Not dead yet: Late comebacks can't be ruled out
Teams that are within striking distance eye September surges to playoffs
On Sept. 6 last year, there were several things we thought we knew regarding the pennant races.
The Red Sox had a playoff spot locked up and would spend the rest of the month fighting the Yankees for a division crown. The Braves might not have been much of a threat for the National League East title, but the Wild Card was a foregone conclusion.
Of course, we were wrong.
But that's nothing new. Every September, it seems, a team comes out of nowhere to make a late surge that pushes it into the postseason.
Last year at this point, the Rays and Cardinals trailed the Wild Card races by seven and 8 1/2 games, respectively. The Rays caught the Red Sox in dramatic fashion, walking off with a win and a playoff berth on the final day of the season, and the Cardinals not only caught the Braves but went on one of the most improbable World Series runs in history.
In fact, each of the past two World Series champions pulled off unlikely September comebacks. In 2010, the Giants trailed San Diego by four games entering the final month, but came from behind to win the NL West by two games.
The Twins completed a comeback from a six-game Sept. 6 deficit in 2009, and in 2007, both the Phillies and Rockies were five back. The Phillies -- who fell to seven games behind the Mets by Sept. 12 -- stormed back to win the NL East, and the Rockies went on a tear to win the Wild Card and, eventually, the NL pennant.
So what does that suggest about this season?
For starters, it means that the Giants' 4 1/2-game lead over the Dodgers and the Rangers' five-game lead over Oakland are by no means locks.
It also means that while a Wild Card comeback by the Brewers (6 1/2 back), the D-backs (6 1/2 back) or the Phillies (eight back) may seem unlikely, it wouldn't be unprecedented.
"Obviously, .500 would be, as bad as we were, a big step. But we're still right there," Brewers first baseman Corey Hart said, following his club's 8-5 victory over Miami on Wednesday. "We're trying to make it interesting."
Making it interesting is about all that those fringe teams have control over. At this point, their destinies are mostly out of their hands. They'll need the Cardinals, Dodgers and Pirates to falter down the stretch.
And perhaps therein lies the problem with a potential of a historic comeback this season:
In almost all of the previous comebacks (Cardinals and Rays in '11, Giants in '10, Twins in '09 and Phillies in '07) there was only one team to pass. In the past five seasons, only the Wild Card Rockies in 2007 had to leapfrog more than one contender to complete a September comeback of four games or more.
"You just want to win every game you can, every possible game," Phillies third baseman Kevin Frandsen said. "You don't look ahead, you look at today. You've got to win today before you can get to tomorrow."
Ultimately, the key is winning games against the teams blocking your path. The Cardinals' playoff push last year began with what seemed like an innocent three-game sweep of the Braves from Sept. 9-11. The Rays knocked off the Red Sox in five of six September meetings.
In that regard, the Angels got off to a good start with a sweep of Oakland this week that shrunk their Wild Card deficit to 2 1/2 games. Sixteen of the Angels' 25 remaining contests are against the Tigers, A's, Rangers and White Sox -- all teams in the playoff hunt.
"When you start getting into the 20s of games left, there's just a limited amount of games you can lose," said Angels starter Dan Haren. "There's a different sense of urgency when the games start dwindling, and we have ground to gain. The sense of urgency has taken a tick up."
The Angels aren't the only team with a schedule that leaves the door open for a comeback. The Dodgers play the Giants six more times this season, beginning with a three-game series this weekend in San Francisco.
The Brewers will play both the Cardinals and Pirates, as well as a three-game set at home against the Braves, who currently occupy the top Wild Card slot.
So what does a team like the Braves -- coming off an epic and devastating collapse last year -- do to avoid a repeat?
According to third baseman Chipper Jones, nothing.
"We are mindless numbskulls," Jones said earlier this month when asked if he'd address his club's recent struggles in a team meeting. "We need to think as little as possible. We're routine-oriented and regimented. Any break in that makes us start thinking. That's when bad [stuff] starts happening."
There's a reason the champagne still pops in clubhouses where division titles seem like they were locked up months ago. As a man who knew a thing or two about pennant races once said, "It ain't over 'til it's over."
In 2012 -- judging by the past few seasons -- it certainly ain't.
AJ Cassavell is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.