With only a few weeks left until the MLB Playoffs begin, it got me to thinking about how exciting the end of the baseball regular season can be. There may not always be an exciting finish in the race for the postseason but there have been some very memorable moments from teams making a run at the pennant.
Whether it’s an epic comeback, a horrible collapse or some combination of the two, there are few things better than when a six-month, 162-game season comes down to one final game or even better, a final at bat. Throughout baseball’s long and storied history there have been plenty of exciting finishes to a season, but I’ve narrowed it down to my five favorites.
2011- Just when things looked boring…
When Labor Day Weekend rolled around in 2011, both the AL and NL Wild Card races seemed anything but exciting. The Boston Red Sox held a nine-game lead over the Tampa Bay Rays in the American League while the Atlanta Braves had a cushion of eight and a half games over the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League. That’s when the fun began.
Tampa won six of their seven September games against Boston, who went 7-20 during the month. Meanwhile, St. Louis caught fire and went 18-8 during September while Atlanta went the opposite direction, dropping 18 of their 27 games. Suddenly everyone was tied with one game to go. That created an amazing string of events that played through four different games on the final day of the regular season.
The Cardinals won their game easily (8-0 over Houston), putting the pressure on Atlanta to follow suit. The Braves and Phillies went to extra innings after an improbable blown save by NL Rookie of the Year favorite Craig Kimbrel, who had already picked up 46 saves on the season. The Phillies won the game in 13 innings, giving the NL Wild Card to St. Louis.
In the AL, Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon blew just his third save of the year, allowing Baltimore to score the tying and winning runs in the bottom of the ninth with two outs. Literally minutes later in Tampa, the Rays completed a remarkable comeback to claim the wild card. Trailing the New York Yankees 7-0 heading into the bottom of the eighth, Tampa scored six runs to draw within one. Then in the ninth, a two-out home run tied the game and sent it into extras. Evan Longoria, who had homered in the six-run eighth, sent the Rays into the playoffs with a walkoff shot in the bottom of the twelfth to seal the deal.
1993- An amazing finish leads to MLB making a change
Before baseball had a wild card, there was a much simpler way to make the playoffs: win your division. Prior to 1994, the standings in baseball featured two leagues (American and National, same as today) with two divisions in each league (eastern and western). Back then, the MLB playoffs consisted of a League Championship Series featuring the two division winners, and then the World Series for the two LCS winners.
In 1993 the National League West had two amazing teams fighting for one spot in the playoffs. The Atlanta Braves and San Francisco Giants were both 100-win teams but there was only room for one of them in the NLCS. Entering the final weekend of the season, both teams held the same 101-58 record. To make things even more interesting, each team won on Friday and then again on Saturday. Atlanta completed their weekend sweep of the expansion Colorado Rockies on Sunday but the Giants couldn’t follow suit, dropping a 12-1 finale to the Los Angeles Dodgers who were led by a pair of homers from rookie catcher Mike Piazza. The Giants’ 103-win season ended without a playoff berth and the following year MLB changed things up, starting the three division format that we see in baseball today. The new setup featured three division winners and a wild card team (the best team not to win a division) and a new playoff round known as the Division Series.
1978- Bucky ‘friggin’ Dent
On August 13th the Boston Red Sox held a nine-game lead in the AL East. By late September, Boston found themselves trailing the New York Yankees by two games with a week to go in the season. The Sox finished their schedule with eight straight wins, forcing a one-game tiebreaker at Fenway Park against the Yankees.
Boston led the game 2-0 after six innings, holding New York to just two hits. Back-to-back singles in the seventh brought Bucky Dent to the plate with two outs. Dent, who wasn’t known as much of a power hitter, hit a fly ball that cleared the green monster in left field to put the Yankees up 3-2. A Reggie Jackson home run in the eighth put New York up 5-2 and the Bronx Bombers held on for a 5-4 win. They would go on to win the 1978 World Series (with Dent being named MVP of the fall classic) while the Red Sox ‘Curse of the Bambino’ would continue for another 26 years.
1995- A collapse that was anything but angelic
In early August of 1995, the California Angels held what appeared to be an insurmountable 11-game lead in the AL West. A pair of three-game losing streaks in mid-to-late August shortened their advantage, but a nine-game skid between August 25th and September 3rd really made things interesting as the Seattle Mariners were suddenly right on their heels.
Following another 9-game losing streak in mid-September, the Angels suddenly found themselves trailing Seattle by two games with just seven left on the schedule. California didn’t give in to defeat though, winning six of their last seven games, including the final five, to finish the season tied with the Mariners. Unfortunately for the Angels they seemed to run out of steam after that, dropping the one-game playoff to Seattle and missing the playoffs despite their huge August lead.
1951- The shot heard ‘round the world
In mid-August of the 1951 MLB season, the Brooklyn Dodgers held a 13-game lead over the New York Giants. That’s when things started falling apart for the flatfoot faithful. New York went 20-9 in August and followed that up with a 20-5 mark in September. When the season ended, the Giants and Dodgers found themselves tied in the standings.
Back then, a regular season tie meant that the two teams would play in a 3-game tiebreaker series to see who would go on to the World Series. A narrow Giants victory in Game 1 thanks to a Bobby Thompson home run was followed by a 10-0 Brooklyn win in Game 2, setting up one final game to see who would win the pennant.
Brooklyn scored three runs in the top of the eighth to take a 4-1 lead into the final inning. New York’s first two batters singled, putting runners on the corners with no outs. A one-out double drew the Giants to within two of the Dodgers, with runners on second and third for Thompson. Willie Mays was on deck so walking Thompson wasn’t the best option, though history may say otherwise.
With an 0-1 count, Thompson pulled an inside fastball down the left field line and into the Polo Grounds’ stands, prompting Giants’ broadcaster Russ Hodges’ historic call of “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!”
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