Teams to win pennant or WS while missing stars

November 10th, 2021

Baseball, as much as any sport, requires an entire team to win a championship. Superstars certainly make the process easier, and clubs generally need a couple to get them over the top. But those stars won’t always be up at the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning, or on the mound facing the opponents’ big slugger. Everyone must eventually step up.

That's especially true when a team loses one or more star players along its quest to win it all.

Below (in reverse chronological order) is a rundown of teams that still found a way to capture their league’s pennant or a World Series championship despite not having one or more of their best players at their disposal.

Ronald Acuña Jr. and Charlie Morton -- 2021 Braves

Acuña, the Braves' best position player and a yearly threat to be in the MVP Award conversation, tore his right ACL while trying to run down a fly ball against the Marlins on July 10. Without its superstar outfielder, Atlanta struggled into the second half of the season, and was under .500 (54-55) as late as Aug. 4. But the Braves reeled off 34 wins over their final 52 games to win their fourth consecutive NL East title.

Atlanta defeated both the Brewers (NLDS) and the Dodgers (NLCS) to reach the World Series for the first time since 1999. In Game 1, Morton suffered a fractured right fibula when he was hit by a comebacker off the bat of the Astros' Yuli Gurriel in the second inning.

If it was a daunting task to get to the World Series without their best position player, it would be even more daunting for the Braves to defeat a powerful Houston lineup without Morton. But Atlanta rose to the challenge again, winning Game 1 and the World Series in six games for its first championship in 26 years.

Justin Verlander and Lance McCullers Jr. -- 2021 Astros

Verlander, the MVP of the 2017 ALCS, in which the Astros defeated the Yankees before going on to win the first World Series title in franchise history, didn't throw a pitch for Houston in 2021 while recovering from Tommy John surgery. Despite moving into his late 30s, Verlander was tremendous for the Astros after coming over in a trade from the Tigers -- the right-hander made 74 starts for Houston from 2017-20, posting a 2.45 ERA and 35 percent strikeout rate.

McCullers turned in a 3.16 ERA over 28 regular-season starts for Houston, and would now be the club's ace in the postseason. But he, too, was lost to injury, when he strained his right forearm during Game 4 of the ALDS against the Rays.

Without those two star right-handers, the Astros still managed to defeat the Red Sox in the ALCS to advance to their third World Series in five years. That's where the run ended, however, as the Braves beat them in six games.

Corey Seager -- 2018 Dodgers

Seager was the MVP of both the NLCS and World Series in 2020, when the Dodgers finally won their first championship since 1988. But two years before that, the star shortstop was sidelined after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his elbow while the Dodgers won their second consecutive NL pennant and met the Red Sox in the World Series. The Dodgers would lose in six games, but it was a remarkable run, in part because Los Angeles reached the Fall Classic without one of its best hitters.

Trevor Bauer, Michael Brantley, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar -- 2016 Indians

The Indians had to overcome a cavalcade of injuries to several key contributors in 2016, but still managed to reach the World Series. Cleveland lost a thrilling Fall Classic to the Cubs in seven games, but the fact that it made that deep a run in the postseason was remarkable after losing Carrasco to a broken hand, Brantley to a shoulder injury, Bauer to an October drone-related injury, and Salazar to a forearm injury for most of September and October.

Greg Holland -- 2015 Royals

The Royals exceeded most expectations by reaching Game 7 of the 2014 World Series, thanks in large part to a three-headed bullpen monster of Holland, Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera that shortened games for Kansas City. So it was perhaps just as surprising when the Royals made the Series again after Holland, the closer, blew out his elbow in late September.

Manager Ned Yost and his staff summoned all the magic at their disposal. Former No. 1 overall Draft pick Luke Hochevar emerged as a third bullpen option alongside Herrera and Davis, and Ryan Madson returned for his first big league season in four years and bolstered the ‘pen. Kansas City finished the job this time, dispatching the Mets in a five-game World Series.

Chris Carpenter -- 2013 Cardinals

Carpenter was ruled out for the 2013 campaign even before it began, with persistent shoulder problems eventually bringing his career to an end -- the veteran right-hander tried to make a midseason comeback, but was unable to overcome his shoulder issues. The Cardinals soldiered on without him, reaching the World Series for the second time in three years but falling to the Red Sox in six games. Though he didn't pitch for St. Louis that postseason, Carpenter helped the club win the World Series in 2006 and '11, finishing with a career postseason ERA of 3.00 in 18 starts (108 innings).

Adam Wainwright -- 2011 Cardinals

Wainwright finished among the top three in NL Cy Young Award voting the previous two years, but the ace right-hander had to miss the entire 2011 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. St. Louis nonetheless overcame the loss of their frontline starter and won a thrilling seven-game World Series over the Rangers.

Frank Thomas -- 2005 White Sox

The Big Hurt was 37 years old by this point, but he was still a force to be reckoned with at the plate when healthy. The problem was, he was rarely healthy from 2004-05, playing in a combined 108 games over that span. The White Sox were without their marquee superstar, but in '05, Mark Buehrle and Paul Konerko helped lead Chicago to its first World Series title in 88 years. Thomas never appeared in a World Series game during his 19-year Hall of Fame career -- his 2,322 career regular-season games played are the 17th most for a Major League player who never played in the World Series.

Kirk Gibson -- 1988 Dodgers

Yes, Gibson played in most of the Dodgers’ 1988 NLCS triumph over the Mets, but he hurt both knees on sliding plays during the series and had to exit in the fourth inning of Los Angeles’ Game 7 victory. Everyone knows the next chapter -- the impossible happened when Gibson came off the bench and hit a walk-off homer against A’s closer Dennis Eckersley in Game 1 of the World Series -- but then he was done, and the Dodgers still had to win three more games without their league MVP Award winner. Enter left fielder Mickey Hatcher, who homered in Games 1 and 5 after going deep once during the regular season. Los Angeles upset the 104-win A’s in five contests.

Jack Clark -- 1987 Cardinals

This was “Jack the Ripper”’s best season as he paced the NL in walks (136), OBP (.459), slugging (.597) and OPS (1.055) while crushing a career-high 35 homers. Cardinals pitcher John Tudor proclaimed, “No one man is going to win the pennant for us, except for Jack Clark.”

But Clark sprained his right ankle on Sept. 9 and played in only three more games before the postseason. The Cardinals had a large enough lead to just hold on for the NL East title over the Mets, but Clark’s ankle was still so painful in October that he made just one plate appearance against the Giants in Game 3 of the NLCS. St. Louis won in seven games anyway before dropping a heartbreaking seven-game World Series to the underdog Twins.

Vince Coleman -- 1985 Cardinals

Coleman was the unanimous choice for the 1985 NL Rookie of the Year Award after he burst onto the scene with a rookie-record 110 steals (the third-highest single-season total in AL/NL Modern Era history) and 10 triples. His energy helped the Cardinals fend off the Mets for the NL East title. St. Louis trailed the Dodgers, two games to one in the NLCS when the automatic tarpaulin at Busch Stadium rolled over Coleman’s left leg and injured it before Game 5, sidelining him for the rest of the season for one of baseball’s all-time strangest injuries. Willie McGee slid into Coleman’s slot atop the order and the Redbirds rallied back to win the pennant, but they lost to the Royals in a seven-game World Series.

Rollie Fingers -- 1982 Brewers

Members of the beloved “Harvey’s Wallbangers” 1982 Brewers swear to this day that they would have beaten the Cardinals in that year’s World Series had Fingers, the ‘81 AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner, been available to pitch. Fingers was arguably the game’s most dominant reliever and had already racked up 29 saves with a 2.60 ERA across nearly 80 innings by Sept. 2, when he tore a muscle in his forearm and was lost for the season.

The Crew held on to win the AL East by one game over the Orioles and then sweated out a five-game ALCS against the Angels to reach the World Series before falling to Whitey Herzog’s Redbirds in seven games. Brewers reliever Pete Ladd walked home the Cardinals’ winning run in Game 2, and then Milwaukee blew a 3-1 lead after seven innings in Game 7 -- two situations where Fingers almost certainly would have been on the mound.

"When he went down," recalled Milwaukee lefty Jerry Augustine, “it changed how we used everybody. With Rollie in the bullpen, healthy, I think we would have had a chance to bring a World Series [trophy] back to Milwaukee."

Willie Randolph – 1978 Yankees

Randolph might have been the Yankees’ best all-around position player in 1978 as he hit .279/.381/.357, stole 36 bases and contributed excellent defense at second base. But he pulled his hamstring on Sept. 29, just three days before the famous Bucky Dent AL East tiebreaker game at Fenway Park.

Randolph’s absence set up a classic surprise postseason hero in backup infielder Brian Doyle, a career .161 hitter who stepped up to go 7-for-16 (.438) and score four runs in the Yankees’ six-game World Series triumph over the Dodgers.

Jim Rice -- 1975 Red Sox

The 1975 Red Sox featured not one, but two rookie seasons for the ages. Center fielder Fred Lynn became the first player to win a league’s Rookie of the Year Award and MVP Award in the same season, while Rice finished second in Rookie voting and third in MVP voting while hitting an outstanding .309/.350/.491 with 22 homers, 102 RBIs and 277 total bases at age 22. The Red Sox won the AL East by 4 1/2 games, but they finished the year without their prodigious left fielder after Tigers pitcher Vern Ruhle broke Rice’s left hand with a pitch. 

Boston had plenty of talent to continue on, sweeping the three-time reigning World Series champion A’s in the ALCS. But one wonders if the all-time, seven-game Fall Classic between the Red Sox and Reds would have swung Boston’s way, had Rice been in its lineup.

Bill North -- 1973 A’s

Three-peats aren’t supposed to be easy, and the 1973 A’s had to rally without their primary center fielder for the second straight year (see below) to make it two titles in a row. In his first season in Oakland following a trade from the Cubs, North posted a .376 OBP while often batting first or second in the order, and he was the team’s second-most valuable contributor behind Reggie Jackson in ‘73 per Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR. North was leading the AL in steals and runs scored until his season came to an abrupt end on Sept. 20, when he sprained his ankle tripping over first base. The A’s powered on despite the loss of their sparkplug, but it wasn’t an easy road. They needed all five games to dispatch the Orioles in the ALCS and then all seven in the World Series to get past the “Ya Gotta Believe” Mets.

Reggie Jackson -- 1972 A’s

Jackson is the owner of five World Series rings, including three with the A’s, but Oakland had to claim its first championship without their biggest slugger. It was the second inning of the winner-take-all Game 5 of the 1972 ALCS when the A’s pulled off a double steal against the Tigers; Mike Epstein broke for second and then Jackson came home on a delayed steal. Jackson felt his hamstring tear when he was about 20 feet from home, but he continued on and still beat the throw to tie the ballgame.

Jackson had to be carried off the field but the A’s gutted through a 2-1 win to claim the pennant. He remained on crutches throughout the World Series, where Oakland got a surprising Series MVP performance from catcher Gene Tenace (.348, four home runs) and upset Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine in seven games.

Tony Conigliaro -- 1967 Red Sox

This was a tragic year for Tony C, after he had burst onto the scene with 24 homers as a 19-year-old, led the AL with 32 dingers in 1965 and was setting an excellent pace in’67 with 20 homers and 67 RBIs through Aug. 18. But that’s when Angels pitcher Jack Hamilton hit Conigliaro in the left eye and cheekbone with a fastball. Conigliaro was lucky to walk away with his life, but the vision in his left eye was never the same. He didn’t return to the diamond until ’69, but the ’67 ‘Impossible Dream’ Red Sox continued on to the World Series thanks to the historic Triple Crown efforts of Carl Yastrzemski. The dream ended in Game 7 at the hands of Cardinals ace Bob Gibson.

“I’ve said it a million times,” Red Sox infielder George Scott later said, “if Tony had been in the lineup, we would have won. He was one of those guys. Reggie Jackson was a big-game player. Tony was that kind of player.”

Tommy Davis -- 1965 Dodgers

Davis was perhaps on a path bound for Cooperstown in May 1965. He was already a two-time All-Star, two-time batting champion and a third-place NL MVP Award finisher in ’62 after he posted a mammoth 230 hits, .346 average and 153 RBIs. But the left fielder’s career turned on May 1, 1965, when he broke his ankle while making an awkward slide against the Giants. Davis’ replacement, Lou Johnson, wound up being a key figure for that year’s Dodgers as he hit the go-ahead homer in Game 7 of the World Series against the Twins. Los Angeles traded Davis to the Mets after the ’66 season, but he never again reached the peak of his early years.

Mickey Mantle -- 1961 Yankees

The chase between Mantle and Roger Maris to break Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record is the stuff of legend, but Mantle wound up cheering Maris on from a hospital bed in September. The prodigious slugger suffered an abscess in his hip joint after he received a flu shot injection that caused him to miss the final weekend of the season, and Maris broke Ruth’s record with 61 homers. The infection forced Mantle to miss three World Series games, but the Yankees still beat the Reds in five.

Lou Gehrig -- 1939 Yankees

This was an emotional year for the Bronx Bombers, as Lou Gehrig announced in his “Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth” speech that summer that he was retiring from baseball after he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Gehrig played in only eight games, but the 1939 Yankees still became one of the most dominant AL/NL teams in history. Led by a ton of superstars including Joe DiMaggio, Bill Dickey, Joe Gordon and Red Ruffing, the pinstripes won the AL pennant by 17 games before sweeping the Reds in the World Series. They remain the only Modern Era AL/NL team to finish a season with a run differential north of 400.

Johnny Evers -- 1910 Cubs

Evers represented one-third of the Cubs’ Hall of Fame double-play combination of Tinkers-to-Evers-to-Chance, but Chicago had to play short-handed in the 1910 World Series. After Evers drew 108 walks to finish second in the league, he broke his leg on Oct. 1 with two weeks left in the regular season. The Cubs enjoyed a 10-game lead at the time and coasted to the pennant, but they dropped the World Series to the Philadelphia A’s in five games.