Choke city again? Where an Astros loss to the Rays would rank among worst playoff failures of the 21st century
The Astros face a surprising elimination game on Thursday against the Tamp Bay Rays. Those of you new to the Houston sports scene believe the Astros will win and move on to face the New York Yankees. Those of you who have been around for a long time have been here many times before, and you know how the story ends; with postseason disappointment. Houston as a city has perhaps more colossal sports postseason failures than any in the country. The 1983 Houston Cougars. The 1993 Oilers blowing a 35-3 lead. The 1998 Astros. The 1986 Astros. The 2005 Astros made it to the World Series, then were unceremoniously swept. Most recently, Chris Paul's injury for the Rockets while up 3-2 on the Golden State Warriors. Houston did not earn the "choke city" nickname by accident.
(Yeah, yeah, I know; don't you wish that evil on me, Ricky Bobby. They have not lost yet!).
Yes, I believe this Astros team is different and will move on to face a Yankees team in the ALDS - a series there would be no shame in losing - but falling in the first round to the wild-card Rays would not only top Houston failures, it would be among the five biggest collapses in American sports this century. Here is where they would rank among biggest failures since 2000:
1) 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning
The Tampa sports fans (all eight of you) hoping for a Rays upset are all too familiar with being on the other end, and they only have to go back as far as last year. The Lightning became just the second team to win 62 regular season games, took the President's Trophy for best record in the league and looked downright unbeatable. They had three players score 40-plus goals, and Nikita Kucherov had a ridiculous 128 points. Kucherov won the Hart trophy as MVP, goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy won the Vezina as best goalie. So like a certain regular season team in Houston, they dominated the regular season in both wins and awards. Then they promptly became the first President's Trophy winner to get SWEPT in the first round of the playoffs, losing to No. 8 seed Columbus in four games. They beat out Nos. 2 and 3 on this list, because at least those teams made it to the Finals/Super Bowl. Simply the biggest sports postseason failure of the 21st century.
2) 2015-16 Golden State Warriors
The greatest regular season team in NBA history was being compared to the Michael Jordan juggernaut Bulls after beating that team's record for most wins. They cruised through their first two playoff series before falling behind Oklahoma City 3-1 and roaring back to win. They then went up 3-1 on the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals, and were already being anointed as the greatest team ever. But a funny thing happened on the way to the coronation; the Cavs rallied to win the series, bringing a long-awaited title to Cleveland. Lost in the fact that LeBron James and Kyrie Irving led the comeback is that the Warriors, seemingly unbeatable, choked in the Finals. Golden State has other titles, so it was mitigated somewhat, but it's hard not to rate this as one of the most disappointing postseason results ever. Upsets are rare in seven-game NBA series, and almost unheard of when a team is this dominant.
3) 2007 New England Patriots
The Pats were an unstoppable force all season, rolling to an 18-0 record heading into the Super Bowl against the New York Giants. We all know how that ended; the Giants rode an inspired defensive performance and David Tyree's miracle catch to the upset. Unlike the other sports, football is single elimination, and anything can happen in one game, as it did here. That is the only thing that keeps this one from the top two spots.
4) 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks
The Mavericks looked like they were going to obliterate everyone in the postseason after going 67-15, taking the top seed in a loaded Western Conference. They were led by Dirk Nowitzki, who would win the MVP that season. They would also lose in the first round of the playoffs to the Golden State Warriors long before the Warriors became the juggernaut of the past few seasons. Having the best record that season was no joke; Phoenix won 61 games and the eventual champion Spurs won 58. Still, not getting out of the first round was a huge failure.
5) 2019 Houston Astros
If they lose Thursday, they probably move to No. 4 on the list. They won a ridiculous team-record 107 regular season games. They will have the top two players in the Cy Young voting. They might have the MVP in Alex Bregman. They have the Rookie of the Year in Yordan Alvarez. They have the best 1-2-3 starting pitching punch in baseball with Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zach Greinke. (Doesn't this sound a lot like the Lightning?) The Rays have maybe one player who could crack the Astros lineup, yet they have out pitched, outhit and outplayed the Astros through four games, and Houston needed two epic pitching performances just to stay alive. There would be no shame in losing to the Yankees or in the World Series. Only eight of the last 24 teams with the best regular season record actually won the World Series, But losing in the first round? Serious shame bell. Unlike the Lightning, however, at least they won't get swept.
The bottom line
The good news? All of the teams on this list except the Lightning won titles in other seasons, and all the Astros have to do is win Thursday and this spot goes back to someone else; perhaps the 2003-04 LA Lakers or 2001 Seattle Mariners. How about the 2019 Dodgers, who won 106 games and were bounced by Washington on Wednesday in Round 1? They might even beat out the Astros.
Virginia lost as a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament two years ago, but that's a one game upset and not quite the same.
Yeah, I get it. Baseball is a different animal, and "lesser" teams win all the time, especially in five-game series. The Rays are no joke and won 96 games themselves. But losing the series would be a major disappointment however you slice it.
So yes, a loss puts them on the short list, and Houston sports fans are all too familiar with results like that. It would be a typical Houston sports failure. The good news? In 2017 the Astros proved to be resilient and unlike other Houston teams en route to the World Series title. If they are again, then none of this will matter. If not? Welcome to the Choke City history books.