Evan Longoria will go down in Tampa Bay Rays history—okay, in MLB history—as one of the great regular season heroes of all time. Longoria's walk-off home run to lift the Rays to an AL wild card berth capped perhaps the most exciting single day in baseball history, and don't forget: That homer was his second of the game, the first having pulled Tampa to within one run during its stirring seven-run comeback in the eighth and ninth innings against the New York Yankees.
As exciting as all this was, though, it does not rate as the most exciting finish to a baseball season. It barely cracks the top five. Baseball is a thrilling game, and the day-to-day drama of a great September race is unmatched by any phenomenon in any other major sport.
Read on for the top 10 thrilling season finishes ever, including this one.
Jack the Giant Killer, they called him. Jack Pfiester shut out the New York Giants seven times in his (actually fairly brief) big-league career, and he helped the Chicago Cubs execute a thrilling comeback in September and October of 1908.
The Giants and Cubs battled seemingly every year for the National League pennant, but this time, things really got interesting.
Most baseball fans are familiar with the Merkle game, in which Giants rookie first baseman Fred Merkle failed to touch second base on a would-be walk-off single, resulting in the game (temporarily) being declared a tie. If the Giants and Cubs finished the season in a dead heat, as they stood after that contest, the league office decided the game would be replayed in October.
It happened, of course, and when it was replayed, that Cubs near-loss became a win. The most fascinating part of the tale, though, might be how the tiebreaker came to be.
The Cubs wound up their season on Saturday, October 3, a full game and a half ahead of the Giants. New York, though, still had three games to play, as it had not had a chance to make up three-quarters of a four-game series with the Boston Doves rained out in May.
The Giants managed a sweep to force the replaying of the game, but all for naught in New York.
At close of play on September 13, 2007, the NL West standings read thus:
Losing two games in a row to the Dodgers had set the Padres back, and while they still held a 1.5-game advantage on Los Angeles and Philadelphia in the wild card, things were beginning to look bad for them.
The next day, San Diego kicked off a seven-game winning streak. It was back in charge of the wild card, and although the Rockies came into town on a five-game streak of their own (having knocked the once front-running Dodgers out of the race for good with a four-game sweep), the Padres felt confident.
The Rockies shattered that confidence. They swept San Diego, then moved on to LA and swept the Dodgers again. The Diamondbacks and Padres kept themselves afloat, but did not run the table in the same way.
So with just the last weekend in September still to play, the three teams were within two games of one another, Arizona in the lead, Colorado two games back. The Rockies lost the first game of their season-ending series with the D-Backs, a devastating blow, but they won the next two to finish one game behind Arizona. That opened the door for the Padres, but they split their final four-game set with Milwaukee, and ended up a game short, too. It had very nearly been a three-way tie, but instead, the Padres and Rockies would have to play a one-game tiebreaker for NL wild card supremacy.
Meanwhile, on the East Coast...
You might remember my mention of Philadelphia as part of the wild card race as of September 13. That was the only race of which it was a part at that point. A win that day had drawn it slightly closer, but it still trailed the New York Mets in the NL East by six and a half games at the end of play that day.
The next day, though, it began a series with the Mets in New York. It won. Philly won again Saturday, and again Sunday. Now it was rolling and would finish with wins in 14 of its final 18 games. When the Mets lost six of their final seven against Washington, St. Louis and Florida, the Phillies were NL East champions, and the Mets were totally on the outside looking in.
Back to Denver!
The Rockies and Padres met at Coors Field to settle the wild card. On paper, the pitching matchup was a mismatch, with eventual 2007 NL Cy Young winner Jake Peavy taking on Josh Fogg. Naturally, then, Peavy gave up six runs in 6.1 innings, and the Padres trailed by a run until a Brian Giles double tied the game in the top of the eighth.
That's when things really got exciting. As the game progressed into extra innings, the tension built, until San Diego's Scott Hairston popped it with a two-run home run in the top of the 13th inning. It seemed it was all over. The Padres sent Trevor Hoffman to the mound with a two-run cushion, needing their legendary closer to simply nail down one of his easier save opportunities in order to move on.
Not so fast, said the Rockies. A Kaz Matsui double, then a Troy Tulowitzki double, then a Matt Holliday triple tied the game. One batter later, Jamie Carroll hit the sacrifice fly that scored Holliday (arguably) to end it, and the Rockies had completed a stunning final run to the playoffs.
Back when men were men and a pennant race was a true pennant race, the Red Sox and Yankees locked horns much more rarely. Boston simply was not consistently good enough to make its rivalry with New York an annual event, as it is today.
In 1949, though, it was a different story. After dropping both halves of a doubleheader against Philadelphia on September 11, the Red Sox trailed the Yankees by three games. Beginning on September 13, though, the Sox won 11 straight games, including three games against the Yankees, to pull a game ahead. If they had but won the one game they lost during that span, to Washington on September 28 (historically, this date has a huge place in Red Sox history), they would have won the pennant fair and square.
Alas, by losing that game, they slipped to just one game ahead of the Yankees, with two to play at the Stadium. The Yankees took both contests, breaking hearts all over New England.
The race for the AL East title in 1987 was a seesaw affair, with the Detroit Tigers and Toronto Blue Jays battling for one playoff spot and pushing each other hard to the finish. The Tigers were a mere half-game back after a September 23 win over the Red Sox, but they lost three of four to Toronto on the road and fell 2.5 back.
Fortunately for Detroit, though, the Milwaukee Brewers swept Toronto even as the Tigers split a series with Baltimore, setting up a final series at Tiger Stadium. Detroit entered the three-game set needing to win two out of three to force a tiebreaker, but instead, they swept the Blue Jays in three consecutive one-run games. It was a thrilling finish, though a bitterly remembered one in Toronto, as the Jays finished their season on a seven-game losing streak to complete the collapse.
The California Angels committed maybe the worst collapse in baseball history down the stretch in 1995, blowing what was an 11-game lead on August 9. It wasn't that simple, though. The Seattle Mariners also came back and took it from the Angels.
California lost three straight from August 16-18, then three more from August 21-23. Its backs really began to break when it reeled off nine straight losses from August 25 to September 3, and after losing nine more in a row from September 13-23, it found itself two games back of Seattle in the AL West.
Then a funny thing happened: The Angels suddenly remembered how to win. They won six of their last seven, including a five-game win streak to finish the scheduled season. They finished tied with the Mariners and went to a one-game tiebreaker. Seattle won, and the collapse was complete, but it got very interesting at the wire.
Joe Maddon, a coach for California at the time, learned a thing or two along the way.
From nine games up on August 13 to two games back on September 22, the Red Sox really fell apart in 1978. They rebounded though, and the race between they and the Yankees for the AL East crown really got exciting over the ensuing week. Boston won its final eight scheduled games, catching New York and forcing a one-game tiebreaker at Fenway Park.
It led in the seventh inning of that contest, too. As Bucky Dent strode to the plate in that inning, the Red Sox had an 84 percent chance of winning that game. As he retreated to the dugout, the Sox's hopes were down to a 36 percent shot. I hear they came up with a nickname for Dent in Boston. How thoughtful.
Collapse or comeback? Breakdown or magic? Either way, both wild cards turned from one-horse races in mid-August to total chaos in late September. One way or another, the Friday of Labor Day weekend saw the Rays fall nine games back of Boston for the AL wild card, and the Cardinals were eight and a half back of Atlanta in the NL.
Thereafter, though, the collapses began. Boston went 7-20 in September, Atlanta went 9-18. The Rays caught up by winning six of seven September games against the Sox, while the Cardinals simply took hold of their destiny with an 18-8 September.
It all culminated in Wednesday's thrilling quadruple feature, with two games decided in walk-off fashion, two going to extra innings and Chris Carpenter partying like it was 2005.
As neat and dramatic as Wednesday was, there was not a single great team involved in the race for those wild card berths. By nature, a wild card steals from us the potential for a true pennant race, a fight between two 95-plus-win teams for one spot in the playoffs.
That's not what we had in 1993, either. No, then, we had two 100-plus-win teams fighting for one spot. It was remarkable—perfect, really—and the very next year, baseball instituted a system to make sure it never happened again.
The Atlanta Braves needed some offensive help in the summer of 1993. They were 10 games back of Barry Bonds' San Francisco Giants on July 22. Two days later, though, they landed their man, getting Fred McGriff in a trade with the San Diego Padres. Thereafter, the Braves went on a tear, eventually winning 54 of 73 games in the second half. They sped past the Giants, who went into the tank with an eight-game losing streak September 7-15, but the Giants promptly turned around and won 11 of 12 to get back into the thick of things.
Entering the final weekend, both teams stood at 101-58. On Friday, the Braves beat the Rockies and the Giants beat the Dodgers. On Saturday, the Braves beat the Rockies and the Giants beat the Dodgers. On Sunday, on the cusp of a tiebreaker for the ages, the Braves beat the Rockies...and a rookie catcher named Mike Piazza swatted two home runs to help the Dodgers bury the Giants, 12-1.
It was heartbreak in San Francisco, a really gut-wrenching way to watch a 103-win season end. But it was as good a finish by two great teams as one could ever hope to have.
On August 23, 1964, the Philadelphia Phillies led the National league by 7.5 games. The Cincinnati Reds stood that far back, alongside the San Francisco Giants, which put the St. Louis Cardinals in a very distant fourth place at 11 games out. Only if everything went right would the Cards have any hope of catching the leaders.
Everything went right.
The Phillies went 14-23 from that day onward. St. Louis went 21-8 in September. The Reds, doing their part, swept the Phillies in three games from September 21-23 to pull within three and a half games, but the Cardinals still stood five games back. The next day, though, the Cardinals began an eight-game winning streak. It included a sweep of Philadelphia that set up St. Louis with a one-game lead on Cincinnati entering the final weekend of the season. The Phillies, at 2.5 games back, were done for good.
The Cards could have easily put away the Reds, but on Friday, October 2, Bob Gibson lost 1-0 to the New York Mets. He pitched eight innings and struck out seven without a walk, but St. Louis was shut out by Al Jackson. The Reds lost that day—to the Phillies, of all things—but stayed half a game out. When St. Louis also lost the next day, it went into the final day of the season tied with the Reds.
Bob Gibson wanted the ball. That's ridiculous, right? Even in 1964, pitchers did not go on one day's rest. Even in 1944, that would have been considered barbaric. But Gibson did it. He came in as a reliever in the fifth inning, and pitched four frames of two-run ball.
The Cardinals won, the Reds lost (again) to Philadelphia and St. Louis won the pennant.
It may or may not be the most dramatic season finish of all time, but on the sheer frenzy it inspired and cultural import of baseball in that time and place, the New York Giants' and Brooklyn Dodgers' fight to the finish in 1951 rates as the greatest season finale ever.
In mid-August, the Dodgers held a 13-game lead on the Giants. All appeared lost for New York. Through some means though (Did they really steal signs? Probably.), the Giants absolutely caught fire. With manager Leo Durocher leading an angry charge, New York reeled off 20 wins in 29 August games, and 20 more in 25 September contests.
That's 40-14 over their final 54 scheduled games, for those of you keeping score at home.
It included six wins in the final seven meetings with the Dodgers during the regular season. When the dust cleared, the two clubs had landed in a tie, and as the rules went back then, they began a three-game tiebreaker series.
The rest is history. Bobby Thomson homered to lead the Giants to victory in Game 1, but Brooklyn squashed New York 10-0 in Game 2 at the Polo Grounds. It all came down to Game 3, at the same location, where Thomson's misplay in the top of the eighth allowed the Dodgers to open a 4-1 advantage.
It was 4-2 by the time Thomson came to bat in the bottom of the ninth. It was 5-4 when he finished. New York exploded.