One has to wonder if managers Fredi Gonzalez and Terri Francona of the Braves and Red Sox, respectively, are tempted, like Colonel Qadafi in Libya, to find a cool, dark bunker to hide from the angry masses for the foreseeable future. Like Qadafi, all appeared to be in control, the predictable benefits of money, organization, and execution paying off.
Then, out of nowhere, insurgencies began to rise up.
You could feel the heat from these wildfires burning across the landscape. The smell of acrid smoke filled the air from Tripoli to Boston and on down to Atlanta. Then panic set in. Though the loyalists fought back fiercely, the fires only burned hotter, stifling rallies and counterattacks alike. Boston's starting pitching and Atlanta's bullpen were as ineffective as Qadafi's security forces when it mattered most.
Now, the partisans in distant St. Louis, Tampa Bay, and wherever the hell the partisans in Libya emerged from, command the field.
None of these events were inevitable, but in each case, the winners were those who wanted it bad enough, were willing to believe, undaunted by logic, in a successful outcome, and who were lucky to have the right people in place at the right time.
In Atlanta, it is clear that an overused bullpen was spent by September. Set-up man Jonny Venters, who was lights-out for the first five months of the season, recorded a 5.11 ERA in September. Closer Craig Kimbrel, who did not surrender a single earned run in either July or August, and who recorded 46 saves on the season, posted a 4.76 ERA in the season's final month.
Clearly, manager Gonzalez pushed his rookie dynamic duo a bit too hard. Yes, injuries to some of the Braves starting pitchers, like Tommy Hanson, necessitated some of this overuse, but using one's primary weapons judiciously, whether on the battlefields of north Africa or in Major League ballparks, allows one to draw on that strength when the fighting is most intense. Otherwise, one is left short on ammo, desperately hoping that the other side is nearly as spent as yourself.
It can also be argued that the Braves should have done more at the trade deadline to add an arm to the pitching staff, or to find another bat to accompany the fortuitous addition of center fielder Michael Bourne. Yet, when all is said and done, Tony LaRussa's gang of mashers: Pujols, Berkman and Holliday provided more than enough offense to overcome any pitching deficiencies the Cardinals staff endured throughout the season. And although I've never been a Tony LaRussa fan, his steady leadership kept this largely veteran ball club focused down the stretch. Overcoming an 8 1/2 game Braves' lead for the N.L. Wild Card slot in a mere three weeks is one of the greatest comebacks in Major League history.
Of course, the other greatest comeback in MLB history occurred virtually simultaneously in two A.L. ball parks, as Evan Longoria's two home runs completed an improbable rally against the Yankees, who at one point in the game were up 6-0. The Yankees, by the way, should fear this Rays team in the playoffs. They have a deep, young starting pitching staff, and more importantly, they are not intimidated by anyone. Joe Maddon's boys took full advantage of the Red Sox 7-20 September swoon, as all underdogs must capitalize on their heavily favored opponent's setbacks.
The primary story out of Fenway during the month of September was the complete collapse of their starting pitching. In the final four weeks of the season, the Red Sox starting pitchers' ERA topped an unbelievable 7.00. Jon Lester and the boys, for various reasons, just couldn't match the fine efforts of Jacoby Ellsbury, Adrian Gonzalez, David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia.
Ultimately, though, the collapse of dictators and baseball clubs involve three main elements:
1) Hubris: Just as Qaddafi could never believe in his heart that his people would ever turn on him, I don't think either the Sox or the Braves could envision a worst case scenario such as what they finally experienced. Both teams were apparently comfortable to settle for the Wild Card. As a result, they ended up with nothing. Complacency breeds the elements of future disaster.
2) Highly motivated and reasonably organized opposition: It is not necessary for the opposition to enjoy the same level of wealth or organizational bureaucracy as the group or the individual they are trying to overcome. Although they cannot be a completely undisciplined rabble, as long as a key person to two is able to keep the movement focused and united towards one end, they stand a reasonably decent chance of success.
3) Effective use of weaponry: Just as you can't hope to defend yourself with a club in a gunfight, you must have firepower that can, at the very least, neutralize your opponents ability attack you first, or to launch an effective counterattack. The Libyan opposition, thanks to their Western allies, benefited from this kind of firepower. The Rays and the Cardinals each also enjoyed significant firepower of their own, including sluggers and pitchers who came through when it mattered most.
The lesson, then, of the past few days and weeks is clear. Take nothing for granted, for if you do, fortune will turn on you with all the power and awesomeness of an Evan Longoria home run.