Power Ranking the 20 Most Impossible Pennant Winners in MLB History
With four teams still left in the race in the 2012 MLB playoffs, pennant winners have yet to be decided. By the end of the week, two teams will emerge from battle as the champions of their respective league.
Many people nowadays put much more stock in the winner of the World Series, and rightfully so. It takes a monumental effort for that one team to climb above all the rest in its own league and then take down the champion of the opposing league as well.
However, just winning a pennant is a huge accomplishment. Through six weeks of spring training, 162 regular season games and now three tiers of playoff rounds, it takes a special team to rise to the top of its league.
In the past, some of those teams that made it to the pinnacle were underdogs from the start. It seemed almost impossible that they would be able to climb to the top in the face of insurmountable odds. But they did, and we are here to celebrate them as we wait for this year's pennant winners to emerge.
Here is a ranking of the most improbable pennant winners in MLB history.
20. 1973 New York Mets
Immediately following the improbable World Series title won by the New York Mets in 1969, they had a bit of a hangover. Over the next three seasons, the Mets won exactly 83 games each year, never finishing higher than third in the NL East Division.
In 1973, the Mets seemed destined for the same fate. Under second-year manager Yogi Berra, they largely played uninspired baseball, playing under .500 for much of the season.
On Sept. 17, the Mets lost to the Pittsburgh Pirates, dropping their record to 73-77. With 12 games left to play, it seemed that the Mets were done.
However, they happened to be playing in a division that season in which no team was playing particularly well. With 11 games to play, the Mets were only 3.5 games out of first place.
The Mets won nine of their final 11 games to leapfrog over the Pirates, Montreal Expos and St. Louis Cardinals to capture their second NL East Division title in five seasons.
They then had a larger task on their hands: trying to get past the heavily-favored Cincinnati Reds in the NLCS. The Reds, winners of 99 games, had a powerhouse lineup that included Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, Joe Morgan and Pete Rose.
The Mets only hit .220 as a team against the Reds. However, the Mets pitching staff held the Reds to a .186 team batting average. Behind stellar performances from Jon Matlack, Jerry Koosman and Tom Seaver, the Mets upset the Reds in five games to capture the National League pennant.
With a record of 82-79, the Mets became the worst team ever to win a pennant.
19. 2010 San Francisco Giants
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The 2010 San Francisco Giants were not a gifted team offensively. But their pitching proved to be more than enough.
The Giants finished in third place in the NL West in 2009, but a young pitching staff, led by Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum, was starting to show its muscle.
In 2010, the Giants pitching staff again delivered, posting an NL-best 3.36 ERA. Lincecum, Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez helped lead the way, and rookie Madison Bumgarner made his presence felt as well, posting a 3.00 ERA in 18 starts.
Closer Brian Wilson helped to lead a bullpen that was the second-best in the National League behind the San Diego Padres. Wilson's 48 saves and 1.81 ERA helped him to become one of the more feared closers in the majors, and his "Fear the Beard" campaign helped spur on legions of Giants fans.
The Giants captured the NL West title for the first time in seven seasons and moved on to match up against the Atlanta Braves in the NLDS. Lincecum got the playoff ball rolling with a fabulous two-hit shutout in Game 1.
While the Braves evened things up in Game 2, Wilson made sure the Braves wouldn't be moving on with any late-inning heroics, saving the final two games to move on to the NLCS.
The Giants' goal of winning the pennant still seemed like a pipe dream, though. The Philadelphia Phillies were in their way, armed with starters Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt and Roy Halladay. The Giants had certainly met their match in terms of pitching.
Undaunted, San Francisco moved on in six games, led by NLCS MVP Cody Ross (.350, three HR, seven RBI) and Wilson, who picked up three more saves in leading the Giants to the NL pennant.
18. 1991 Atlanta Braves
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In 1990, the Atlanta Braves ended the year with a record of 65-97, finishing last in the National League West. It was the fourth time in five seasons the Braves had finished in the cellar.
In 1991, the team returned with largely the same roster, except that 25-year-old David Justice was its new right fielder.
The Braves battled throughout the season with the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West. From Aug. 22 on, the two rivals waged war, with neither team taking a lead larger than two games at the top.
The Braves caught fire over the final days, winning eight straight games to put themselves on top, clinching the division on the second-to-last day of the regular season.
It was the first time in National League history that a team had won its division after finishing last the previous season.
Their work wasn't done, however. The Braves were matched up against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the NLCS. The Pirates won their second consecutive NL East title and were looking to get to their first World Series since 1979.
However, Steve Avery put together the series of a lifetime, shutting the might Pirates down over 16.2 innings in two games. And rotation mate John Smoltz finished the Pirates off in Game 7 with a six-hit shutout of his own as the Braves won their first National League pennant in 33 years.
17. 1991 Minnesota Twins
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The 1991 Minnesota Twins decided that what's good for the goose is good for the gander.
After ending the season with a 74-88 record and a last-place finish in the American League West division in 1990, the Twins matched the Atlanta Braves by storming back to the top.
With the aid of 20-game winner Scott Erickson, 18-game winner Jack Morris and a spectacular season from closer Rick Aguilera (42 saves), the Twins marched to the top of the AL West, winning by eight games over the Chicago White Sox.
The Twins joined the Braves in becoming just the second team since 1890 (Louisville Colonels, American Association) to go from worst to first.
In the ALCS against the Toronto Blue Jays, Twins center fielder Kirby Puckett made sure his team would continue marching on, hitting .429 with two HR and five RBI to lead his Twins to a five-game victory and their second American League pennant in five years.
16. 2006 Detroit Tigers
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In 2003, the Detroit Tigers lost an astounding 119 games. Three years later, they were hoisting a banner.
The Tigers slowly started to climb back after that lost 2003 season, signing All-Star catcher Ivan Rodriguez in 2004, signing right fielder Magglio Ordonez in 2005, signing veteran left-hander Kenny Rogers later in 2005 and giving rookie Justin Verlander a spot in the rotation to start the 2006 season.
In addition, general manager Dave Dombrowski hired an old employee, Jim Leyland, to guide the Tigers. Dombrowski and Leyland first teamed together to help win the Florida Marlins win a World Series title in 1997.
The Tigers fell short of their ultimate goal: winning the American League Central division title. They led the division for much of the season, but lost the title to the Minnesota Twins on the final day of the regular season.
Still, the Tigers' 95-67 record was good enough to secure a Wild Card berth, and they were prepared to do battle with the New York Yankees in the ALDS.
The Yankees took Game 1, but they were no match for the Tigers, who stormed back to take the next three games and eliminate the mighty team from the Bronx.
Next up came the Oakland Athletics. Right fielder Ordonez's dramatic three-run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 4 gave the Tigers a four-game sweep and their first American League pennant since 1984.
15. 2003 Florida Marlins
In 1997, the Florida Marlins won their first World Series in just their fifth year of existence—the fastest any expansion team had climbed all the way to the top.
They then experienced a huge tumble downwards after owner Wayne Huzienga essentially gutted the team by trading off most of the valuable contributors, claiming the team lost tens of millions of dollars despite winning the championship.
The Marlins wallowed in misery for the next five seasons, but showed signs of life with a 79-83 record in 2002.
The team made a key acquisition before the 2003 season began: signing All-Star catcher Ivan Rodriguez to a free-agent contract. It also had a young, home-grown pitching staff that was starting to come together.
Still, big things weren't expected from the Marlins at the start of the season. In fact, manager Jeff Torborg was fired after the Marlins got off to a 16-22 start.
Torborg was replaced by 72-year-old skipper Jack McKeon. And under McKeon, the Marlins flourished, winning 75 of their remaining 124 games.
While they finished a distant 10 games in back of the Atlanta Braves in the NL East Division, their 91-71 record was good enough to qualify for the playoffs as the Wild Card representative.
The Marlins took on the NL West champion San Francisco Giants in the NLDS. The series ended with catcher Ivan Rodriguez triumphantly showing the baseball in his hands after J.T. Snow had unsuccessfully tried to jar the ball loose on the final play of the game.
The Marlins weren't done, however. They then faced the Chicago Cubs in the NLCS. The series became well-known for the famed Steve Bartman incident in Game 6. Bartman's catch of a foul ball intended to land in the glove of Cubs outfielder Moises Alou allowed the inning to continue, during which the Marlins scored eight runs to put the Cubs away.
The Marlins would go on to win the seventh and deciding game as well, capturing their second-ever National League pennant.
14. 1985 Kansas City Royals
Photo courtesy sportsnet.ca
In 1984, the Kansas City Royals won the American League West division with an 84-78 record, but were soundly whipped and swept by the Detroit Tigers in the ALCS.
In 1985, the Royals got off to a very sluggish start, finishing just above .500 by the All-Star break.
In the second half, the Royals found their mojo, winning 47 of their remaining 76 games and defeating the California Angels by one game to take the AL West Division title for the second consecutive year.
The Royals faced the Toronto Blue Jays in the ALCS. Things looked bleak after the Blue Jays won the first two games at Exhibition Stadium.
The Royals took Game 3 at Royals Stadium, but their chances again looked bleak after Dave Stieb and Tom Henke combined to two-hit the Royals in Game 4.
Down three games to one, the Royals took Game 5 behind an eight-hit shutout by Danny Jackson. However, they had to travel back to Toronto for the final two games, needing to take both to win their second American League pennant.
They did just that. The Royals overcame their road jitters, winning both games at Exhibition Stadium to come all way back from a 3-1 deficit to capture the AL pennant.
13. 2002 Anaheim Angels
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In 2001, the Anaheim Angels finished with a record of 75-87, finishing a whopping 41 games behind the record-setting Seattle Mariners in the AL West Division.
The 2002 season saw a remarkable turnaround for the Angels, as they 24 more games than the previous season. However, even with a 99-63 record they still fell short of the division title by four games to the Oakland A's.
The Angels did move on to the playoffs as the Wild Card, facing the mighty New York Yankees in the ALDS.
However, it was the Angels who were mighty. Backed by nine home runs—including three from third baseman Troy Glaus—and two wins from rookie Francisco Rodriguez in relief, the Angels dispatched the Yankees in four games to move on to the ALCS.
Fortunately, the Angels took on the Minnesota Twins in the ALCS, who'd upset the Athletics in the ALDS. Backed by three home runs from second baseman Adam Kennedy and two more wins in relief from rookie upstart Rodriguez, the Angels dispatched the Twins in five games to win their first-ever American League pennant in franchise history.
12. 1988 Los Angeles Dodgers
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If anyone thought that the 1988 Los Angeles Dodgers had the makings of a championship team at the beginning of the season, you likely would have thought them to be just a little off.
The Dodgers finished with a 73-89 record the previous season, and while much of the roster was the same, they did pick up outfielder Kirk Gibson as a free agent.
Turns out that Dodgers team was more special than people believed.
Behind the leadership of Gibson and the phenomenal effort turned in by starter Orel Hershisher (23-8 record, 2.26 ERA), the Dodgers suddenly started winning and kept on doing so.
During the course of the season the Dodgers also dealt veteran slugger Pedro Guerrero for southpaw starter John Tudor, strengthening team chemistry and spurring the team on even further.
The Dodgers cruised to a 94-67 finish, capturing the NL West Division title. Next up, however, was the mighty New York Mets, winners of 100 games.
The Dodgers had lost 10 of 11 games to the Mets during the season. Defeating them seemed like a monumental task. However, the Dodgers kept pace, splitting the first six games.
With the all-important Game 7 at Dodger Stadium, Hershiser completed the upset, firing a five-hit shutout to defeat the Mets and give the Dodgers an improbable National League pennant.
11. 1961 Cincinnati Reds
Photo courtesy omgreds.com
In 1960, the Cincinnati Reds were simply not a very good team. They finished with a record of 67-87 and were sixth in the eight-team National League. In fact, it was the third straight losing season for the Reds.
The Reds had retooled quite a bit following the 1960 season, acquiring starting pitcher Joey Jay in a trade with the Milwaukee Braves and third baseman Gene Freese from the Chicago White Sox. In addition, they traded for second baseman Don Blasingame shortly after the start of the 1961 season.
The retooling worked. Newcomer Jay won 21 games, Freese hit .277 with 26 home runs and right fielder Frank Robinson hit .323 with 37 HR and 124 RBI as the Reds finished at 93-61 to win their first National League pennant in 21 seasons.
10. 1969 New York Mets
Photo courtesy espn.go.com
After seven consecutive losing seasons, the expansion New York Mets had yet to win more than 73 games in any one season and had finished no higher than ninth place since beginning play in 1962.
At the beginning of the season, it didn't look like much had changed, as the Mets were 21-23 after the first two months. However, they slowly started to come together, jumping over the .500 mark following an 11-game winning streak in late May/early June.
The Mets continued playing above .500, but on Aug. 13, they were still 10 games behind the NL East Division-leading Chicago Cubs.
That's when the Mets earned their nickname "Amazin' Mets."
New York won 38 of its final 49 games to power past the Cubs into first place in NL East. By the time all was said and done, the Mets finished with a 100-62 record, a full eight games up on the Cubs to take the NL East Division title.
But the Atlanta Braves stood in their way in the inaugural NLCS. The Braves were no match for the sizzling Mets, who hit a robust .327 on their way to sweeping the Braves and winning their first-ever National League pennant.
9. 2008 Tampa Bay Rays
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The Tampa Bay Rays were in many ways similar to the New York Mets—losing was a way of life.
In their first 10 seasons of play, the Rays never won more than 70 games and finished last in the American League East division in nine of the 10 seasons.
The 2008 season saw promise, however. The starting rotation was a young group of mostly homegrown talent, and highly-touted prospect third baseman Evan Longoria was set to embark on his major league career.
The Rays didn't just show promise, they stunned the baseball world.
Manager Joe Maddon led his troops to a 97-65 record, besting the Boston Red Sox by two games and winning the AL East division for the first time in franchise history.
The Rays then dispatched the Chicago White Sox in four games in the ALDS and moved on to play the division-rival Red Sox in the ALCS.
Behind the strong pitching of Matt Garza and the potent bat of Longoria (four HR, eight RBI), the Rays sent the Red Sox packing in a hard-fought seven game series to become the improbable winners of the American League pennant.
8. 1990 Cincinnati Reds
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At the beginning of the 1990 season, the Cincinnati Reds were coming off a disappointing 75-87 season and were dealing with a new manager in Lou Piniella.
This was not a team entrenched with superstars. Barry Larkin was just beginning to assert himself as one of the elite shortstops in the game, and center fielder Eric Davis was an All-Star as well.
But what they did have was a solid starting rotation backed up by a trio of relievers known as the "Nasty Boys."
Randy Myers, Norm Charlton and Rob Dibble were all flamethrowers, and in the late innings, the three held down the fort more often than not.
The Reds finished with a 91-71 record, good enough to win the NL West Division title by five games over the Los Angeles Dodgers. But they were moving on to face the Pittsburgh Pirates—winners of 95 games—in the NLCS.
Again, the bullpen—specifically NLCS co-MVPs Dibble and Myers—was the savior for the Reds, as the team dispatched the Pirates in six games to win its first National League pennant since 1976.
7. 2006 St. Louis Cardinals
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The 2006 St. Louis Cardinals captured their 10th World Series title that year, and it was without question the most unlikely of titles.
The Cardinals won 100 games the previous season, but lost to the Houston Astros in the NLCS.
It seemed like more of the same in 2006.
The Cardinals raced out of the gates to an early 31-16 record in late May. However, injuries eventually took their toll on the team. Starter Mark Mulder was lost for most of the season with rotator cuff issues, center fielder Jim Edmonds was felled for over 50 games with post-concussion syndrome and shortstop David Eckstein endured a pulled hamstring, shoulder injury and oblique problems in the second half.
Still, the Cardinals were able to somehow win the National Central Division title despite a record of 83-78. Only the 1973 New York Mets had qualified for the playoffs with a worse record.
The Cardinals rolled past the San Diego Padres in four games in the NLDS, with Chris Carpenter picking up two wins and closer Adam Wainwright providing solid relief in the late innings.
The Cardinals then moved on to face the New York Mets in the NLCS. This time, it was Cardinals starter Jeff Suppan who stepped up. Suppan shut down the Mets in Game 3 with a brilliant eight-inning, three-hit performance. In Game 7, Suppan again delivered, holding the Mets to just one run on two hits in seven innings.
However, the Cardinals were held to just one run as well by starter Oliver Perez and reliever Chad Bradford. But in the top of the ninth inning, catcher Yadier Molina delivered one of the biggest postseason hits in Cardinals history, hitting a go-ahead two-run home run off Mets reliever Aaron Heilman. The Cardinals would hang on for a 3-1 victory, giving them an improbable National League pennant.
6. 1967 Boston Red Sox
Photo courtesy bostonbaseballfan.com
The decade of the 1960s was not kind to the Boston Red Sox. In 1965 and 1966, the team lost a combined 190 games, finishing in ninth place in the American League in both years.
The 1967 season saw a new manager in Dick Williams, but the team returned a roster that was largely the same. Rookies Mike Andrews and Reggie Smith were new faces, but it was mostly the same cast of characters.
The Red Sox soon became embroiled in one of the most exciting pennant races in Major League Baseball history. Over the final six weeks of the season, the Minnesota Twins, Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers and Red Sox engaged in a fierce battle.
The Red Sox took on the Twins on the final weekend of the regular season needing victories in both games. Carl Yastrzemski almost single-handedly made sure the Red Sox wouldn't fail.
Yastrzemski went 7-for-8 in those final games with six RBI as the Red Sox defeated the Twins and won their first American League pennant in 21 years.
5. 1987 Minnesota Twins
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In 1987, the AL West Division was decidedly weak. The Minnesota Twins were the best of the worst.
Only 10 games separated the seven teams in the division that season—it was parity at its best.
The Twins managed to be the team that landed on top with an 85-77 record, besting the Kansas City Royals by two games. Remarkably, the Twins won the division despite winning just 29 games on the road.
The Twins then took on the Detroit Tigers in the ALCS. The Tigers had held off the Toronto Blue Jays, winning the AL East Division by a narrow two-game margin.
Detroit was the obvious favorites as the teams engaged in battle. However, the Twins rocketed off to a 2-0 series lead, coming from behind in Game 1 with a four-run eighth inning for an 8-5 win and then rocking Tigers ace Jack Morris in Game 2.
The Tigers took Game 3 at Tiger Stadium, but the Twins went against script. Contrary to their horrible regular season road record, the Twins rocked the Tigers in their own house, taking Games 4 and 5 to win the first American League pennant in franchise history since moving from Washington.
4. 2011 St. Louis Cardinals
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As late as Aug. 27 last year, the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals had a 1.1 percent chance of making the playoffs.
That's improbability at its best.
But the Cardinals defied the odds, winning 21 of 29 games on their way to overtaking the reeling Atlanta Braves to gain entry into the playoffs as the Wild Card representative. Chris Carpenter's brilliant two-hit shutout against the Houston Astros on the final day of the regular season sealed the deal.
The Cardinals faced the NL East champion Philadelphia Phillies in the NLDS. After splitting the first four games, the series came down to Game 5 and a dream matchup between Carpenter and Phillies starter Roy Halladay. The two close friends prepared to do battle to avoid elimination.
Halladay was on his game, giving up just one run on six hits in eight innings. But his friend Carpenter was even better, befuddling Phillies hitters on his way to a three-hit shutout and moving his Cardinals on to the NLCS.
Facing the division-rival Milwaukee Brewers, the Cardinals hit .310 as a team, led by Albert Pujols (two HR and nine RBI) and third baseman David Freese (three HR and nine RBI). The Brewers were no match for the Cardinals, losing in six games.
The 2011 Cardinals certainly proved that no odds are insurmountable.
3. 2007 Colorado Rockies
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On Sept. 15, 2007, the Colorado Rockies lost to the Houston Astros, 10-2. The defeat put them into fourth place in the NL West, a full 4.5 games behind the San Diego Padres for the Wild Card slot in the National League.
Someone forgot to tell the Rockies their season was over.
The Rockies reeled off 14 wins in their next 15 games to pull into a tie with the Padres at the end of the regular season, forcing a one-game playoff to determine the NL Wild Card representative.
In thrilling fashion, the Rockies defeated the Padres with a thrilling come-from-behind three-run inning, with Jamey Carroll delivering a sacrifice fly to score Matt Holliday with the winning run.
The Rockies proved that season that it's not always the best team that wins, but the hottest.
Continuing on their roll, the Rockies swept the Philadelphia Phillies and Arizona Diamondbacks to win their first-ever National League pennant.
Improbable isn't the right word. The Rockies were downright unstoppable.
2. 1914 Boston Braves
Photo courtesy atlanta.braves.mlb.com
From 1909-1912, the Boston Braves suffered through four consecutive seasons of losing at least 100 games before showing marked improvement in 1913 with a 69-82 record.
Even with the improvement, it still wasn't enough to portend what would happen the following season.
The Braves started the 1914 season in the middle of the pack in the National League, plodding along on a .500 pace for much of the first half.
As late as July 25, the Braves were 40-45, a full 12 games out of first place.
From that point on, though, the rest of the National League was in trouble. The Braves went on a complete tear, winning 54 of their final 68 games. By the time they were done, the Braves walked away with the National League pennant by a full 10.5 games over the New York Giants.
1. 1951 New York Giants
Photo courtesy thegoldensombrero.com
On Aug. 11, 1951, the New York Giants were shut out by the Philadelphia Phillies, 4-0. The loss gave the Giants a 59-51 record, a full 13 games behind the Brooklyn Dodgers in the race for the pennant.
What happened over the next 50 games, though, became one of the most incredible and shocking comebacks in Major League Baseball history.
The Giants won 38 of their final 47 games to pull into a tie with the Dodgers at the top of the NL standings. With identical records of 96-58, the two teams would battle in a three-game playoff to determine the National League champion.
No need to rehash the "Shot Heard 'Round the World." Suffice it to say the Giants' incredible comeback puts them at the top of the list in terms of most impossible pennant winners.
Doug Mead is a featured columnist with Bleacher Report. His work has been featured on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, SF Gate, CBS Sports, the Los Angeles Times and the Houston Chronicle.