1. Sabathia, Brewers End 26-Year Playoff Drought
In 2008, coming off their first above-.500 season in 15 years, the Milwaukee Brewers finally brought October baseball back to the Cheesehead State. We’ll address the final-week heroics in a moment, but the roller-coaster ride began earlier in the summer. Doug Melvin orchestrated the most-hyped trade of his career, shipping Matt LaPorta and three other prospects (including Michael Brantley as a PTBNL) to Cleveland in return for superstar southpaw CC Sabathia—who straight-up dominated for the Brew Crew, posting a 1.65 ERA over 130 2/3 innings in under three months. Furthermore, the front-office brass got weak in the knees amidst a late-season swoon and fired manager Ned Yost with roughly two weeks remaining in the season. It was also a season in which Yovani Gallardo tore his ACL in a freak injury against the Chicago Cubs on May 1, the journeyman Seth McClung started 12 games on purpose, and the ageless Salomon Torres seized the closer’s role after Derrick Turnbow essentially self-immolated on the mound during the first three weeks of April.
I was an undergraduate student at Lawrence University in 2008. My father and grandfather raised me to be a Brewers fan, but into my junior year, I had never experienced postseason baseball in Milwaukee. Hell, the Brewers only had five winning seasons in my lifetime to that point, and four of them were before my fifth birthday so those hardly even count. I say this because the Brewers’ 2008 season was rather unremarkable in relation to baseball history more generally, but in the state of Wisconsin, the 2008 season was everything. It wasn’t just a return to the postseason. It was a triumphant return to baseball relevance, and Brewers fans eagerly soaked it in.
With all that as context, the final six games of the season brought a plethora of fireworks to Miller Park. The Brewers won five of their final six contests, including two walk-offs and a pair of dazzling starts from CC Sabathia. Prince Fielder kicked off the final week with a two-run, two-out bomb off some ostensibly-real pitcher named T.J. Beam. CC Sabathia took the hill on the following night, and he punched out 11 Pirates through seven one-run innings. The very next game, in the series finale against the Pirates, Ryan Braun delivered one of the most memorable homers in Brewers history—a two-out, walk-off grand slam in the bottom of the 10th inning off Jesse Chavez. (The video still elicits goosebumps.) Finally, on the last game of the season, CC Sabathia pitched on three-days’ rest for the third-consecutive game and tossed a 122-pitch, complete-game victory over the Chicago Cubs. He struck out seven and dominated the entire contest. The photo of him screaming in celebration on the mound after the final out is etched in many Brewers’ fans memories.
It was all glorious. The Brewers failed to make much noise in the postseason, losing in the NLDS to the Philadelphia Phillies, but every single Brewers fan remembers the 2008 season. It was magical. In many ways, even though the team has been in Milwaukee for over 40 years, the 2008 season brought baseball back to Milwaukee. Fans throughout Wisconsin embraced it and haven’t let go since. —J.P. Breen
2. 2012 Orioles Finally Make the Playoffs
I'm selfish. You see, my favorite final-week storyline of all time is the 2012 Orioles making the playoffs. I was born and raised in Baltimore; I grew to love baseball watching the O's take the field on hot summer afternoons. That's why 1998-2011 was a long, dark, and tempestuous period in my life.
In the 1997 ALCS the Orioles were eliminated in six games by the Cleveland Indians. The 14 subsequent years would bring 1,276 losses and a cumulative winning percentage of .437. The Orioles' average finish in their division was 4.21. Take a moment to consider that the Tampa Bay Rays came into a troubled existence in 1998, and the O's are even more depressing. Throughout those 14 years the O's finished nearly 25 games out of the wild card, on average. Their season was over by mid-July, if not before.
After watching guys like Luis Matos, Eric DuBose, and Brook Fordyce (not to mention Brandon Fahey, Marty Cordova, or Buddy Groom), the concept that the Orioles could possibly play in the postseason was foreign to me. I didn't even know they were allowed.
On this date in 2012 the O's were just half a game back of the Yankees for the AL East crown, and three games up on the Angels with 15 games left to play. A week later the O's were still half a game back of the Yankees, but maintained a two game lead in the wild card. This could happen I thought to myself. On September 30, the Orioles clinched a playoff spot with a 6-3 win over the Red Sox, made all the more unbelievable given the caliber of pitcher the Sox ran out in the game.
The Yankees would end up winning 95 games, two more than the surprising O's who would clinch one of the two wild card slots. Some other crazy stuff happened like Oakland winning a ton of games to eclipse the faltering Rangers in the AL West, but that wasn't important. The O's were in the playoffs. They'd have to beat the Rangers in the wild-card game (which they did) to actually be in the real playoffs (not the one-game/coin-flip game/single-elimination wild-card round), but they were in the playoffs. Buddy Grooms everywhere shed a single tear. The 14-year baseball winter in Baltimore had been replaced by that warm fuzzy feeling that ironically accompanies baseball in October. —Jeff Long
3. The End of the 2000 Cleveland Indians Season
The last week of the 2000 Cleveland Indians season started out strangely. On Monday September 25, the team played a rather unique day-night doubleheader, making up a previously rained out game against the White Sox during the afternoon (a 9-2 win) and then welcoming the Minnesota Twins for a regularly scheduled game in the evening (a 4-3 loss). I remember the protests that the A's who were battling the Mariners for the AL West title and the Indians for the Wild Card spot (only one!) had a game in hand to make up. While the Indians were forced to play this odd doubleheader, it was announced that the A's would only make up that game if necessary on the Monday after the season ended.
At that time, the Indians had gotten used to booking their October reservations well in advance of the last week of the year, so procrastinating until the last week was something that I was completely and totally unfamiliar with. Ah, who am I kidding, I was in college. It was also the days before MLB.TV, so finding out what was going on in a game in Oakland meant watching ESPN's GameCenter "broadcasts" (although I think I did dabble in somewhat questionable—and very unreliable—live streaming feeds of radio broadcasts). The Indians had the advantage of playing the whole week at home, and after the Monday night loss to the Twins, won two straight against the Twins getting solid pitching from Chuck Finley and Jason Bere before losing a heartbreaker in 10 innings to the Twins on Thursday night. The final series of the season brought in the Blue Jays with the Indians two game in back of the Mariners and a game and half behind the A's. On Friday night, the Mariners lost, but the A's and Indians won, meaning the Indians were now only a game back of the Mariners for a Wild Card tie. On Saturday, everyone won, meaning that on Sunday, the Indians would send Steve Woodard to the mound to start against David Wells. Woodard had somehow pulled off the impossible, defeating Pedro Martinez in a game at Fenway Park the week before. Could lightning really strike twice?
I remember that day listening to the Indians game on the edge of my seat. Woodard became a legend that day by pitching 5 2/3 and holding the Jays at bay while the Indians offense piled up 11 runs, and beating arguably the two best starters in the American League at the time. But all was not yet settled. If the Mariners had lost, they would have pulled into a tie with the Indians. Had the A's lost, their game in hand would have become "playable." In the event that it was a three-way tie, the Indians would have made the playoffs as a wild card under the tiebreaker rules of the time. Had I started that "response paper" earlier, I wouldn't have been bouncing back and forth between my table at the library and ESPN on the library computer. Ah, who am I kidding, ESPN won. But sadly, it was not to be. The A's and Mariners both won their games. The Indians were going home. I remember my friend James, also a Clevelander, also a huge baseball fan, also desperately seeking the results in the library stopping me and asking breathlessly if I knew of the other games. "Yeah," I said. "It's over." —Russell A. Carleton
4. The Cardinals' Near Collapse in 2006
Nobody would assume that the worst team ever to win the World Series would have cruised right into the playoffs, but what a weird ride it was to get there. Even after losing on September 20, the 2006 Cardinals led by a full seven games with 12 to play—11 scheduled plus one that would surely not be important enough to be made up. But then they embarked on a brutal stretch—four losses in four games in Houston cut the lead over the Astros to 3 1/2. Then it was back home, where they lost two in a row to San Diego, which made it seven in a row and cut it to 1 1/2.
On Thursday, September 28, they lost to the Brewers and Houston won, making the lead just a half-game with only the weekend to play, just eight days removed from when it was a seven-game lead. The Astros had made these big late runs the previous two seasons, but this one fell just short. Houston lost to Atlanta on Friday, while the Cardinals straightened it out with two wins in a row, making everybody's last Sunday (and the potential makeup game) meaningless. St. Louis entered the playoffs 83-78 and the same 0-0 as everybody else. —Zachary Levine
5. The Last Day of the 2011 Season
I am not an athletic person. I play sports, sure, but those two statements are not equal. I’m a pitcher when I play baseball, a center when I play football, and the scorekeeper when I “play” basketball. In my brief athletic career (and life, for that matter), I’ve been especially bad at jumping. If my feet leave the ground while I take a jump shot, I have to pause to consider what just happened. I could do some nifty things on a field: I could paint the black with a changeup, or make 13-year-olds look silly with a baby Kershaw bender, but I just. Can’t. Jump.
Now, consider this: The highest I have ever jumped in my life was when Evan Longoria hit his game-winning home run on the last day of the 2011 regular season. The Rays had achieved something spectacular, and it helped me achieve a miracle.
I don’t really think it’s a stretch to say that September 28, 2011, was the most dramatic day in regular-season history. St. Louis stole the NL wild card from the Atlanta, despite the fact that the Braves were 10 1/2 games up on August 23 (23rd!). The Rays won their season’s final game even though they were down 7-0 in the eighth inning. They got a little help from the Red Sox meltdown, of course, which would become even more ridiculous in retrospect because it brought this guy to town. By the way, the Rays-Red Sox season-altering, franchise-shaking about-face took all of four minutes.
And then there are the crazy things that we had all but forgotten about by the end of the night. Miguel Batista—he of the 4.48 career ERA—threw a two-hit, complete game shutout against the Reds. The Braves ended up losing their last game by one run, thanks in no small part to Michael Bourn, who was caught trying to steal third with no outs in the third inning. Dan Uggla promptly followed with a solo home run that could have given Craig Kimbrel the extra cushion he needed to pull out a win in the 9th. But that didn’t happen, because Dan Uggla is bad at baseball. (Wait, is that not the reason this time?)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, an insane end to the regular season was followed by insane World Series, during which I jumped at least three more times. Hell, maybe 2011 was the best season of baseball we’ve ever seen, period. —Nick Bacarella
6. The 2003 Tigers Avoid a 120-Loss Season
What a horrible and fascinating team. Their best winning streak all year was four games, which at the time improved their record to 7-25. Mike Maroth became the first pitcher in 23 years to lose 20 games, and nobody on the team had more than five saves. They had speed and youth and the benevolence of not making this Ernie Harwell’s final year as a broadcaster. The modern record for losses was set by the expansion Mets—120 in 1962. Sitting at 118 defeats with six games to play, the record seemed inevitable.
- Game 157: Defeated Kansas City 15-6 with their highest run total of the year (their previous high was 10).
- Game 158: Defeated Kansas City, 4-3. Detroit scored four runs in the first then got just one hit the rest of the way. This was Shane Loux’s first career win.
- Game 159: Defeated Minnesota 5-4 in extra innings. Shane Halter hit a walkoff home run in the 11th inning.
- Game 160: Lost to Minnesota 5-4 in extra innings. This was loss number 119, and the feeling that this record could not be avoided.
- Game 161: Defeated Minnesota 9-8 after being down 8-0 in the fifth inning. With one out in the bottom of the ninth, Alex Sanchez walked, stole second, stole third then scored the winning run on a Jesse Orosco wild pitch, which technically struck out the batter, Warren Morris.
- Game 162: With 21-loss Maroth on the mound, Detroit cracked seven runs in the sixth to beat Minnesota 9-4. Infamy averted.
Hey, they still became the worst American League team in history, but they finished on a strong note when everything else went wrong. Three years later, they played in the World Series. —Matt Sussman
7. Salomon Torres at the End of the 1993 Season
In the 28 years that I've been following baseball, just 12 teams have won at least 103 games in a season. It's just the worst luck in the world for one of those dozen that two of the instances came in the same season, in the same division, and (cold, cold world) in the final season before the wild card was introduced. So the final game of the 1993 season mattered, mattered more than anything I'd ever been exposed to, and the Giants turned to a 21-year-old rookie who had already thrown 230 innings and was going on three days' rest. He got rocked, they lost, and that was heartbreaking, but more than that I look back on that day (and the preceding weeks) as my serpent-in-the-garden moment. Torres was the first prospect I'd ever really been excited about. He'd been in Sports Illustrated the year before, and while he was Baseball America's no. 22 prospect the following winter, I had heard (from an unbiased relative or friend, I'm sure) that he was the best pitching prospect in the game. I should have known that, as a mere prospect, he was unreliable, that he hadn't proven anything, that he carried tremendous volatility. I didn't. I thought of him as the savior, and when he won his first big-league start at the end of August, I was ready to eat that stupid apple all the way to October. When it went belly-up a month later, I didn't really learn my lesson. From then on, the allure of the prospect was a constant temptation, and I've never stopped having my heart broken by them, just as I did on that final day of the 1993 season. —Sam Miller
8. Ted Williams Hits .400
On September 27, 1941, the Boston Red Sox were playing their first game of what would be their last series of the season in Philadelphia against the A’s. They were 17 ½ games behind the first-place Yankees. There was no wild card. This team had three games left and then they were going home. These games meant nothing. According to Baseball Reference, only 1,000 people (Exactly! Exactly?) attended the game. They saw Ted Williams get one hit in four at-bats, dropping his batting average down to .399554. Williams had been above .400 since a 2-for-5 game against the White Sox in late July, but now he wasn’t anymore. During those two-or-so months, Williams’ batting average never dipped below .400 and never went north of .414, also achieved via a two-hit day against the White Sox, though this came in late August. But now he was below .400 and there was only one more day left in the season, a doubleheader. This was his only chance.
The remaining games were to be played against a 90-loss A’s team, but just two games. Could Williams hit .400? That was such a huge question and engendered such media engagement that Baseball Reference doesn’t know what the attendance for either game was. Too much excitement, probably!
There is no suspense to a story everyone already knows. Williams hit .406 that season, so of course he did it. He went 4-for-5 in the first game to raise his average to .404, then famously refused to sit out the last game. He went 2-for-3 in that game and .406 became the famous number, and the last time anyone in baseball has hit .400.
Ted Williams’s race to .400 is a great last-week-of-the-season storyline, and one that, were it to occur now, would make the front page of every newspaper and lead on SportsCenter every night. Then, nobody cared. The Red Sox were just a second-place team playing out the string against a lousy A’s club. How’s that for an exciting end-of-the-season storyline? —Matthew Kory
Thank you for reading
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I'll admit that I said that almost entirely on record, not any underlying qualities, so I'd definitely be open to a counterpoint if there's another team to suggest. (Of course relative to their league. Obviously every team of the 1920s was worse than every team of the 2000s.) -Z
Glad he played.
I was pretty bitter for a lot of the 2012 season after the way 2011 ended. That and the circus going on in Boston that year, and the way the 2012 Os seemed to fall backwards into wins for half the season (before making some legitimate improvements down the stretch).