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There's hope for big-winning Wild Cards

Pirates, Cubs can take heart in knowing two have gone on to win it all

PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates and Cubs enter Wednesday night's National League Wild Card Game presented by Budweiser with 98 and 97 wins, respectively, as a trio of clubs from the rough-and-tumble NL Central Division posted the best three records in baseball, led by the division champion Cardinals at 100.

The Pirates' win total was the best for the franchise since 1909 yet still was not enough for a National League Central title and nonstop ticket into the best-of-five National League Division Series. The Cubs are in a similar boat, finishing with an eight-game winning streak that allowed them to tie the 2008 club for the franchise's most wins in the divisional era.

:: NL Wild Card Game: Cubs vs. Pirates -- Tune-in info ::

The question for these two clubs is this: What does history tell us about finishing with 96 or more wins but still having to settle for a Wild Card berth? Does the fire go out, or is it rekindled in October?

The Pirates and Cubs will help to answer that question begninning in the NL Wild Card Game on Wednesday night at 8 ET on TBS. But in the last three seasons, since the addition of a second Wild Card and a one-game Wild Card Game required to advance to the Division Series round, the Bucs have experienced both sides of that high-pressure, emotional coin.

Their 2013 breakthrough was a celebration, and it continued with a 6-2 Wild Card win over the Reds in a pumped PNC Park. In 2014, they carried the chase of a division title right down to the disappointing final day -- and came up empty in an 8-0 Wild Card loss at the hands of Giants ace Madison Bumgarner, whose performance -- the first of many to come last October -- sucked the life out of the hometown crowd.

Looking back over the past 21 seasons, since the addition of the Wild Card in 1995, only five teams won 96 or more games without winning one of the six divisions.

The good news? Two of these teams won the World Series. The bad news? None of them had to survive a one-game Wild Card to do so. Which is not to say that's impossible, the 88-win Giants did just that last year -- as the Pirates know all too well.

Here is a look at how each of those teams did in October, in descending order of number of wins:

102: 2001 Oakland A's.
Possibly the hardest-luck Wild Cards ever, the A's won a ridiculous 65 of their last 84 games and still finished 14 games behind the Mariners, whom they'd trailed by double digits since April. Compounding their emotional challenge, they earned the AL Wild Card by an even bigger margin (17 games) over the Twins.

But you cannot blame the wheel-spinning for their quick five-game knockout in the ALDS. Blame Derek Jeter: His legendary "flip play" to nail Jeremy Giambi at the plate in the seventh inning of Game 3 started New York's comeback from losing the first two games.

99: 2002 Anaheim Angels
On Aug. 13, the Angels were two games behind Seattle in the AL West. They went 15-6 over their next 21 games and at the end of that stretch were still two games behind the A's, who were busy winning 20 straight. The Angels also won 22 of their last 32, yet finished four games out.

Unveiling Francisco Rodriguez, the Angels dominated the Yankees and the Twins in the Division and Championship Series, respectively, then edged San Francisco in an offense-oriented seven-game World Series.

Angels manager Mike Scioscia: "I don't think there was a question that in '02 it was the toughest division in baseball. As we got in the playoffs, guys just never lost stride. On the offensive side, they pounded the ball. Our bullpen held leads. I think the mentality going in was, 'We're going to play the same way we've played all year.' We felt really confident that we were a good team that could match up with any team that we were going to play. "

98: 2004 Boston Red Sox
The 2004 Boston Red Sox came up three games short of the Yankees in the American League East, but ripped off 42 wins in their final 59 games of the season and entered October on a serious roll.

That collection of "idiots," as they called themselves, sparked by Dave Roberts' stolen base in Game 4 and pitching heroics from Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez, rallied from down 3-0 in the ALCS to defeat the Yankees and then overwhelmed the Cardinals in a sweep to bring a World Series title back to Boston for the first time since 1918.

97: 1999 New York Mets
The Metropolitans led the NL East as late as Aug. 21 and still trailed by only one game on Sept. 9. Then the Braves found a higher gear, and in their dust the Mets finished 6 1/2 games out. At the wire they were more concerned with the Reds, who had a two-game lead for the Wild Card with four to go. The Mets won those four.

NY third baseman Robin Ventura: "There was never a chance to kind of let up and feel like you have to re-focus. We were happy to get in. That was more of the feeling that we had. [Now, with the Wild Card] you are playing for your life each game. But once you get into a five-game or seven-game series, those games become a little bit different. You want to win them, but it doesn't mean you are out if you lose one of them."

The Mets had an easy Division Series time with the Diamondbacks, but ran into a familiar haunt in the NLCS: Those same Braves, who prevailed in a taut six-game series in which Atlanta's 4-2 win in Game 1 was the biggest "romp." The last five games were all one-run affairs.

96: 1997 New York Yankees
The Yankees trailed the Orioles by two games on April 28. They trailed the Orioles by 3 1/2 games on July 17. They won 15 of their last 19 games and, at the end, still trailed the Orioles by two games.

This Yankee squad represents perhaps the best precedent for the frustrations of the Pirates and the Cubs, who kept playing well without gaining on the Cardinals all season long. Pittsburgh and Chicago fans hope that's where the precedent stops: The Yankees departed the postseason in the first round, dropping the ALDS to the Indians.

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer and on his podcast.
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