A September surge up the standings is one of baseball's biggest thrills. It is a laugh in the face of math, an objection to projection.
Alas, even in the Wild Card era, it's a rare and beautiful bird. Since 1995, when the postseason format expanded to include eight clubs (and having since further expanded to 10), only six teams who entered September with a playoff deficit of four games or more went on to claim a spot. When you consider that stat, you see that the hurdle faced by clubs like the Blue Jays and Marlins, who entered this month five and 6 1/2 games back of a Wild Card spot, respectively, is not just a mathematical one, but a historic one, too.
Still, baseball's history has been littered with enough occasional examples of comeback clubs that we celebrate their stories and hold onto the hope they provide. Every day, the odds stack up a little more against teams like the Indians or Yankees or Pirates or even the A's, who are trying desperately to overtake the Angels in the American League West. But the following 10 clubs -- the kings of the comeback -- are reminders that even if the odds are daunting, they're not necessarily overwhelming.
These are the 10 greatest September surges in MLB history:
10. 2009 Twins: They entered September 3 1/2 back of the Tigers, which doesn't sound too terrible. Except they doubled down on the difficulty by losing seven of their first 11 games in the month, falling as far as seven games back (on Sept. 6, when they were 68-68). But the Metrodome, in its final season, was the site of one last Minnesota miracle, as the Twins won 16 of their next 20 to pull into a tie with the reeling Tigers on the final day of the season. And then, in the 12-inning tiebreaker at the Dome, Alexi Casilla drove home Carlos Gomez for the thrilling walk-off win. The frustrating footnote for Minnesota fans is that the Twins were then summarily swept by the Yanks in the AL Division Series.
9. 1978 Yankees: Nine back after play on Aug. 13 and 6 1/2 back going into September, the Yanks ran down the rival Red Sox to force an AL East tie. Well, sort of. The Yankees actually won 10 of their first 13 in the month to take a lead in the division race, and that lead would grow as big as 2 1/2 games. It was actually a Red Sox win and a Yanks loss on the last day of the regular season that forced the tiebreaker, which the Yankees won on Bucky Dent's famous home run. So this is a somewhat bizarre September comeback, but a comeback all the same, and the Yanks parlayed it into an AL Championship Series win over the Royals and a World Series win over the Dodgers.
8. 1969 Mets: "The Miracle Mets" had chopped a mid-August deficit of 10 games down to 4 1/2 by the time September started, and that gap was erased quickly. Their walk-off win over the Expos in the first game of a Sept. 10 doubleheader at Shea Stadium (Ken Boswell drove in Cleon Jones) gave them the National League East lead over the Cubs, and they would not relinquish it. The Mets won the division by eight games, en route to a World Series win over the Orioles, making the season's final week anticlimactic. Four years later, "Ya Gotta Believe" the Mets did it again, overcoming a 6 1/2-game deficit to overtake the Cardinals.
7. 1964 Cardinals: The "Philly Phlop" came at the hands of an unstoppable Cardinals club that was 6 1/2 games back in the NL pennant race with just 13 to play. The Cards, undoubtedly helped by that infamous Lou Brock-for-Ernie Broglio trade, won nine of their last 11, while the Phillies lost 10 of their last 12. The Cardinals clinched on the last day of the regular season, with Bob Gibson's 11-5 win over the Mets leaving the Phils in a second-place tie with the Reds. Adding to the allure of this comeback is what it led to -- a seven-game Fall Classic against the Yankees, which the Cards won behind the World Series MVP Award winner Gibson.
6. 2007 Phillies: It was almost as if the baseball gods owed Philadelphia one after 1964, and payback came in 2007. The Mets were ahead of the Phils in the NL East by seven games after play concluded on Sept. 12. But the Phillies would win the next day against the Rockies, then sweep the Mets in a three-game series, and there was no looking back. In all, the Phils won 13 of their final 17 to claim the division crown. Alas, there was another group of comeback kids looming in the NL Division Series.
5. 2007 Rockies: They were 3 1/2 back of a Wild Card spot when play began on Sept. 11, then won 13 of their final 14. And thank goodness for that one loss, because otherwise we would not have been treated to the Wild Card tiebreaker (a sort of preview of the Wild Card Game that is a new staple of October) between the Rox and the Padres. The Rockies hosted by virtue of a coin flip, then won it in the bottom of the 13th on Matt Holliday's controversial score on a sacrifice fly. There is still debate as to whether Holliday got a hand on the plate around Michael Barrett's block. The Rockies rode their crazy winning stretch all the way to the World Series, where they were swept by the Red Sox.
4. 2011 Rays: It was supposed to be the Yanks and Red Sox dueling it out for a division title, with the loser settling for the Wild Card spot. The Rays, nine games back in the Wild Card hunt at the start of September, were also-rans. But what followed was a (Joe) Maddon-ing ride to glory coupled with Boston's chicken-and-beer-fueled collapse. The Rays followed an 18-10 August with a 17-10 September, and they sealed their Wild Card spot mere minutes after Boston's final loss in Baltimore with Evan Longoria's walk-off homer off the Yanks' Scott Proctor in the bottom of the 12th at the Trop. Awesome stuff -- even if the Rays didn't get out of the AL Division Series round against the Rangers.
3. 1995 Mariners: As late as Aug. 19, they trailed the Angels by 12 1/2 games, and they were 7 1/2 back going into September. But they won 19 of 27 in that final month, and the story of their surge is reflective in their attendance totals at the Kingdome, which went from a lowly figure of 12,102 on Sept. 12 to more than 51,000 just 10 days later. With Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez and Ken Griffey Jr. all in their prime, the Mariners refused to lose, and they took the tiebreaker against the Halos in Game 163 behind The Big Unit's complete game and Luis Sojo's memorable "inside-the-park grand slam" (technically, a double and error). The excitement continued with a nail-biter of a five-game series with the Yankees, before the M's magic run finally ended at the hands of the Indians in the ALCS.
2. 1951 Giants: "The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!" That is something nobody could have imagined saying as late as Sept. 14, when the New York Giants were still six games back of the Brooklyn Dodgers. But the Giants caught their bitter rivals with wins in 14 of their last 16 games. It came down to a three-game series between the two clubs at the Polo Grounds on Oct. 1-3, and perhaps you've heard how that one ended -- with Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard 'Round the World" off Ralph Branca. There have been many, many great moments in Major League Baseball in the many, many years since, but perhaps none quite as iconic as this. Still, we're putting it at No. 2 for one reason and one reason only: The Giants lost the Series! The Giants lost the Series! With that in mind, we'll give No. 1 to the ...
1. 2011 Cardinals: The absolute wildest of Wild Cards. They were 8 1/2 back of the Braves for the NL's Wild Card slot on Sept. 1. And much like the Rays hunting down the Red Sox, they had their finest hour (an 18-8 final month) amid the dizzying downfall of a club practically penciled into October. It all came to a head on that crazy Wednesday night, Sept. 28, when Chris Carpenter cruised against the Astros for eight innings in an easy 8-0 win. The Cards then retreated to the visiting clubhouse in Houston, where they watched the Phillies mount a rally off Craig Kimbrel in the ninth and win it in the 13th on a Hunter Pence flare. With that, the Cardinals had their "in" for October, and they used it to reach an absolutely epic showdown with the Rangers in a World Series that, come to think of it, had a pretty great comeback of its own.
This Cards climax -- solitary though it may be -- sets the new standard in the modern baseball world as the reminder that in sports, as in life, it ain't over 'til it's over.
Honorable mentions: The 2013 Indians entered September 4 1/2 back of a Wild Card slot and won it with a 21-6 final flourish, including wins in their final 10 games. Anybody who still decries the Wild Card system ought to remember that the 1993 Braves won 104 games to edge the 103-win Giants in the NL West Division. Atlanta did it with a September sprint from 4 1/2 back. The 2010 Giants were four back of the Padres in the NL West on Sept. 1. By the end of October, they were bathing in champagne.