Best September stretches in history

Led by the Rockies one decade ago, these teams reached the playoffs after fantastic late-season runs

September 15th, 2017

On Sept. 19, 2007, then-Rockies General Manager Dan O'Dowd pulled into his parking spot at Coors Field, the morning after one of the biggest hits in Colorado Rockies history. He was giddy from the moment, still reveling in the emotion of it all after having watched Todd Helton's home run off Dodgers closer Takashi Saito sail into the cool Denver night to win a crucial game the team was one strike away from losing.

Still, the Rockies' postseason hopes were faltering -- that much was known, with 11 games left in the regular season and a 5.5-game deficit in the National League West. But, man, O'Dowd could have sworn that something had changed when Helton hit that ball and raised his right fist to the sky while rounding the bases. Something was different about this club now.

O'Dowd's phone rang before he got out of the car. It was Keli McGregor, the Rockies' beloved team president. Apparently O'Dowd's boss was feeling it, too.

"Dan, I had this dream last night," said McGregor, who passed away suddenly in 2010. "We're about to go on the most historic run that this game has ever seen."

"Buckle your seatbelt," he told O'Dowd. "We're about to have some fun."

Did they ever.

The Helton game was the Rockies' third straight victory, and they'd win their next eight to storm back into the thick of playoff contention. After a loss to Arizona on Sept. 28, Colorado won its last two contests against the D-backs to force a one-game tiebreaker against the San Diego Padres for a winner-take-all stake to the NL Wild Card berth. It took them 13 innings and 4 hours, 40 minutes, but the Rockies won that one, too, on 's famous head-first slide into home.

Then, all the team did was sweep the Phillies in the NLDS and the D-backs in the NLCS to make it to the first World Series in franchise history and cap off one of the most dominant and unforgettable finishes to a season in Big League lore.

"We're fighting, we're scratching, we're clawing," recalls Clint Hurdle, manager of the 2007 Rockies and now the Pittsburgh Pirates, when asked for his memories of that magical run 10 years ago. "And then we're starting to experience something significant and special. It grew."

It ended with an anticlimactic Fall Classic sweep at the hands of the Boston Red Sox, a cruel fate considering the Rockies' quick disposal of the Phillies and D-backs left them with a nine-day gap between the end of the NLCS and the first pitch of the World Series.

"That's one of the things I still think about -- having to wait so long to play in the World Series," says then-reliever and team leader LaTroy Hawkins. "It kind of burns me up. We were a victim of our own success."

The 2007 ship was largely steered by the veteran, homegrown core of Helton, Brad Hawpe, Garrett Atkins and Matt Holliday, and buoyed by superstar rookie . But the club would not have come together the way it did without invaluable role players such as tough-as-leather catcher and clutch outfielders Ryan Spilborghs and Cory Sullivan.

The bend-but-don't-break pitching staff was led by Josh Fogg, who was so good at taking on opposing No. 1 starters that teammates dubbed him "Dragon Slayer." Add in lefty Jeff Francis and young closer Manny Corpas, who was unhittable down the stretch, and you've got a historic achievement, no matter the end result -- although Colorado's 21-1 record over the 22 games prior to the World Series was unprecedented for that crucial time of year.

"It really helped me bolster my faith in believing something you can't see," Hurdle says. "What can I do to empower them the most? It was basically to throw them the keys to the car and say, 'Let's go. You guys drive.'"

The Rockies might have rallied to end that season with a fury rarely seen, but there have been similar closing runs in baseball that are too memorable to omit from this narrative.

The 1995 Seattle Mariners, for example, not only caught fire to make a serious playoff run, but they also likely saved Major League Baseball in their city. With a looming, unpopular tax increase for a publicly funded new ballpark that was needed to replace the crumbling Kingdome, a bad season by the local nine might have forced the Mariners to move.

But the Mariners boasted Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner and Lou Piniella in their corner, and they didn't give up, even after trailing the first-place Angels by 12.5 games on Aug. 20.

A September surge -- they went 19-8 in the final month while the Angels struggled -- and a gem by Johnson in a tiebreaker against the Angels led to the incredible, come-from-behind five-game ALDS win over the Yankees. That series was punctuated by what the franchise now knows simply as "The Double": Martinez's two-base hit to score Griffey in the 11th inning of Game 5.

"Once we came back against the Yankees, there's no way the politicians and the people in Seattle would let the team go," former Mariner Joey Cora told Seattle Met magazine in 2015. "There was no way."

And there's no way to forget the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals when putting this list together, either. That team trailed the Atlanta Braves by 8.5 games in the Wild Card standings on Sept. 1, but went 18-8 in the final month to sneak into the postseason. Then St. Louis won the NLDS after trailing Philadelphia, 2 games to 1.

But then, things got really nuts. In Game 6 of the World Series, with the Cardinals losing by two runs in the bottom of the ninth and one strike away from elimination against the Texas Rangers, tied the game with a triple. Then, in the bottom of the 10th, with the Cards losing by a run and down to their last strike for a second time, Lance Berkman tied the game with a single.

Freese ultimately won it with a homer in the 11th and St. Louis won it all in Game 7, capping off another stunning late-season turnaround for the ages.

"This is what you dream about," Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa said after the comeback was complete. "There isn't anybody on this team, the other team, either, that when you're a young kid you don't think about winning the World Series, and it's always in Game 7.

"Truly a dream come true. It's hard to really imagine it actually happened."

Other teams that forged fantastic finishes throughout history would agree, from the 1951 New York Giants to the 1969 Miracle Mets to the 2003 Marlins.

But especially on the 10th anniversary of their incredible ascent, no one can overlook those Rockies, a team that finally brought its most loyal fans an October experience -- and playoff ride -- they would never forget.

"All those years grinding to get to that point, to see the joy on people's faces, to experience the electricity in our front office, our hallways, in the city, to see the signs in our yard, it was all worth it," O'Dowd says today.

"These were the type of guys you'd want to be your own sons. And they had each other's backs."