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March 31, 2011

Divide and Conquer, AL West

The Comeback Kids

by Joey Matschulat

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Have you ever had a particular song lyric or verse stick in your head for not merely days or weeks, but years? I have. Most of us have. Maybe all of us have? Regardless, it has been at least five or six years since I first heard the hip-hop masterpiece that is Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star, but there’s a part on the track “RE:Definition” that has been rattling around within the confines of my consciousness since the very first listen: “We Die Hard like the battery done in the back of me by the mad MC who thinks imitation’s the highest form of flattery/Actually, don’t be mad at me …” Imitation’s the highest form of flattery. I didn’t know where it came from (turns out it was a bastardization of the more famous quote from 19th century author C.C. Colton), but I liked it, and figured the day would eventually arrive when I could constructively apply it.  

Fast forward to this past Monday, when the intrepid Geoff Young opened his fascinating NL West history thusly: “As Yogi Berra might say, we'll have all year to discuss the season.” And as hyped as I may be for the impending season, Geoff’s right. Not long thereafter, I stumbled upon this not-so-prescient scan of the June 1, 2005 Houston Chronicle sports section, and my creative direction was sealed. There is little more emotionally stirring in the sports world than the comeback against tremendous odds, and little that I can believe to be more appropriate for this emotionally stirring week than a look back at the greatest in-season comeback by each AL West ballclub en route to a division title since the Great Realignment of 1994 (with a little help from CoolStandings.com’s historical playoff odds snapshots):

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (12.3 percent chance on September 24, 2004)

The Setup: In arguably the greatest AL West pennant race in recent memory, the Rangers, Angels, and Athletics exchanged the pole position no fewer than eight separate times during the course of 162 games (each of the three teams spent at least 43 days in first place), and the division race itself wasn’t decided until the penultimate day of the season. The Angels squandered a golden opportunity to pull closer in not capitalizing upon the Rangers’ stunning three-game sweep of Oakland in Texas from September 21-23 (which brought Texas within two games of the first-place A’s), and faced a three-game deficit with just nine games to play after a Friday night (September 24) home loss to Oakland.

The Comeback: Playing before both an in-stadium crowd exceeding 40,000 and a national television audience the following afternoon, the Angels pulled their withering playoff hopes out of the fire with a dramatic flourish. With the game deadlocked at 3-3, A’s sidewinder Chad Bradford led off the bottom of the eighth inning by gifting Jose Guillen his 15th hit-by-pitch of the season (good for the third-best mark in the American League), and manager Ken Macha attempted to douse the threat by calling upon lefty-killer Ricardo Rincon to face Garret Anderson.

Alas, Angels manager Mike Scioscia ordered a counter of his own by pinch-running Alfredo Amezaga, and Anderson’s ensuing double down the right-field line gave the Angels the lead for good in what would ultimately be a 5-3 victory. Anaheim won again the following evening, then proceeded to rattle off five wins in seven days—including a crushing blow to the Rangers’ lingering hopes administered by deaf major leaguer Curtis Pride—to clinch the division title.

The Postscript: Remember that time David Ortiz launched an opposite-field homer to clinch a three-game ALDS sweep? Yeah, the Angels were on the receiving end of that. A rather swift demise for the victor of one of the best AL West pennant races ever.

Oakland Athletics (9.7 percent chance on June 5, 2002)

The Setup: Had I not included the “came back to win the division title” qualifier, the 2001 A’s  would have easily captured this spot by way of overcoming a 10.5-game wild-card deficit with a jaw-dropping 67-20 run over their final 87 regular-season games… but since I did include that, we’re left with the ’02 rendition, which found itself mired in a nine-game hole during the opening days of June and staring up at both second-place Anaheim and reigning division-champion (and 116-game winners of the previous year) Seattle.

The Comeback: One year earlier, an A’s squad that was at one point merely 28-30 went on to win 102 games. In 2002, the A’s passed through the 58-game checkpoint with an identical 28-30 record—and won one more game than the previous year. Rotation stalwarts Tim Hudson (151 2/3 IP, 2.25 ERA), Barry Zito (154 2/3 IP, 2.50 ERA), Mark Mulder (163 1/3 IP, 2.87 ERA) and Cory Lidle (142 IP, 3.17 ERA) collectively went into run-prevention overdrive after June 5, and Oakland pulled off two separate eight-game winning streaks and another five-game winning streak before embarking upon the longest major-league winning streak since 1935.

Michael Lewis’s Moneyball devoted an entire chapter to the 20th and final win in the Athletics’ historic run, a game that defied all logic in several different ways: (a) the Athletics’ home crowd of 55,528—which included walk-up sales in excess of 20,000—was the largest in Oakland Coliseum history, (b) Billy Beane actually acquiesced to a flurry of pre-game interviews with mainstream sports outlets, and (c) Oakland actually blew an 11-0 lead over the 55-84 Royals. Before an act of violence could be perpetuated by Beane deep within the bowels of the Coliseum, Scott Hatteberg blasted a 1-0 Jason Grimsley fastball deep into the California night for a dramatic walk-off home run, and the unstoppable A’s remained unstoppable for one more night. By the way, if you’ve ever wondered what the clubhouse looked like in the immediate wake of that victory, you now have your answer (warning: strong language).

The Postscript: Though the winning streak ended one night later in a shutout loss at Minnesota, the A’s captured 15 of their next 23 games en route to a four-game triumph over the second-place Angels. Unfortunately, the dream was to end shortly thereafter, as the Twins took out Oakland in Game Five of the 2002 ALDS, and the brilliance of yet another 100-win campaign yielded no ALCS trip.

Seattle Mariners (9.1 percent on July 16, 1995)

The Setup: The most incredible aspect of what the Mariners did in this strike-shortened season is obfuscated by the seemingly high 9.1 percent mark—in fact, CoolStandings.com has their chances of winning the AL West pegged as low as 0.2 percent after the games of August 24 (at which point they were still 11.5 games behind what were then known as the California Angels), and the elevation in their post-season chances was entirely a function of similarly mediocre wild-card competition.

The Comeback: A 24-11 push over the Mariners’ final 35 games admittedly does not sound as impressive as Oakland’s improbable feats, but the excitement was no less abundant. The bulk of the comeback was, in fact, embedded within their season-ending 17-5 push, but Seattle ended up requiring a Game 162 showdown against also-tied-for-first Anaheim to seal the deal. The Mariners clung to a scant 1-0 lead until the bottom of the seventh inning, when shortstop Luis Sojo hit a two-out “grand-slam double” to right field—his hit scored three runs, then an errant throw by pitcher Mark Langston plated Sojo for the fourth run to give Seattle a 5-0 edge. Seattle scored four more times before closing out a 9-1, division-clinching win.

The Postscript: This time, the magic extended beyond Game 162. In one of the greatest ALDS series ever played, Seattle rallied from a 2-0 series deficit to best the New York Yankees in five games... and that fifth game was, of course, just about as good as it could ever conceivably get. Cleveland shut down the dream in the ALCS, but you won’t find many odds-defying teams in baseball’s modern era more memorable than the 1995 Mariners.

Texas Rangers (16.7 percent on September 6, 1998)

The Setup: Before their deep 2010 post-season run, many in Rangers circles would have pointed toward their 2004 season as being more memorable than what transpired in 1998 (in part because of the perceived improbability of that ‘04 team winning nearly 90 games based on its talent, and also in part because of the unforgettable games that it comprised), but we’ll avoid the redundancy of going back to 2004 again. The Rangers were down only 3.5 games with three weeks to go in the season, but needed help to avoid another disappointing October sitting at home… and so help came.

The Comeback: Four wins in their next five games—including a walk-off single by Ivan Rodriguez on September 8—slashed their deficit to a single game, and Texas retook the division lead outright for the first time in more than a month on September 17 (thanks to a game-winning double by Tom Goodwin, of all people), but it took a thorough three-game pummeling (25-3 scoring disparity) of the second-place Angels to put it away for good and grant the Rangers only their second division title in club history.

 The Postscript: The outsider’s perception may be that the Rangers failed in the playoffs because they didn’t have enough pitching, but that couldn’t be further from the truth—in fact, they held the Yankees to just nine runs in three games in the ensuing ALDS. Unfortunately, Texas only scored one run. I’m sure you can calculate the outcome. 

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