? Anyway, when these teams met, the Yankees had outscored their opponents by 393 runs and the Browns had been outscored by 283, making for a combined swing of 676. Instead of the obvious, though, Red Ruffing and Lefty Gomez dropped the first two games to Jack Kramer and Lefty Mills. Kramer was a 21-year-old rookie who would anchor the Browns only pennant winner five years later and notch one of their two World Series wins. Mills' victory was the last of his brief career. The Yankees pinned the 100th loss on the Browns in the third game, 6-2. The Browns only won three more times the rest of the way, finishing at 43-111.

58 games: Brooklyn (102-50) @ Philadelphia (42-107), September 26 & 27, 1942

This series actually involved a second-place team. When it began, the Dodgers still had a shot at the pennant, as they were two games behind front-running St. Louis. The Cardinals were rained out on that Saturday while Brooklyn downed the Phillies 8-3 behind Bobo Newsom. If the Cubs could sweep the Cards in a Sunday twin bill, it would leave Brooklyn and St. Louis tied. Instead, St. Louis swept while Brooklyn nailed down its 104th victory over Phillies ace Tommy Hughes.

57 games: Philadelphia (42-110) @ Brooklyn (99-53), September 27 & 28, 1941

The Dodgers had already clinched the pennant when they began this, the last series of the year. In the first game, they started Ed Albosta. It was just his second major league start. He had lost to the Phillies and Lefty Hoerst earlier in the month and would do so again. Hoerst won just two starts in 1941 and both of them were against the Dodgers. Albosta and Hoerst were a combined 10-41 in their major league careers, so this was by no means a duel for the ages. In the season finale, the Dodgers once again went with the 'B' team, giving Larry French his only Brooklyn start and sending in Bob Chipman to relieve in the fifth, marking his major league debut. Chipman shut out the Phils on three hits and got the win. (The 1911 Giants hosted the Braves for one game on October 7 with a 57-game gap between them. Boston won 5-2.)

There have not been the great opportunities for mismatchups since the end of World War II. Cleveland-Philadelphia in 1954 would have been one such chance, but the A's and Indians didn't play late in the season. The '62 Mets were done with their West Coast betters before September. In 2001, the Mariners--eventual 116-game winners--and Devil Rays just missed my assigned cut-off, but were 49 games apart at the time of their meeting. (Seattle took two of three). The two biggest mismatchups of most recent times are these:

50 games: Arizona (46-101) @ St. Louis (95-50), September 17-19, 2004

The Cardinals took the first two games of the series 4-3 and 7-0, running the gap to 52 before the D'backs rebounded to take game three behind the pitching of Mike Gosling and a host of relievers. That game marked the last effective pitching outing of Rick Ankiel's big league career. As an indication of the shelf life of the '04 Snakes, none of the players in the Arizona lineup qualified for the batting title in 2007--although Chad Tracy would have had he not been injured.

49 games: Detroit (37-105) @ New York (86-56), September 9-11, 2003

The Tigers played the Yankees even into the eighth inning of the first game, at which time Fernando Rodney surrendered two runs and the game, 4-2. The second game was, perhaps more than any of the others in all these series, what one would expect when teams at these extremes meet. New York beat up on starter Gary Knotts and had a 5-0 lead after two. Detroit took advantage of two Yankees errors and plated four in the third. From there, the Yankees got 10 more en route to the 15-5 win, including a Jorge Posada grand slam (he had seven RBI in the game) in the eighth off of Brian Schmack. In the finale, Roger Clemens bested Nate Cornejo, 5-2, with Posada providing the big hit in a three-run fourth.

While we may assume that nothing less than a sweep would be in order in matchups such as these, in all, the superior teams went 15-8. Unfortunately for you gamesmen out there, this will not help you in deciding if New England is a safe bet to cover on Sunday.

Related Content:  New York Times,  The Who,  Running Game,  September

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