Last winter, the Boston Red Sox traded for Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and signed free-agent outfielder Carl Crawford. Pundits around the baseball world were ceding the AL East title, and some even the World Series championship, to the denizens of Fenway Park. "Why even play the season?" (some of them would write). Adding these players to an already-good team would make the 2011 season an afterthought.
Well. Things don't always work out the way they're laid out on paper; the Red Sox got off to an 0-6 start, at which time it was pointed out by many of these same pundits that no team starting 0-6 had ever won the World Series. (Some have made the postseason, however.) The Red Sox are still struggling; at one point they won eight of nine, but have yet to crack the .500 mark. Meanwhile, the Rays, who also started 0-6 (and scored only eight runs in the six games), have gone on a 23-9 run and lead the AL East by two games.
Which raises the question: Can teams come back from horrific starts to make the playoffs?
The answer is not only "yes", but some teams that have started the season in last place and lost nearly two-thirds of their early games have even made -- and won -- the World Series. It happens, actually, almost every year. Let's look at some recent clubs who accomplished this (and some who came close) and how they did it.
It didn't happen last year, but an honorable mention goes to the 2010 Chicago White Sox; they were nearly no-hit by the Cubs' Ted Lilly on June 13, at which time they were 28-34 (the Cubs, meanwhile, were 28-35). The Chisox then went on a 22-7 run; when they beat the Mariners on July 20 they were 3.5 games ahead of the Twins. That was as good as it got; the Twins, lurking around .500 at 49-45 on that July 20 date, went 45-23 the rest of the way and won the AL Central by six games (setting up their usual loss to the Yankees in the Division Series).
The 2009 Twins are one of the teams that came back from a bad start around this time of year to make the postseason; in fact, a lot of these narratives involve Minnesota. On May 20, 2009, the Twins were 18-23 and 5.5 games out of first place. A 20-1 win over the White Sox the next day jump-started them, but they were two games under .500 as late as September 12 (70-72). From there, they went 16-4 to tie the Tigers on the season's final day and won an excruciatingly exciting tiebreaker game ... setting up their usual loss to the Yankees in the Division Series.
The year before, the White Sox were 18-21 on May 13; an eight-game winning streak put them in first place, where they stayed most of the season. They needed to win three straight elimination games against three different teams (the final regular-season game against the Indians; a makeup game of a postponement against the Tigers; and a tiebreaker over the Twins) to win the AL Central.
The 2007 Cubs were 22-31 on June 2; that was the day Lou Piniella went on what he later said was a premeditated tirade to get his team fired up (the play he was arguing, Lou admitted, was pretty clear-cut and the umpire was correct). The Cubs took over first place in mid-August in a weak division but had to wait until two days remained in the season to clinch the division title. It remains as one of only two Cubs teams in history to be nine or more games under .500 at any time, yet finish with a winning record.
An even more famous example from 2007 is the Rockies, who were 18-27 on May 21, buried in last place in the NL West, seven games out of first place. They hovered around the .500 mark until September 15, when they were 76-72; then they went on that amazing 14-1 run which included winning an extra-inning tiebreaker against the Padres (who are, in fact, still waiting for Matt Holliday to touch the plate). The Rockies won seven more in a row, sweeping the Phillies and Diamondbacks out of the postseason, reaching the World Series before running into the Red Sox buzzsaw.
The Twins -- told you this would involve a lot of Minnesota love -- did it again in 2006. After an 11-inning loss in Seattle on June 7, their record stood at 26-33; they were 11.5 games behind the division-leading Tigers, who had the best record in the major leagues at 37-22. This run may be the most impressive of all the recent comebacks; from June 8 through July 14 the Twins went 33-8, although they still trailed by 8.5 games. It took a win over the White Sox on the season's final day to make them division champions, with the Tigers relegated to wild-card status. This time the Twins managed to avoid the Yankees in the first round. That didn't work either, as they got swept by the Athetics.
In 2005, two clubs that got off to terrible starts made the postseason -- the Yankees, who had started 11-19, were still under .500 on June 12 at 30-32 after an interleague loss to the Cardinals. It took them until September 21 to grab first place, but from July 1 to the end of the season they went 56-29. And the Astros, who had suffered serious injuries early in that season, started 15-30 and were sub-.500 as late as July 18. A 19-11 mark after September 1 got them the wild card, and they dispatched the Braves and Cardinals in the NL playoffs before making the World Series, where they were swept by a hot White Sox club.
For a Cubs fan, this one's the most difficult to write ... The 2003 Marlins, after a 16-22 start, fired manager Jeff Torborg and replaced him with 73-year-old Jack McKeon, who was viewed as just keeping the chair warm, coming down from a comfortable front-office suite. The Marlins won the NL wild card with a 21-8 season-ending run, and ... well, if I weren't a Cubs fan, I'd write the rest of it, but I assume you all know how that ended.
This sort of thing happens almost every year -- a team drops to eight or ten games under .500 around Memorial Day and looks like it can't win a thing. When the Yankees got off to that 11-19 start, they gave up eight runs or more 11 times. The 2005 Astros' start included losing streaks of four, five, six and seven games. The 2009 Twins lost 12 of 18 at one point early on.
So if you're a fan of the Red Sox, Brewers, or even the Twins -- who currently have the worst record in the major leagues -- do not give up hope. Your teams all have talent and have made the postseason in recent years. It's entirely possible those teams will run off 11 wins in 13 games, or have a couple of six-game winning streaks, and knock a club like the Indians or Cardinals out of first place.
It may get late early, as Yogi Berra once said. But it's not too late for comebacks -- yet.