The Best Night Ever, the Mets' collapse and much more
No disrespect to the pre-Wild Card era, which produced some phenomenal pennant races including the 1951 “Shot Heard 'Round the World,” the 1978 AL East race (Bucky Dent) and more, but the Wild Card(s) era has succeeded at widening the playing field and heightening the drama.
The way this year's AL East is shaping up and the Wild Card races with a dozen teams in realistic striking distance, we may be in store for something special once again. So here’s a look back at the seven greatest pennant races (or Wild Card chases) since the implementation of the Wild Card in 1995. They’re in chronological order but it works out that the wildest race still appears last.
Getty ImagesJ. Meric
The Seattle Mariners catch the California Angels to capture the AL West (1995)
Established in 1977, the Seattle Mariners had failed to reach the postseason for the first 18 years of their existence and basically served as an AL West doormat since their inception. At the All-Star break in the strike-shortened 1995 season, the M’s were one game under .500 at 34-35 and in late August they were still playing .500 ball (55-55), trailing the Angels by 11.5 games with the Texas Rangers also ahead of them in second. Then on Aug. 24, Ken Griffey Jr. hit a ninth inning walk-off three-run homer off Yankees closer John Wetteland.
Thus began an incredible climb up the standings that coincided with the Angels’ demise. Powered by Randy Johnson, who led the Mariners to six of their 23 wins down the stretch and won the AL Cy Young, Seattle pulled even with the Angels on Sept. 20. Then Seattle went up three games but gave the lead back and got locked in a tie (78-66 apiece) on the final day of the regular season, forcing a one-game playoff.
The Mariners put their ace on the mound, Johnson, who pitched a complete game, allowing just three hits and one earned run, striking out 11. The Mariners bats came alive with four runs apiece in the seventh and eighth as the Mariners finally reached the playoffs with a 9-1 rout. The Mariners went on to play the New York Yankees in a pretty epic ALDS series in the club’s first ever postseason appearance, but that’s another story.
AFP/Getty ImagesTHERESE FRARE
The New York Mets and Cincinnati Reds fight for the Wild Card when great isn’t good enough (1999)
Both the Mets and Reds enjoyed pretty outstanding regular-season campaigns in 1999. Unfortunately for those two clubs, the Braves’ reign of NL East dominance continued and the Killer B’s Houston Astros were running through the NL Central. In late August the Mets managed to catch the Braves at nearly 30 games over .500 (74-48), but the Braves regained the lead a few days later, flexed their pitching arms and cruised comfortably to another title.
The NL Central race was more climactic. After knotting the Astros on Aug. 19 the Reds fell slightly off pace but within striking distance when they swept the Cardinals in late September, and then had a shot at the throne in a two-game set against the Astros on Sept. 28. The Reds’ Pete Harnisch threw an eight inning gem to beat 20-game winner Jose Lima, and the Reds took a one-game lead in the Central with just four games left. Unfortunately, the Reds dropped three of those four (including the second game to the Astros) while the Mets nearly fell out of Wild Card contention with seven straight losses in late September, but dug out wins in their final four games including two walk-off victories.
Both the Mets and Reds finished their regularly scheduled programming at 96-66 and would settle the Wild Card spot with a one-game playoff. The Jack McKeon-led Reds didn’t score a run in the game as New York’s Al Leiter hurled a complete game gem, allowing just two hits in striking out seven in a 5-0 win. The Mets later fell in the NLCS four games to two to the Altanta Braves.
Getty ImagesAndy Lyons
The Astros collapse late but regain their footing just in time (2001)
The NL Central delivered another thrilling finish a couple years after the Reds-Astros drama when the Astros took the first of a three-game home series against the Cardinals to go up 5.5 games with 12 left to play. Then things went south.
The Cardinals won the next two as the Astros spiraled around the drain, losing eight of nine and ending up one game back of St. Louis as the two came face to face at Busch Stadium for a three games series to conclude the regular season. The Astros trailed 1-0 late in the first game when one of Houston’s new “Bs” -- Lance Berkman -- delivered a solo shot off Jeff Tabaka in the top of the eighth. Berkman then delivered again in the top of the ninth with an RBI double that sent home Craig Biggio and closer Billy Wagner -- after loading the bases -- shut the door as the Astros pulled even at 92-68.
The Astros dropped the next game but could still win the division in the do-or-die final game by virtue of holding a head-to-head tie-breaker. The Astros sent Shane Reynolds to the mound for the finale against former Houston Astro All-Star Darryl Kile; Reynolds spun 7.1 mostly clean innings (one earned) as the Astros rocked Kile for seven runs in a 9-2 romp to claim the NL Central. And then the Braves bounced the Astros in a 3-0 NLDS sweep, but getting there sure was eventful.
The White Sox and Indians and a gesture from Ozzie (2005)
Remember the Chicago White Sox-Ozzie Guillen era? It wasn’t that long ago and it was quite entertaining. In 2005 the White Sox took a stranglehold on the AL Central all season with a lead at its apex at 15 games on Aug. 1. Then over the final two months, the Indians surged as the White Sox lost their balance and the lead wore down to the bone -- just 1.5 games with 10 left to play.
Meanwhile the Indians were also vying with the Red Sox (as well as the Yankees) for the Wild Card spot. Well, after winning 16 of 18 down the stretch, the Indians ran out of steam and dropped six of their last seven, the final three to the White Sox in Cleveland. The Red Sox eked into the Wild Card spot as the Yankees claimed the AL East and the Indians could only watch as manager Ozzie Guillen clutched his throat in Cleveland, saying later that he was joking around with the fans.
"Back and forth like that. All of a sudden I come down there, and the mascot goes like this (wiggling his fingers) and I went (gives the choke sign),” Guillen said. “Then they took the picture, and all of a sudden it was like after the game I was telling people they choked." In any event, the Indians missed the playoffs and the White Sox won the World Series a few weeks later.
The New York Mets stumble and fall and land face first (2007)
New York Mets fans may never be comfortable with any late-season division lead and the fate of the 2007 Mets is the reason. This is simultaneously one of the Philadelphia Phillies’ faithful’s greatest memories.
The David Wright-Jose Reyes-Carlos Beltran-Carlos Delgado Mets were cruising toward the playoffs with a seven-game NL East lead on Sept. 12 when they visited the City of Brotherly Love -- and got swept. Gulp. The lead shrunk to four. But then the Mets dropped two more in Washington while the Phillies continued stacking Ws and the lead winnowed to 1.5. After back-to-back Phillies losses it looked like they might let the Mets limp in, but New York’s starting rotation continued to implode, and with just four games left the Mets and Phillies were locked at 87-72.
The Mets dropped their final game in St. Louis and headed home to face the last-place Marlins while the Phillies continued their homestand against the Nationals. Both teams split the first two, meaning it would all come down to Game 162. For the last dance, a couple wily old veterans toed the rubber for each side -- Hall of Famer Tom Glavine for the Mets and Jamie Moyer for the Phillies. By the end of the first inning in New York, scoreboard watchers in Philly were celebrating. The Marlins shelled Glavine for seven runs in the first frame. He got lifted after recording just one out as Moyer and the Nationals coasted to a 6-1 victory and the NL East crown.
Later out west, the Colorado Rockies, which had pulled off a staggering second-half comeback to force one-game playoff with the Padres, grinded out three runs in the the bottom of the the 13th inning to complete the comeback. That was quite a season in the National League. (They Rockies later got swept by the Red Sox in the World Series.)
Getty ImagesChris McGrath
A one-game playoff for the AL Central goes to extras (2009)
Let’s cut to the chase: The Detroit Tigers led the division most of the way until a late-season swoon that coincided with a Minnesota Twins rally. On the last day of the regular season, an in-his-prime Justin Verlander helped the Tigers hold serve as the Twins routed the Royals, forcing a one-game playoff in Minnesota where the 86-76 Tigers sent Rick Porcello (yeah, he’s been around a few years) to the mound against Scott Baker of the Twins.
The Tigers drew first blood on a Magglio Ordonez RBI single followed by a Miguel Cabrera home run. Later in the seventh the Twins rallied when a Orlando Cabrera two-run shot put the Twins ahead 4-3, until Magglio Ordonez went deep in the next frame to tie the game at 4. In the top of the 10th the Tigers again climbed ahead by a run and brought the Twins to the brink in the bottom half of the inning when Matt Tolbert singled up the middle with one out on an 0-2 count to score Michael Cuddyer. The game continued until the 12th inning when Tigers closer Fernando Rodney, who entered the game in the 9th, allowed a game-winning single to Alexi Casilla, completing the division comeback. And then the Twins got rolled 3-0 in the ALDS by the eventual champion Yankees.
Getty ImagesJamie Squire
Baseball fans lose their minds on the Best Night Ever (2011) (Part I)
This is the grandaddy of them all in the Wild Card era and I’m not sure it will ever get better in terms of cross-league drama, collapses, surges, spectacle and timing. In the National League, the Braves were suffering a 2007 Mets-esque nosedive into oblivion while in the American League the Boston Red Sox were matching that race to the bottom. Both the St. Louis Cardinals and Tampa Bay Rays had spent weeks narrowing large leads, ultimately forcing do-or-die situations for themselves, the Braves and the Red Sox on the final day of the regular season, Sept. 28, 2011.
Home field advantage was at stake elsewhere, but the main stages pitted the Cardinals against the Astros, the Red Sox against the Orioles, the Braves versus the Phillies and the Yankees against the Rays for the Wild Card spots.
St. Louis’ Chris Carpenter worked efficiently as the Cardinals blanked the Astros 8-0 and raced into the clubhouse to watch the Braves, who saw typically unhittable closer Craig Kimbrel surrender a 3-2 lead in the top of the ninth inning on a Chase Utley sacrifice fly. The scoreboard read zeroes until the 12th when Phillies outfielder Hunter Pence drove in a run to give the Phillies a 4-3 lead. The Braves couldn’t score in the 12th and the Braves’ collapse was complete at approximately 11:42 pm ET, sending the Cardinals to the NLDS against the Phillies’ four-headed rotation monster (Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt).
Getty ImagesBob Levey
Baseball fans lose their minds on the Best Night Ever (2011) (Part II)
Meanwhile, in Baltimore, rain suspended play with the Red Sox leading 3-2 in the fifth inning (an official game!). And in Tampa Bay, the Yankees had mounted a 7-0 lead in the eighth inning as the subs replaced the starters. Finally play resumed in Baltimore while in Tampa Bay, the Rays mounted a furious comeback with six runs in the bottom of the eighth. 7-6 Yankees. Gulp.
In Baltimore, the Red Sox had Jonathan Papelbon on the mound with a 3-2 lead in the bottom of the ninth and two outs after Papelbon whiffed the first two batters. But then the O’s Chris Davis sent the next pitch deep to right field for a double. The Yankees-Rays pressed further into extras as Joe Girardi let reliever Scott Proctor worked a third inning after exhausting the rest of the bullpen. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth, reserve infielder and pinch hitter Dan Johnson, batting .119 on the season, slugged a deep drive to right field for his second homer of the season. Tie ballgame at 7-7.
Back to Boston where, on a 2-2 count, Nolan Reimold hit a deep shot off Papelbon to center field, scoring the tying run. The wheels were off. The next batter Robert Andino singled, sending Reimold around for the winning run at 12:02 a.m. ET. Four minutes later in Tampa Bay, Evan Longoria slugged his second home run of the game -- a walk-off shot and the last pitch of the 2011 regular season. Cardinals and Rays in, Braves and Red Sox out. A superb playoffs followed with the Cardinals edging the Rangers in Game 7 thanks to another stellar performance by Carpenter.
Longoria said later of the 12th inning walkoff homer to send the Rays into the postseason: “It was probably the biggest hit of my career, maybe one of the biggest hits I'll ever get. It was just an unbelievable memory, a great day overall, and something that's just hard to put into words."