Pennant races in reverseby Chris Jaffe
September 17, 2012
It’s pennant race time—the part of the year where teams furiously fight to claim slots in the postseason. (Well, with two Wild Cards per league the old pennant races are a thing of the past, but that’s not the point here.)
There is a lot of appeal in a pennant race. It is the marathon in a sports world of sprints. You follow it day-in and day-out for half the year and it’s not just a competition, it’s a storyline you can follow. Will the team blow its once-impregnable lead? Can the underdog mount the furious comeback? Will either of two teams stuck in a month-long dogfight break away or will their closely fought competition be decided on the last day of the season?
These are the questions and story lines that make pennant races fun.
But there is another way of looking at it. Ultimately, at the end of the season we have a win total and a loss total for every team. Once it’s over, we can look back and know what the final win total were. Since we know what the results at the finish line will be, let’s upend the storyline completely. Literally—flip the thing around.
What happens if you take each pennant race, and flip it? Make Game No. 162 Opening Day, and make the first game the last game. If you do that, what are some of the more compelling and memorable story lines of all-time? What are the dramas that we don’t know about because they happened back in the initial jostling of April and May instead of down the stretch.
Look, this counterfactual exercise clearly has some big holes in it if you think about things too seriously. Some pennant races turn on key midseason injuries, trades, or rookie call-ups. For example, in 1951, in the NL pennant race in which Bobby Thomson’s famous home run let the Giants win the pennant over the Dodgers, one key moment came when the Giants called up Willie Mays from the minors. Obviously, in reality he wouldn’t have been shutdown in midseason.
So if you think about this really deeply and earnestly, it falls apart. Luckily, you don’t have to think about it too deeply. You can just enjoy the story lines that emerge when you put the pennant races on their heads.
There are a ton of good stories to tell this way—far too many for one column. Below are just some of the most memorable ones.
1982 NL West: the greatest stretch run of all-time
Early in the season, it was all about the Giants. They were the hottest team in the NL for the opening blast of the season, winning 21 of their first 30 games to establish a healthy six-game lead over the second place Atlanta Braves.
Then things went topsy-turvy for a bit. First the Braves got hot while the Giants got cold. On May 24, Atlanta found itself in sole possession of first place with a 24-17 record, a game ahead of the Giants. The Braves wouldn’t be able to enjoy that for long. Instead, they completely fell apart, dropping 16 of their next 18. When the Dodgers sweeping them on a doubleheader on June 18, here were the standings:
Team W L Pct Back Giants 39 22 0.639 - Dodgers 34 25 0.576 4 Astros 32 31 0.508 8 Padres 28 33 0.459 11 Braves 28 34 0.452 11.5 Reds 23 38 0.377 16.5
Stuck way back in fifth place, Atlanta looked as doomed as doomed could be. The Braves' nice opening quarter was now a thing of the past.
There wasn’t much of a race at all, and what race existed was between the Giants and Dodgers. LA trailed, but had plenty of time to overcome a four-game deficit against its arch rival, especially given that it was hard to believe that the Giants were for real. In their first pennant race since the days of Juan Marichal and Willie Mays, the Giants would be hard-pressed to maintain their pace.
As the summer wore on, though, the Giants kept their lead. A brief winning stretch right after the All-Star break gave them a 54-33 record, with a commanding six-game lead over LA. The division was the same as it had been a month before, except that the Braves had moved ahead of the Padres into fourth place and were just a half-game behind Houston for third. Still, at 9.5 games out, Atlanta was a total afterthought.
Instead, it turned into a summer-long dogfight between the Giants and Dodgers, that most legendary of NL rivalries. The Dodgers would fight to the doorstep of first place, only to see the Giants pull ahead. In mid-September the fight was still under way. When they met for a key series, the Dodgers took two out three to move a half-game behind the Giants. As soon as it ended, on Sept. 19 the Giants lost to the Padres while LA shut out the Astros, 6-0. Finally, LA was in first place. Here were standings at the end of Sept. 19:
Team W L Pct Back Dodgers 82 66 0.554 - Giants 82 67 0.550 0.5 Braves 76 73 0.510 6.5 Astros 72 75 0.490 9.5 Padres 72 77 0.483 10.5 Reds 58 91 0.389 24.5
And the Giants never really recovered, dropping seven of their final 12. But a funny little thing happened on the way to LA’s victory lap. The dreams of both teams were about to be completely upended.
In third place, seemingly left for dead, the Atlanta Braves were about to have the greatest stretch run by any team in baseball history. They lost that day to the Reds, 2-1, but it would prove mighty hard to beat them the rest of the way.
Atlanta had two more games left against the Reds. The Braves won both. OK, but LA also won those days, keeping Atlanta 6.5 games back.
After an off day, the Braves swept the Astros in Houston. The Dodgers had rather surprisingly been swept four straight by the doormat Padres. With eight games left, Atlanta trailed by just three.
And Atlanta kept winning. After sweeping Houston, the Braves went to Cincinnati and won three more there. That made eight straight victories. The Braves were 84-73, still in third, but just a game behind the first place 85-72 Giants (and a half-game behind the Dodgers, who’d fallen into second at 85-73).
What’s more, the Braves had the easiest remaining schedule. Their final five games were all at home against also-rans: the Astros and Padres. The Giants and Dodgers had to end the season against each other. But the Braves had to keep winning.
And so they did. On Sept. 29 Atlanta workhorse Rick Mahler outpitched Nolan Ryan for a 6-0 win over the Astros for an 85-73 record. The Dodgers had the day off, so Atlanta tied them for second place. San Francisco topped the Reds to stay a game ahead of LA and Atlanta, at 86-72.
On Sept. 30, the Dodgers and Giants both won, putting the pressure on the Braves to keep up the pace. Atlanta’s hitters made the difference. Five early runs allowed them to cruise to an 8-6 win over Houston.
On Oct. 1, the impossible finally happened. Less than two weeks since being left for dead, in third place trailing by 6.5 games with just 13 left to play, the Braves moved into a tie for first. They finished their sweep of Houston while the Giants lost. Both Atlanta and San Francisco were now 87-73. The Dodgers couldn’t keep pace and lost, and at 86-64 now trailed two teams by a game with just a pair left to play. They were still in it, though.
It all came down to the final two games of the season, with Atlanta hosting the Reds while the Dodgers hosted the Giants. For once, the pressure was on the other guy more than it was on the Braves.
On Oct. 2, the Dodgers pummeled the Giants 9-2 to stay alive. They needed that win, too, because the Braves—for the 12th consecutive time—won, 6-4 over San Diego. With one game left to go, Atlanta had a one-game lead over two teams: 88-73 for them versus 87-74 for the West Coast duo.
It all came down to the last day of the season. A win would clinch it for Atlanta. Then again, there was no way the Braves could clinch if they lost. One way or another, one of the California teams would end the season 88-74.
It turned out to be the Dodgers. Their year-long duel with the Giants turned into a success for the Dodgers, as they took an early lead and held on to win, 4-3.
It all came down to how the Braves did in their season finale against the Padres. On the mound for the Braves was Mahler, who’d recently thrown a complete game shutout over the Astros. Against him was San Diego stalwart Juan Eichelberger. On the whole, Eichelberger had a lousy 1982, but he was on top of things today. Though the Braves loaded the bases in the second, and got a runner to third in the fourth frame, they couldn’t plate anyone.
Finally, in the fifth inning the Braves got on the board when Glenn Hubbard doubled home Brett Butler for a 1-0 lead. It was just one run, but it looked like that might be all Mahler needed.
Mahler, like Eichelberger, loaded the bases in the second, but got out of the jam without letting anyone score. And then he settled down and put the Padres bats on lockdown, retiring 17 straight batters.
It was still 1-0 heading into the ninth, when with two outs Ruppert Jones lashed out a double. He was the first Padre in scoring position since the second inning. With the dangerous Sixto Lezcano up, the 1-0 game wasn’t over yet.
Mahler dug deep within himself, knowing this would be the game that defined his career. He’d been with the Braves his entire career, and he wanted this win. He got two strikes on Lezcano and then threw one that Sixto took for a ball—only to have the umpire call it a strike. Strike three—he’s out. The inning, game, and pennant race were all over. Here were the final standings:
Team W L Pct Back Braves 89 73 0.549 - Dodgers 88 74 0.543 1 Giants 87 75 0.537 2 Padres 81 81 0.500 8 Astros 77 85 0.475 12 Reds 61 101 0.377 28
Incredibly, the Braves had done it. They’d won their last 13 games to come from nowhere to win the NL West. The Dodgers' success in hunting down the Giants was all for naught.
1973 NL East: The great St. Louis flop
This one doesn’t have a storied rivalry fighting it out for months. This one doesn’t have a team end the season with one of the greatest spurts of baseball glory ever.
The 1973 NL East began with a surge by the surprising New York Mets. They played like world-beaters for the first two-thirds of the season, winning two-thirds of their games. At the end of May 30, here were the standings:
Team W L Pct Back Mets 29 14 0.674 - Expos 22 21 0.512 7 Pirates 23 22 0.511 7 Cubs 21 21 0.500 7.5 Cards 19 22 0.463 9 Phils 16 27 0.372 13
Schools hadn’t yet let out for summer and already the Mets looked to have it wrapped up. OK, so the Mets weren’t likely to keep playing at their insane pace. Then again, everyone else was stuck around .500. Surely the Mets could hold off the Five Dwarfs. All they’d have to do is go on cruise control.
And that’s exactly what the Mets did over the second quarter of the season. They played .500 ball for the next six weeks, which meant that at the 81-game marker, here were the standings after July 9:
Team W L Pct Back Mets 48 33 0.593 - Pirates 43 37 0.538 4.5 Expos 39 42 0.481 9 Cards 38 41 0.481 9 Phils 33 46 0.418 14 Cubs 27 47 0.365 17.5
Well, the defending NL East champion Pirates were making a game of it, but the Mets still had a nice edge. No other team was even close to getting in the hunt. (Heck, the real story is the Cubs, who dropped 21 of 27 to fall completely out of things).
And then, the Mets completely fell apart. They lost 13 of their next 18, allowing 106 runs in the process. In early August, the Pirates had overtaken them while the suddenly surging Redbirds were just a game behind. The two-team race now had a third entry.
The race seemed to turn into a battle of who didn’t want it the least. As soon as the Mets had lost the lead to Pittsburgh, the Pirates suddenly became the worst team in baseball, dropping 10 out of 11. The Mets backed into the lead by default, with St. Louis standing in the periphery of the race, not yet really making a move. On Aug. 10, here’s how things stood:
Team W L Pct Back Mets 60 53 0.531 - Cards 57 56 0.504 3 Pirates 57 57 0.500 3.5 Expos 57 59 0.491 4.5 Phils 51 59 0.464 7.5 Cubs 44 63 0.411 13
Don’t look now folks, but even the Expos looked like they could creep back into this thing, especially given how no one was really asserting themselves in the race. Now you had a four-team race on your hands.
Just then, something finally happened. A team made a decisive move. The Cardinals won five games in a row. Then they won eight in a row. Before you knew it, they’d won 16 out of 18. As August wound down, the Cardinals had a commanding 6.5-game lead over the Pirates, and a 7.5 game lead over the Mets. As soon as the Expos had become a contender, they were an also-ran again, 11 games back.
St. Louis cooled off, but the lead was so big, and the division playing so poorly, that it was time to start looking ahead to the postseason. Here were the standings on Sept. 8:
Team W L Pct Back Cards 76 61 0.555 - Mets 69 65 0.515 7.5 Pirates 68 71 0.489 9 Expos 67 70 0.489 9 Cubs 61 71 0.462 12.5 Phils 60 77 0.438 16
It’s hard enough to blow a 7.5-game lead with a month left to play under normal circumstances. It’s pretty much impossible to do it when all the challengers were playing .500 ball. The only way for St. Louis to blow it would be to pull off one of the all-time great choke jobs in baseball history.
You can see where this is headed, right?
For the next week, the Cardinals dropped five out of eight. It was lousy, but nothing notable. They still led by 6.5 games and now had less than 20 left to play.
Then St. Louis dropped its next three straight games. That’s OK—the Pirates and Expos didn’t win a single game then, either. The Mets won three out of four to close the game to four games. But then St. Louis won and the Mets lost on Sept. 15, and St. Louis had a nice, comfortable five-game lead with just two weeks to go.
Then St. Louis got swept in a three-game series against the bottom-feeding Phillies. Then the Pirates took two games from them. Then the Cubs took a pair from the Cardinals. And before you can say “seven game losing streak” the Cardinals looked like they were aiming for .500 instead of the postseason. They’re record was now 80-76.
St. Louis had one thing going for it, though—the division sucked. While the Cardinals lost an entire week, the Expos scuffled, playing (of course) .500 while the Mets had lost most of their games. Still, winning some games was enough to put the Mets two games behind St. Louis entering into the final week of the season. (As for the Pirates, they’d actually fallen behind the strangely surging Cubs. With six games left, the Pirates were six games out, though, and essentially finished).
On Sept. 25, the Cardinals finally won a game. Meanwhile the Mets lost. St. Louis was 81-76 while the Mets, with just four games left to play, were 78-79. A three-game lead would be hard to overcome, but now the Mets were going to St. Louis for a two-game series.
All St. Louis had to do was win just one game. Then the Mets would be eliminated and St. Louis could celebrate its first trip to the postseason since 1968. And the Cardinals had their veteran stalwart ace, Bob Gibson going for them in the first game.
Maybe the greatest big game pitcher in baseball history, Gibson didn’t quite have his stuff at the outset. On a single, a double, a productive ground out, and an error by Gibson, the Mets got two runs in the first. Gibson would shut the Mets down the rest of the way, but it didn’t matter. Two was all the Mets needed. They won, 2-1.
Now the Cardinals led by two games. They had four games to play and the Mets had three. So a St. Louis win would still finish the race. Again the Mets jumped out to two runs in the top of the first and held on to win, this time by a 5-4 score.
Now it was a one-game lead. Still, the Cardinals controlled their fate. They had the lead, after all. True, but they’d also lost 10 of their last 11. And the Cardinals had to face the Pirates, the team that had won the division in each of the past three years. The Mets got to face the last place Philadelphia Phillies.
On Sept. 30, the Mets kept the pressure on St. Louis, by beating the Phillies, 3-2. The Cardinals played a doubleheader in Pittsburgh and lost both games. They second game was the real heart-breaker. They led 4-3 entering the bottom of the ninth. Finally—finally—their nightmare would be over. Instead, St. Louis’ Rick Wise allowed a pair of singles, which turned into a game tying run on a sacrifice fly. In the 10th, Bob Robertston stuck a dagger in St. Louis’ heart with a walk-off home run for a 5-4 Pirates win.
For the first time in seven weeks, the Cardinals now trailed. There was one game left to play and the Mets held a half-game lead.
It wouldn’t matter what St. Louis did that day. Tom Seaver took the hill for the Mets and outdueled Steve Carlton for a 3-0 Mets win that gave them an improbable division title despite a lackluster 82-79 record. As it happened, Seaver didn’t even need to win. The Cardinals had lost yet again, 7-5 to Pittsburgh. Here were the final standings:
Team W L Pct Back Mets 82 79 0.509 - Cards 81 81 0.500 1.5 Pirates 80 82 0.494 2.5 Expos 79 83 0.488 3.5 Cubs 77 84 0.478 5 Phils 71 91 0.438 11.5
The Mets had overcome a 7.5-game deficit over the last month of the season despite losing most of their games down the stretch. They went 13-14 in crunch time but incredibly that was good enough to overcome St. Louis. The Cardinals dropped 20 of their last 25, including 15 of their last 17, and of their last 13. It was the worst stretch run by any would-be pennant contender in baseball history.
…. But of course, no one thinks of these pennant races that way. The Braves didn’t win their final 13 games of the season, but instead set a record by beginning the year 13-0. The Cardinals didn't have an all-time great choke job. They overcame a historically abysmal start.
Both the real life races were terrific in their own right. The 1973 Mets were the "Ya Gotta Believe!" team that raced from the dead to win the division thanks to a terrific end surge. The Braves frittered away an early lead only to come back at the end of the season. Again the Braves clinched on the last day of the season while the Giants and Dodgers squared off. This time, the Braves lost their last game, but it didn't matter as the Giants beat the Dodgers (and the Giants had been eliminated from the playoff hunt the day before).
They were great races, but when put in reverse you have an especially brilliant performance by the '82 Braves and disastrous stretch by the '73 Cardinals. That's how it looks if you stand the season on its head and create pennant races in reverse.
References and Resources
I looked at the team schedules at Baseball-Reference.com. To pick dates, my strategy was simple. I based it on the team that actually won the division. For example, the real-life Mets played their 43rd game on May 30, so that's what I used to date that standing when I ran that pennant race in reverse.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.