With roughly five weeks left in baseball’s regular season, the National League seems all but decided. While the NL Central still has a lot of reshuffling to do, only Arizona (six games out of the wild card, entering Tuesday’s play) seems to have any chance to unseat the Cardinals, Pirates, or Reds from their near-certain postseason destiny.
Meanwhile, the American League is a completely different animal. Four teams are within seven games of the wild card and two of the three divisions have less than three games separating the top two teams—this should make for an exciting pennant race. That begs the question though, what were the greatest pennant races ever?
We’ll be grading races based on great comebacks as well as number of teams involved. Since baseball dates back to the late 1800s, we’re only going to include those races after the expansion of 1969 that led to the four-division format. On to the list:
5. 1987 AL East—A neck-and-neck tie between Toronto and Detroit came down to the final week (and series) of the season.
On Sept. 26, the Blue Jays had a comfortable three-and-a-half-game lead over the Tigers before losing four straight contests and headed into a final, season-ending three-game set against Detroit hanging on by a single game.
Toronto needed just one win to at least force a one-game tiebreaker, but lost all three, each by a single run, to get squeezed out of the playoffs, despite their 96 wins.
4. 1995 AL West/Wild Card—In the first year of the wild card, then California Angels held a commanding 12-game lead in the West and 9.5 in the wild card race as late as Aug. 20.
The halos though, with young players like J.T. Snow, Garrett Anderson, Tim Salmon, and Jim Edmonds, faltered down the stretch, losing 27 of 39 games to fall into a first-place tie with Seattle for the final playoff spot, necessitating a one-game tie-breaker.
In the tiebreaker Seattle had the advantage as future five-time Cy Young winner Randy Johnson was able to start for the Mariners opposite Mark Langston for the Angels. Johnson was dominant going the distance and striking out 12 in a 9–1 win to advance to the playoffs.
3. 2011 AL East/Wild Card—Boston started it’s roller-coaster 2011 season with six straight losses and was 2–10 on April 15, before catching fire. The Red Sox won 70 of 103 games to take an 11-game lead over Tampa Bay on Aug. 9 in the wild card race, and a two–and-a-half-game lead over New York in the division.
As quick as they were hot though, they suddenly were not. September saw the Red Sox struggle to a 7–20 mark and pitching was the main culprit.
Ace starter Josh Beckett struggled through injuries and yielded a 5.48 ERA in four September starts. Jon Lester was even worse with a 5.40 ERA in six starts. John Lackey (12–12 record, 6.41 ERA in 28 total starts) was off all season and Clay Buchholz (6–3 record, 3.48 ERA) missed the entire second half of the season with a back injury.
Still the Red Sox were tied with the Rays (at 90–71) for the lone wild card spot (New York won the division) heading into the final, dramatic day of the season.
On that day, Boston actually led the Orioles 3–2 heading into the bottom of the ninth, before things unraveled. A quality start from Jon Lester (six innings, two runs allowed) was wasted when normally dependable closer Jonathan Papelbon allowed two runs in the ninth to lose the game.
But 967 miles south, Tampa Bay was on the ropes losing the Yankees 7–0 heading into the bottom of the eighth. With nothing to gain, Joe Girardi pulled his starters, and the Rays rallied for six runs to pull within one. Then with two out in the bottom of the ninth, pinch hitter Dan Johnson hit a dramatic solo home run to extend the game, which Tampa Bay finally won in the 12th, thus eliminating the Red Sox.
2. 1978 AL East—The Red Sox, with famous future Yankee bench coach Don Zimmer at the controls, raced off to a 62–28 start and held a 9-game lead over second-place Milwaukee as well as a whopping 14-game cushion over the rival-Yankees, on July 19.
Boston would quickly start to come apart though, losing 9 of 10 games to open the door.
The team would regroup though and held a seven-and-a-half-game lead over the second-place Yankees on Aug. 30.
A week later though the two teams played a four-game set in what is now referred to as the “Boston Massacre.” The Yankees swept the one-sided series, outscoring the Red Sox by a ridiculous total of 42–9, to pull into a first-place tie with 20 games left.
By mid-September the Yankees had a three-and-a-half-game lead over Boston before the Red Sox made one final push, winning 12 of 14 games to force a one-game tiebreaker.
True to the rivalry, the tiebreaker was a classic in and of itself.
Boston held a seemingly safe 2–0 lead after six innings before Yankees light-hitting shortstop Bucky Dent hit a two-out, three-run home run to put the Yankees in the lead. New York would extend the lead to 5–2 off a Reggie Jackson home run in the eighth before Boston put up two in the bottom of the inning, to pull within one.
Still trailing by a run in the bottom of the ninth, Boston put two runners one with one out, but neither Jim Rice nor Carl Yastrzemski could plate either of them and the Yankees prevailed.
1. 1993 NL West—The Giants, with a 65–32 record and featuring two-time MVP Barry Bonds in left field, led the Braves by a comfortable 10 games on July 22. The Braves, though, had just acquired first baseman Fred McGriff and won 10 of their next 15 games, but gained just half a game on the still-hot Giants in the process.
Then the Braves took off.
With a staff led by Cy Young winners Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and former NLCS MVP Steve Avery, Atlanta won an incredible 30 of 36 games to catch the Giants and even establish a four-game lead with 14 games left.
But the race wasn’t over.
The Giants then turned the tables winning 14 of 16 to force a tie (at 103–58) heading into the final game of the season.
But while Atlanta beat the expansion Rockies 5–3, the Giants were clobbered by the rival Dodgers 12–1, keeping the team with baseball’s second-best record sidelined for the playoffs.