The last furlong before the finish line

Labor Day has always been the last pause before the end of the baseball season--the final post before that finish line, which comes late this year on October 4.

In the days before divisional play, pre-1969, if your team was within five games of first place on Labor Day, you were considered to have a shot at the pennant.

In this modern age of three-tiered playoffs, things are little more complicated with Wild Card races raging and several teams with no chance of winning their division still in the hunt for that fourth playoff spot.

Unfortunately for those of us who follow the Nationals, the September days of checking the schedule and “doing the math” of how many games our team needs to win to make it to October are ahead of us and not yet with us.

Nats fans did get a taste of it in 2005, but a second-half collapse took away that tension one feels in September when your team is in contention.

When I was a kid and there were only eight teams in each league, we obviously didn’t have cable TV highlight shows and the internet to give us immediate information. So, every morning I couldn’t wait to open the newspaper and see where my team was in the standings and who won or lost the previous night.

I hope all of us here in DC get to experience the excitement of a September pennant race like the one we had in the National League in 1964. I was an 11-year-old in St. Louis and the Cardinals were as many as 14 games out of first place in August, while the Phillies seemed to be cruising to the NL pennant. The league had 10 teams after the Mets and Astros (originally the Colt 45s) were born two years before.

But September was a nightmare for the Phillies of Gene Mauch as they won 12 games but lost 19. As they were in the process of blowing a six-game lead with 11 left, they lost 12 of their last 15 games and Mauch panicked, going with a two-man pitching rotation of Jim Bunning and Chris Short, even though he had solid arms like Art Mahaffey and Ray Culp on the team.

The bats of Dick Allen, Johnny Callison and Wes Covington, the defense of Bobby Wine and Tony Taylor, and the catching of Clay Dalrymple made the Phils a very good team. They got it done for five and a half months - then let it slip away.

St. Louis kept winning, but the Mets, of all teams, came into Busch Stadium and beat the Cardinals the first two games of the final weekend, while the Phils finally came to their senses and won their last two at Cincinnati.

On the last day of the season, there was the possibility of a triple tie for the pennant between Philadelphia, Cincinnati and St. Louis. Bob Gibson, a 1-0 loser to the Mets Friday, pitched 4 innings out of the bullpen on one day’s rest and the Cardinals finally beat the Mets; the Phillies beat the Reds; and St. Louis won the pennant by one game - one game after six months of playing baseball every day in all kinds of weather and under all kinds of September pressure.

It’s a September the fans of Philadelphia and St. Louis will never forget, but for very different reasons. That year lives in infamy for the Phils, while the Cards went on to the World Series and beat the Yankees in seven games.

This game will break your heart, but it will make lifetime memories for you as well, like that autumn 45 years ago did for a baseball-crazy sixth-grade kid.

With the Phillies in town this week, may this be the last September Nats fans will have to think “Wait until next year!”