While many have mixed feelings on Bud Selig, if there’s one thing he did right in his tenure, it was adding the wild card. Since Major League Baseball introduced the wild card playoff spot, in addition to division winners, there have been 10 who went on to win the pennant and five who have gone on to win the World Series.
An additional wild card spot was added in each league in 2012, with the two wild cards playing a one-game playoff to determine who advances to the divisional series. That makes for more underdogs and more potential for Cinderella runs. Before baseball begins its postseason and fans of wild cards start to dream of miracles, let’s look at the greatest runs by wild card teams in its 19-year history.
10) 2006 Detroit Tigers
The Detroit Tigers had endured years of futility, including a horrifc 119-loss season in 2003. Not much seemed like it would change heading into 2006, but the Tigers were the surprise of the year.
They finished 95-67, just one game behind the AL Central winners, the Minnesota Twins. Had it not been for a five-game losing streak to end the season, they’d have passed them. All it made them was a team flying under everyone’s radar.
The tight AL race saw Detroit finish with just two wins fewer than the top-seeded New York Yankees. Detroit knocked off the Yankees in four games in the ALDS, which wasn’t surprising considering their talent, but definitely surprising considering postseason experience.
The Tigers then rolled through the Oakland Athletics, winning the first three games, setting up a dramatic finish in Game 4. Down 3-0, the Tigers got it to within one run. Magglio Ordóñez, the team’s RBI leader that year, hit a solo shot to tie the game in the sixth.
With two men on in the ninth, Ordóñez clobbered a three-run shot to send the Tigers to their first World Series in 22 years.
Their luck would run out against the St. Louis Cardinals. Their hitting disappeared, with the team scoring just 11 runs in the five-game loss to St. Louis.
9) 2000 New York Mets
Many were foolish to overlook the 2000 Mets. They finished just one game behind the perennial AL East-winning Atlanta Braves, at 94-67.
The team was loaded, with Mike Piazza, Edgardo Alfonzo, Robin Ventura, Todd Zeille and Mike Bordick. That was just their infield! They had solid contributors in the outfield, including Derek Bell, Jay Payton and Benny Agbayani.
Mike Hampton and Al Leiter were their aces and the group rode a magic carpet to the 2000 Subway Series.
In a managing battle between Bobby Valentine and Tony La Russa, Bobby Valentine… won? Yes, he did as his Mets finished off the Cards in five games. The Mets put a stamp on it with a 7-0 shutout in Game 5, with Mike Hampton pitching a complete game, allowing just three hits and a walk.
Unfortunately for the Mets, they ran into the Yankees, a team that was in the midst of a dynasty. The Mets mustered just one win and lost three games by a single run.
8) 2005 Houston Astros
The Houston Astros franchise’s best year came in 2005. After a heartbreaking Game 7 loss in the 2004 NLCS against St. Louis, the Astros sought to reach their first World Series.
It didn’t start well, with Houston falling as low as 15-30. It put them out of the Cardinals’ rearview in the NL Central race, but they managed to catch the Philadelphia Phillies to grab a wild card spot.
The Astros drew the Braves in the NLDS and won in four games, with the clinching game taking 18 innings.
It brought the Astros to a rematch with St. Louis, who had the best record in baseball with 100 wins. The Astros were ready, jumping out to a 3-1 series lead, and winning the series in six, to give the franchise its first and only trip to the Fall Classic.
The Astros met the Chicago White Sox and delivered the most competitive sweep you could imagine. They lost Game 1 by two runs, Game 2 on a walk-off by Scott Podsednik and Game 3 in 14 innings. A 1-0 loss in Game 4 ended their miracle season. They haven’t made it back to the playoffs since.
7) 2002 San Francisco Giants
As dominant as Barry Bonds was, and as great as the Giants teams of the late 90s and early 2000s were, they only made it to one World Series, in 2002. San Francisco snuck in as a wild card. The defending champion Arizona Diamondbacks stood in their way of being division champions.
Still, a 95-win season made the Giants a dark horse entering the playoffs.
They went the five-game distance to knock off the Braves in the NLDS before taking on the Cardinals in the NLCS.
Dusty Baker‘s Giants shut down the high-powered Cardinals, winning in five games. Kenny Lofton’s walk-off single sent the Giants to their first World Series since 1962.
The Giants faced a fellow wild card team, the Anaheim Angels in the World Series, the first and only time two wild card teams have met in the Fall Classic.
It was one of the best World Series ever played. In Game 6, the Giants appeared to have it all won. They were up 5-0 in the seventh inning, eight outs away from the World Series. Russ Ortiz was tearing through the Angels lineup… We’ll finish this story later.
6) 2007 Colorado Rockies
If there was ever a team that looked like a team of destiny, it was the 2007 Colorado Rockies.
The Rockies weren’t supposed to be a playoff team. They were well out of the race heading into September, but they put together perhaps the greatest month of baseball in MLB history. They passed the Mets, Brewers, Braves and tied the Padres after 162 games.
They won an astounding 21 of their final 22 regular season games, setting up a one-game playoff with the Padres. The game went 13 innings and the Padres looked bound to stop destiny, scoring two runs in the top of the 13th to take an 8-6 lead. The Rockies rallied, with Matt Holliday tying the game with a two-out, two-run triple. Jamey Carroll then won the game with a sac-fly (has Holliday touched the plate yet?)
The Rockies stormed through the National League, sweeping the Philadelphia Phillies and then the Arizona Diamondbacks.
The Red Sox in turn swept the Rockies, ending what looked like the best playoff run in history.
5) 2002 Anaheim Angels
The 2002 Angels remain the franchise’s only World Series champion.
Thanks to a 20-game winning streak by the Athletics, the Angels had to settle for a wild card spot, finishing four games behind Oakland.
The Angels met the top-seeded Yankees in the ALDS. After a split in New York, the Angels won two straight at home, moving on to play the Twins in the ALCS.
The Angels outscored the Twins 29-12 in their five-game series win, giving the franchise its first pennant. They marched to the World Series to play the wild card San Francisco Giants…
Down 5-0 in Game 6, eight outs away from losing the series, the Angels hit back-to-back singles off starter Russ Ortiz. Giants manager Dusty Baker sent in reliever Felix Rodriguez. The Rally Monkey came on the JumboTron. The rest is history.
Scott Spiezio hit a three-run homer to cut the lead to 5-3.
In the eighth, Darin Erstad hit a solo shot to cut it to 5-4. The Angels put two men on, setting up Troy Glaus. Glaus smashed a double that sailed over Barry Bonds to give the Angels the lead. They won the game 6-5 to force a Game 7.
Garrett Anderson hit a three-run double in Game 7. It gave the Angels all the offence they needed in a 4-1 win.
4) 1997 Florida Marlins
In just their fifth year of existence, the Florida Marlins finished the season 92-76, earning their first playoff berth, as a wild card.
They proved to have no fear of the postseason. They swept the San Francisco Giants in the opening round, setting up a NLCS matchup with the heavily experienced, top-seeded Atlanta Braves.
The Braves proved to be chokers once again, as the upstart Marlins knocked them off in six games, advancing to the World Series to play the Cleveland Indians.
The series went to seven games. The Indians started Jaret Wright on short rest, but it looked to be the ‘Wright’ move, as he brought a 2-0 lead to the seventh inning. He then gave up a solo shot to Bobby Bonilla.
The Marlins went into the bottom of the ninth, trailing 2-1. They faced a daunting task, trying to get José Mesa to blow a save.
Moises Alou led off with a single, and moved to third after another single. Craig Counsell brought Alou home on a sac-fly, sending the game to extra innings.
A miscue by Tony Fernandez helped the Marlins get a man on third. Edgar Renteria then singled a line drive off pitcher Charles Nagy’s glove to give the Marlins their first World Series.
3) 2011 St. Louis Cardinals
The 2011 St. Louis Cardinals were another team not sure to be in until the final day of the regular season. They were 10 1/2 games behind the Atlanta Braves in the wild card race on August 24. The Cardinals went 18-8 in September, while the Braves faltered, opening the door for the Cards.
They drew the Phillies, winners of 102 games, for the NLDS. After a split in the first four games, St. Louis won the deciding fifth game in a pitching duel between Chris Carpenter and Roy Halladay. Carpenter out-duelled Halladay to a 1-0 victory, allowing just three hits.
The Cardinals met their division rival Brewers, who had held off the Cardinals from taking the NL Central, in the NLCS. The Cardinals got their revenge, ending Milwaukee’s World Series hopes in a six-game series win.
The Cards then engaged in an epic seven-game series with the Texas Rangers. The teams split one-run victories in the first two games. After a 16-7 Cards blowout in Game 3, Texas took two straight to put the Cards on the brink of elimination.
They sent them to the edge, carrying a 7-5 lead into the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 6.
Down to two outs, Albert Pujols began the rally with a double off closer Neftali Feliz. After walking Lance Berkman, Feliz struck out Allen Craig. Down to their last out, then last strike, David Freese hit a fly ball into right field that got past a leaping Nelson Cruz. The triple tied the game and sent it to extra innings.
Josh Hamilton put the Cards on the ropes again with a two-run shot in the top of the tenth. The Cards rallied again, this time with Lance Berkman tying the game on the team’s last strike.
In the bottom of the 11th, Freese led off and drove the winning home run to centre field.
In Game 7, the Rangers scored early to take a 2-0 lead, but the Cards again rallied, winning convincingly 6-2. It would be manager Tony La Russa‘s last game.
2) 2003 Florida Marlins
It took the Marlins six years to make it back to the playoffs after their 1997 World Series win. They made the most of it.
After a 16-22 start, Jeff Torborg was fired as manager and replaced by 72-year-old Jack McKeon.
They finished 10 games behind the Atlanta Braves in the NL East, but were loaded with talent.
Josh Beckett was their ace. Dontrelle Willis, Mark Redman and Brad Penny. In their lineup, there was Mike Lowell, Luis Castillo, Derek Lee and Ivan Rodriguez.
The Marlins knocked off the Giants in the divisional round, and went on to the NLCS to face the Chicago Cubs.
After falling behind 3-1 in the series, Beckett saved the Marlins in Game 5, shutting out the power-hitting Cubs.
In Game 6, the Marlins were down 3-0, five outs from elimination before getting a reprieve from Steve Bartman. They took full advantage, scoring eight straight runs, forcing a Game 7. They won the seventh 9-6 to advance to their second World Series.
Their run appeared to be over, as they were set to meet the New York Yankees. However the Marlins took home-field advantage away from New York with a 3-2 win in Game 1. The Marlins then took two of three back home and sent Josh Beckett to the mound to finish off the Yankees in Game 6. Beckett delivered, pitching a complete game shutout in a 2-0 win.
This is one weird franchise. The Marlins are the only team to win the World Series without having won a division title and the only team to be undefeated in playoff series.
1) 2004 Boston Red Sox
Looking back at the roster, you wouldn’t say it was surprising the 2004 Red Sox won the World Series. That is, if you were unfamiliar with the 86-year curse of the Bambino.
This team had Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, Keith Foulke, David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Orlando Cabrera, Johnny Damon, Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe. For the second year in a row though, the team finished second to the Yankees, three games behind them at 98-64.
The Red Sox swept the Angels to open their playoff run to set up a rematch with the Yankees from the 2003 ALCS. Things looked as bleak as ever in the curse. The Red Sox found themselves behind 3-0 in the series before Lyndsey went back to Ben and everything turned around. Oh wait, that was just a movie (Fever Pitch). That part isn’t true; this one is. Down 4-3 in Game 4, Mariano Rivera came to the mound to add more misery to the Sox’ curse. Eight days later, they were World Series champs.
A walk by Kevin Millar brought pinch runner Dave Roberts. Roberts stole second by a hair, and soon scored on a single from Bill Mueller. The game went to 12 innings before David Ortiz’s solo shot forced Game 5.
A walk-off single by Ortiz in the 14th inning of Game 5 sent the series back to New York.
A heroic bloody sock performance by Curt Schilling forced a seventh game.
The Red Sox got off to a dream start, going up 6-0 after two innings, off a two-run shot by Ortiz and a grand slam by Damon. The Sox then marched to a 10-3 win, completing the greatest series comeback in the history of sports.
The Cardinals were all that stood in the way of the Sox breaking their long curse. They didn’t stand there long.
After a wild 11-9 win in Game 1, the Sox got lights-out pitching from Schilling and Martinez in Games 2 and 3. They brought Derek Lowe to the mound for Game 4.
Damon led off Game 4 with a solo shot, providing the Sox with all the offence they needed. They added two on a double from Trot Nixon in the third for insurance.
Keith Foulke, with all of New England weighing on his shoulders, closed out the ninth to end the curse.
Considering everything the Red Sox were up against, this is undoubtedly the best run by a wild card team in baseball history.
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