Photo: L. G. Patterson – MLB.com
It is a divisive buzz word in baseball. If you are a player on the diamond, you can claim to feed off of it. If you are a journalist focusing on a compelling narrative, it is something to write about and get readers excited. If you are breaking down stats and looking for predictive qualities, it is completely worthless and mythical. Momentum can be stopped by a terrific pitcher.
There are teams that get hot late and stampede to a World Series title. The 2011 Cardinals and the 2012 Giants are two obvious recent examples.
But sometimes a team stumbles into the playoffs and look lucky to even be there, and eventually win it all. The 2000 Yankees and the 2006 Cardinals are the most obvious examples of that.
Let us examine that second group. What teams have gone on to win the World Series with a losing record in September?
What teams limped into October and emerged as the kings?
I am starting this article before I have done the research, so as I type this sentence, I do not know how many teams will meet the criteria.
My source will be Baseball Reference, the single greatest website in the history of the internet.
These are the teams who won it all, despite a bad September.
Baseball Hall of Fame
1913 Philadelphia Athletics
Connie Mack’s squad rattled off a 14 game winning streak in the late spring and maintained a big lead for the rest of the season. Led by Home Run Baker, Eddie Collins, Chief Bender and Eddie Plank, the A’s coasted to the pennant.
But they did not enter the World Series as a hot team. After finishing a 3 game winning streak on August 28, they limped to the finish line, losing 18 of their last 33 games, the third worst mark in the AL over that time. They lost 8 of their last 9 games before facing the mighty New York Giants in the World Series. Bender and Plank dispatched John McGraw’s squad in 5 games and won the World Series.
1935 Detroit Tigers
Mickey Cochrane was the player manager of this squad that featured fellow future Hall of Famers Hank Greenberg, Charlie Gehringer and Goose Goslin. They were on a roll in September, going on a 5 game winning streak between August 31 and September 7, compiling a 10 game lead over the Yankees.
Then they would stumble. They lost 14 of their last 22 games, 9 of their last 12 and 6 of their last 7. They finished in first but only by 3 games. They would right the ship in the World Series and defeat the Cubs in 6 games.
1938 New York Yankees
Joe McCarthy’s team was aiming for their third straight World Series title. It would be Lou Gehrig’s final World Series run (although nobody knew that at the time. Bill Dickey, Joe DiMaggio, Lefty Gomez, Joe Gordon and Red Ruffing were all on the squad and would eventually be enshrined in Cooperstown.
They went 28-8 in August to pull away from the pack and by September 13th had a 16 game lead. But they lost 12 of their last 19 games, including a 6 game losing streak in the middle of the month. They limped to the finish line, arrived at the World Series and clobbered the Cubs in a 4 game sweep, their third of eventually 4 straight titles.
1944 St. Louis Cardinals
With baseball depleted during the war years, the Cardinals still had Stan Musial and were aiming for their third straight pennant. A stretch where they won 14 of 15 games in August put the pennant away.
But after August 25, the Cardinals would put up a lackluster 16-19 record the rest of the way. They would drop 8 of 10 at one point and were not playing inspiring baseball when they faced their crosstown rival Browns in the World Series. While the Browns held the early edge, the Cardinals would eventually win the World Series in 6 games.
1974 Oakland Athletics
Alvin Dark took over the managerial duties after Dick Williams won back to back titles with the rambunctious Oakland squad. Still armed with Reggie Jackson, Rollie Fingers, Vida Blue, Sal Bando, Catfish Hunter, Joe Rudi, Bert Campaneris et al, they seemed to be cruising to their fourth straight division title.
They finished August with a loss and played uninspired ball the rest of the way. From August 31 to the end of the season, the two time defending champs went a less than robust 14-16, dropping 10 of their last 17 games. They would lose only 2 games in the post season as they made quick work of both the Orioles and the favored Dodgers and became the only team not called the Yankees to win 3 straight World Series titles.
1981 Los Angeles Dodgers
The 1981 season was odd to say the least. A two month strike in the middle of the summer split the season in two. Instead of picking up the season where everyone had left off, the teams that were in first place at the begining of the strike were eligbile for a special Divisional Championship Series. Tommy Lasorda’s star studded Dodgers squad were post season bound no matter how they played when the games resumed.
They were fortunate. Despite the likes of Lopes, Garvey and the emergence of Fernandomania, the Dodgers trudged through September. After August 28th, the Dodgers would go a less than championship worthy 15-20. They dropped 5 straight in mid September and only won 3 of their final 9 games before facing a tough Astros team.
The Dodgers would top Houston, Montreal and the Yankees in a thrilling post season. Nobody remembers the uninspired September. Instead the 1981 World Champions remain one of the most loved teams in Dodger history.
1997 Florida Marlins
Jim Leyland piloted the Marlins towards a playoff berth somewhat under the radar. They had some big stars on the team, such as Gary Sheffield, Kevin Brown and Moises Alou. But few gave the team much of a chance. They made a run at the mighty Braves with a 6 game winning streak in late August and early September that brought them to within 2 1/2 games. They had the third best record in all of baseball at that point.
Then they skidded to a 9-15 finish. They lost 7 of their last 9 including their final 4 games and looked like pretenders filling out the field when they were the wild card against the hard charging San Francisco Giants. The Marlins would sweep the Giants and knock the 2 time defending pennant winner Braves out in the NLCS. Then they would top the Indians in a heart stopping (and breaking) extra inning Game 7 victory in the World Series.
2000 New York Yankees
The Yankees were back to back champs under Joe Torre and aiming for not only a three-peat but also their fourth title in five years. With Jeter, O’Neill, Pettitte, Rivera, Clemens, Williams, Posada, Martinez and Justice on the team, they were cruising to an easy division title. On September 13th, they had a 9 1/2 game over the Red Sox and clinching was merely a formality.
Then the losing began. First it was a 2 game losing streak. Then it expanded to 8 losses in 9 games. They finished the season winning only 5 of their final 21 games. They lost their last 7 games, getting swept by the Devil Rays and the Orioles. Only a Red Sox loss in the final weekend clinched the Division Title by 2 1/2 games. If any team looked dead, it was the two time defending champs.
But a hard fought Division Series win against Oakland revived them. They would top Seattle in the ALCS and beat the Mets to win their third straight World Series.
2006 St. Louis Cardinals
Under Tony LaRussa, the Cardinals had made the post season in 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2005. But they only had one pennant in that stretch, and the 2004 NL Champs were humiliated by the Red Sox. The 2005 team looked like a World Series contender, but they were stopped by the Houston Astros, despite Albert Pujols’ heroics.
In their first season in New Busch Stadium, the Cardinals did not look like champs. In fact after May, they only logged one winning month. Despite their mediocrity and an 8 game losing streak in August, the Cardinals were in first place for much of the season.
The Reds tied the Cardinals in late August but a three game winning streak in late August ending on September 2 gave them some room. They would need it. The Cardinals finished the season 11-17, including a 7 game skid that nearly cost them the Division in late September. Only an almost equally miserable September by Cincinnati kept the Cardinals from missing the playoffs all together.
Not favored in any round, the Cardinals beat the Padres, snuck past the Mets and stunned the Tigers to finally win the World Series for LaRussa and Albert Pujols.
This list does not include the 1958 New York Yankees, who dropped 7 of their last 10 games but would defeat the defending World Champion Milwaukee Braves in 7 games.
Nor does it include the 1966 Orioles who had .500 records in August and September only to sweep the mighty Dodgers in the World Series.
It does not include the 1973 Oakland A’s who dropped 7 of their last 11 before beating the Orioles and the Mets to capture the title.
The 1987 Twins are not on the list, despite dropping 7 of their last 9 games and faced a red hot Tigers team in the ALCS. The Twins would top the Tigers and the Cardinals for the Championship.
The 1990 Reds are not on the list despite being a sub .500 team for the second half of the season before topping the Pirates and A’s for the Championship.
It also does not include the 2005 White Sox, who went on a 4-10 stretch in September that nearly cost them the Division title before rampaging through the playoffs to win their first title since 1917.
So it is a rare occurance. Teams that win the World Series tend to be quality teams who are not prone to losing months. But it is possible. For these teams, the concept of momentum was nonsense. They got into the dance and were recorded in history as the champs and their poor finishes fair removed from anyone’s memory.