Nothing in this sport stirs the soul so much as a September pennant race, and nothing satisfies our native need for projection rejection, for unexpected uprisings quite like the September surge.When we hail baseball's late-season swells, what we are ultimately celebrating is the mathematical fringe. Even in the Wild Card
Nothing in this sport stirs the soul so much as a September pennant race, and nothing satisfies our native need for projection rejection, for unexpected uprisings quite like the September surge.
When we hail baseball's late-season swells, what we are ultimately celebrating is the mathematical fringe. Even in the Wild Card era, which dates back to 1995, only around 3 percent of postseason clubs went into September with a playoff deficit of more than four games.
So the September surge is a rare and beautiful sight to behold, for all but the rosters and fan bases of the team that gets toppled. That's why we celebrate the comeback kids and the faint hope they provide for every club on the outside looking in when the calendar flips to that frantic final month.
Let's revisit the 10 greatest September surges in MLB history -- the kind of history that inspires hope.
1. 2011 Cardinals: "Happy flight! Happy flight!" is not quite as classic as "The Giants win the pennant!" but it was the clubhouse chant these Cardinals used, born out of them winning 15 straight getaway games from early August on into October. And that, of course, was all part of the wildest Wild Card run this game has ever seen.
The Cards were 8 1/2 back of the Braves for the National League's Wild Card slot on Sept. 1. And much like the Rays hunting down the Red Sox, they had their finest hour (an 18-8 final month) amid the dizzying downfall of a club practically penciled into October.
It all came to a head on that crazy Wednesday night, Sept. 28, when Chris Carpenter gave it to the Astros for nine innings in an easy 8-0 win. The Cardinals then retreated to the visiting clubhouse in Houston, where they watched the Phillies mount a rally off Braves closer Craig Kimbrel in the ninth and win it in the 13th on a Hunter Pence flare job, setting off -- you guessed it -- a happy flight to Philly for the NL Division Series.
This team gets the top spot on this list because of the way the September surge set the stage for an epic October, capped by a World Series against the Rangers that, come to think of it, had a pretty great comeback all its own.
With the postseason format since expanded to include dual Wild Cards, this Cards climax will forever be pointed to as a reminder that in sports, as in life, "it ain't over 'til it's over," as one native St. Louisan famously said.
2. 1951 Giants: "The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!" … is something nobody could have imagined saying as late as Sept. 14, when the New York Giants were still six games back of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
But the Giants caught the Dodgers with wins in 14 of their last 16. It came down to a three-game series between the two clubs on Oct. 1-3. The Giants won the first game, 3-1, at Ebbets Field but got drilled in the second, 10-0, at the Polo Grounds to pull things back even. Perhaps you've heard how the season and series finale ended -- with Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard 'Round the World" off Ralph Branca, drive home three runs to give the Giants the 5-4 victory at the Polo Grounds and inspire Russ Hodges' famous call.
There have been many, many great moments in Major League Baseball in the many, many years since, but perhaps none quite as iconic as this. Still, we're putting it at No. 2 for one reason and one reason only: The Giants lost the Series! The Giants lost the Series! The Yankees took it from them in six games.
3. 2011 Rays: At the conclusion of play on Sept. 3, the Yankees were in first place in the American League East, with the Red Sox just a half-game behind. The Rays were a total afterthought -- nine back of Boston. Conventional wisdom insisted it was the Yanks and Red Sox dueling it out for a division title, with the loser settling for the Wild Card spot.
But this was one of many instances in which we learned not to count out a Joe Maddon-led team. And yes, all that chicken and beer in Boston's clubhouse didn't hurt, either.
Maddon's Rays went 18-10 in August and 17-10 in September. Just as important, the Red Sox totally imploded, losing 20 of 27 in the final month. Tampa Bay's guardian angel was Robert Andino of Baltimore, who had three clutch hits that beat Boston in the season's final two weeks, none bigger than the game-winning two-out RBI single that handed the Red Sox a 4-3 loss in the season finale on Sept. 28.
But the Rays' real hero emerged mere minutes after Andino's hit landed safely. Evan Longoria's walk-off homer off the Yanks' Scott Proctor in the bottom of the 12th at Tropicana Field solidified Tampa Bay's unlikely Wild Card standing. Unfortunately, they didn't stand long in October, getting bounced by the eventual AL champion Rangers.
4. 2007 Rockies: The Rox lost that Sept. 13 game in Philadelphia, then dropped two more at home against the Marlins to fall 4 1/2 back of the NL Wild Card spot, with three teams ahead of them and only 14 games left to play. It would take nothing less than a Mile High Miracle to climb that mountain, but Colorado did it by winning 13 of those final 14.
The one loss came on Sept. 28, to the division-winning D-backs. And thank goodness for that. Because had the Rockies won that game, we wouldn't have been treated to the Wild Card tiebreaker with the Padres on Oct. 1. In Game 163, the two clubs took a 6-6 tie into the 13th inning, in which San Diego scored a pair in the top of the inning. Colorado, which had home-field advantage by virtue of a coin flip, countered with an RBI double from Troy Tulowitzki and an RBI triple from Holliday, who then won it on a headfirst slide into home plate on a sacrifice fly. Whether Holliday was safe or out is a matter still contested to this day.
The Rockies rode their crazy winning stretch all the way to the World Series, where they were swept by the Red Sox.
5. 2007 Phillies: Though the Phillies were only two games back going into September, that hole would grow to seven games by the end of play on Sept. 12. The Mets had held the top spot since the middle of May, and there was no reason to suspect defending NL East champs would relinquish it. But the Phils handed the Rockies a rare September loss (and more on them in a moment) at home on Sept. 13. Then they went to Shea Stadium and swept the Mets in a weekend set to pull within 3 1/2 games. They wouldn't face the Mets again, but with reigning NL MVP Award winner Ryan Howard and Chase Utley delivering prime performance down the stretch, they would win seven of their next 10 to force a tie at the top.
And on the season's final day, Jamie Moyer and the bullpen held the Nationals to a single unearned run and Howard drove in three for the 6-1 victory that, combined with the Mets' listless 8-1 loss to the Marlins, completed the simply stunning turn of events in the NL East.
If only the Phillies didn't have a fellow September surger awaiting them in the Division Series (see above).
6. 1964 Cardinals: Sometimes it's the victim of the surge whose memory really endures, and so it is with what happened in '64, if only because the "Philly Phlop" is such a great nickname.
But the Cardinal Comeback was special stuff. This club was 7 1/2 back when the calendar flipped to September, 8 1/2 back when play concluded on Sept. 5 and 6 1/2 back when play ended on Sept. 20 -- with just 14 days and 13 games left in the season schedule.
Earlier that summer, the Cardinals had made the famous Lou Brock-for-Ernie Broglio trade with the Cubs, and Brock was big down the stretch, with a .364 batting average, six homers, six doubles and three triples in that final month. Without him, it's doubtful the Cards would have won nine of their last 11, allowing them to take advantage of the phlopping Phils losing 10 of their last 12. The Cardinals clinched on the last day of the regular season, with Bob Gibson's 11-5 win over the Mets, leaving the Phillies in a second-place tie with the Reds.
That all paved the way to a classic seven-game World Series against the Yankees, which the Cards won behind Gibson's Series MVP performance.
7. 1995 Mariners: As late as Aug. 20, the M's trailed the Angels by 12 1/2 games, and they were 7 1/2 back going into September. But they won 19 of 27 in that final month, and the story of their surge is reflective in their attendance totals at the Kingdome, which went from a lowly figure of 12,102 on Sept. 12 to 52,356 just 10 days later.
With Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez and Ken Griffey Jr. all in their prime, the Mariners lived by the mantra "Refuse to Lose." But it was actually two losses -- on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 in Texas -- that forced a tiebreaker game with the Halos. In Game 145 of that strike-shortened 144-game season, Seattle took the division title behind The Big Unit's complete game and Luis Sojo's memorable inside-the-park "grand slam" (technically, a double and error).
The excitement continued with a nail-biter of a five-game series with the Yankees, before the M's run finally ended at the hands of the Indians in the AL Championship Series. The Mariners tied the next team on our list for the largest Sept. 1 deficit overcome by a division champ.
8. 1969 Mets: With this being a list of great September comebacks, the "Miracle Mets" might not rank as high as they do in the sentimental standings. The truth is that much of the heavy lifting had already been accomplished before September began. The Mets were 10 back of the Cubs in the NL East in mid-August but started chopping away. The deficit was down to 4 1/2 by the time September began, and it didn't take long for them to overcome that.
A walk-off win over the Expos in the first game of a Sept. 10 doubleheader (Ken Boswell drove in Cleon Jones with the winning run) gave the Mets the NL East lead, and they would not let it go. Not only did they erase what had been a 10-game hole, but they built an eight-game cushion of their own -- an 18-game swing in the span of about seven weeks. And having shown the mental and physical fortitude necessary for such a sea change, what happened next -- a sweep of the Braves in the NLCS, followed by a five-game World Series win over the Orioles -- is no surprise.
Just four years later, the Mets would have another September surge, though this time en route to a World Series loss to the A's. With Tug McGraw's "Ya Gotta Believe!" serving as the rallying cry, the Mets overcame what was a 5 1/2-game hole going into the month.
9. 1978 Yankees: What many of us remember about the '78 Yanks is that they made a huge charge in the final weeks of the regular season to catch up with the rival Red Sox and force a tiebreaker.
But it didn't exactly go like that.
In reality, the Yankees erased what had been a nine-game deficit as late as Aug. 13 and a 6 1/2-game deficit going into September with remarkable efficiency. They won 10 of their first 13 games in the season's final month to take a lead in the AL East -- a lead that would grow to 2 1/2 games.
So it was actually a Red Sox comeback that forced the famous tiebreaker, which the Yanks won on Bucky Dent's huge home run.
In the grand scheme, though, this was still a rousing ride on the part of a Yankees team that had a tumultuous year, with Billy Martin resigning in late July over his fractured relationship with George Steinbrenner and Reggie Jackson. The Yanks built on their late-season run by beating the Royals in the ALCS and then topping the Dodgers in what would be their last World Series win until 1996.
10. 2009 Twins: If all you knew about these Twins was that they erased what had been a 3 1/2-game deficit entering September, you'd think, "No big deal." After all, that's the kind of difficulty you can essentially overcome in the span of a weekend.
But here's the thing: The Twins lost seven of their first 11 in September 2009. It was like baseball's version of the rope-a-dope. Minnesota fell as far as seven games back (Sept. 6). It was just a .500 ballclub at that point. But there was still some magic in the ol' Metrodome, which was in its final year as the home of the Twins. Beginning with a Sept. 13 shutout of the visiting A's, the Twins rattled off wins in 16 of 20 games to pull even with the reeling Tigers on the final day of the regular season. And that set the stage for one of the great tiebreakers of all time -- a 12-inning thriller at the Dome in which Alexi Casilla drove home Carlos Gómez with the winning run in a walk-off.
If Minnesota was exhausted from its rise up the standings and the extra-inning affair, it showed in the AL Division Series. The Twins were swept by the Yankees. But just getting to that point was incredible.
Honorable mentions: The 1938 Cubs were seven back going into September but won 22 of their last 29 to steal the NL pennant. … The 2013 Indians entered September 4 1/2 back of a Wild Card slot and won it with a 21-6 final flourish, including wins in their last 10 games. … Anybody who still decries the Wild Card system ought to remember that the 1993 Braves won 104 games to edge the 103-win Giants in the NL West. They did with a September sprint from 4 1/2 back. … The 2010 Giants were four back of the Padres in the NL West on Sept. 1, 2010. By the end of October, they were bathing in champagne. … The 1974 Orioles and 2001 Cardinals both overcame six-game deficits at the start of September, though the Cards had to settle for the Wild Card fourth seed as a result of the Astros having the better head-to-head record.
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.