Sports’ greatest moments are often unexpected.
In the 1988 World Series, a hobbled Kirk Gibson somehow swatted a home run off of ace reliever, Dennis Eckersley, to win Game 1. If Gibson had been fully healthy and victimized Gene Nelson, would we remember the scene as vividly?
The only reason most people outside of Boone, North Carolina have even heard of Appalachian State is because they blocked a game-winning field goal in The Big House to topple mighty Michigan.
And it doesn’t matter what the final score may be; Duke fans don’t storm the court at Cameron Indoor Stadium when their beloved Blue Devils beat Coastal Carolina.
Unless we have a vested interest – that is, a favorite team or wager is involved - in a sporting event, we generally want to witness something extraordinary. In short, the underdog needs to come through every once in a while.
Baseball is no stranger to surprises. Only one of the last 17 teams to win 100 or more regular season games has gone on to win the World Series that same year.
So, now that the MLB playoffs have begun, let’s look back at the sport’s biggest postseason upsets since the implementation of the wild card back in 1995. Only multi-game series are considered.
15 San Diego Padres over Atlanta Braves, 1998 NLCS
The 1998 Padres had a great season. They won 98 games and reached the World Series, where they were swept by the 114-48 New York Yankees. But the Braves were a much stronger club than San Diego was that year. Atlanta won 106 games in ‘98 and then swept the 90-win Chicago Cubs in the National League Divisional Series. During the regular season, the Braves had a run-differential that was 131 runs better than that of the Padres. Atlanta was able to throw three future Hall of Famers in a row; collectively that year, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz were 55-18 (.753 winning percentage) with a 2.49 ERA. Their lineup was loaded, as well; Andres Galarraga, Javy Lopez, Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones each blasted over 30 home runs. San Diego, meanwhile, only had one starting pitcher (Kevin Brown) with an ERA under 3.00 and just two batters (Greg Vaughn and Ken Caminiti) with as many as 20 home runs.
14 Florida Marlins over Atlanta Braves, 1997 NLCS
The Marlins won their first title in 1997 when they defeated the Cleveland Indians on an Edgar Renteria walk-off single in Game 7 of the World Series. But to even make it that far, they had to get past the Braves, who had won the NL East by nine games over Florida. In early September, Atlanta led the division by just 2 ½ games, but the Marlins subsequently stumbled into the playoffs by losing 15 of their final 24 contests. When the NLCS began, Atlanta was set up with their three aces – Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz - in Games 1-3. Florida jumped on Maddux for three runs in the very first inning and won the series in six games. In just the third year of the Wild Card era, the Marlins became the first second-place team to ever take home an MLB championship.
13 Baltimore Orioles over Cleveland Indians, 1996 ALDS
In 1996, Cleveland had the best record in all of baseball. They completely dominated the AL, leading the league in ERA and finishing second in runs scored. Baltimore, meanwhile, had a good offense, but was 11th in runs allowed and had 11 fewer wins than the Indians during the regular season. Entering the playoffs, the Tribe was red-hot, too; they won 16 of their final 20 games. And while the O’s lineup was perhaps more balanced, Cleveland’s had some of the game’s greatest hitters. Third baseman, Jim Thome, and outfielders, Albert Belle and Manny Ramirez, averaged 40 home runs and 125 RBI between them. Center fielder, Kenny Lofton, had 210 hits and led the league with 75 stolen bases. Trailing two games to one in the best-of-five series, the Indians blew a one-run lead in the ninth inning of Game 4 and then lost in the 12th. Roberto Alomar had both the tying and winning hits against closer, Jose Mesa – three innings apart.
12 Kansas City Royals over Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, 2014 ALDS
Kansas City barely outscored their opponents in 2014 (average score: 4.0 to 3.9). They had no players with 20+ home runs and only three with as many as 10. In fact, their OPS+ of 91 was dead last in the American League. The Angels, on the other hand, had the best record in baseball and a 109 OPS+, tied for tops in the AL. The Royals’ strength that year was their pitching; they only had one starter with an ERA over 4.00. And KC’s staff certainly came through in the ALDS, yielding a total of only six runs during a surprising three-game sweep. The Angels’ #3-4 hitters, MVP Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, were a combined 3-24 (.125 batting average). To date, those are the only three postseason games in Trout’s otherwise remarkable career.
11 St. Louis Cardinals over Philadelphia Phillies, 2011 NLDS
In 2011, the Phillies topped the National League East for the fifth straight year and won a franchise-best 102 games. They had a dominating pitching staff that year; their 128 ERA+ was 17 points better than that of any other NL club. Starters, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels combined for a 50-23 record with a 2.51 ERA and a 1.019 WHIP. But the wild card Cardinals were not intimidated. For all the talk surrounding the Phillies’ pitchers, the St. Louis hurlers held their NLDS opponents to a miniscule .260 slugging percentage after getting blown out, 11-6, in Game 1. With the series tied at two games apiece, Chris Carpenter out-dueled Halladay with a three-hit, 1-0 shutout victory to send the Cards to the NLCS.
10 Kansas City Royals over Toronto Blue Jays, 2015 ALCS
The Royals actually finished the regular season with two more wins than the Blue Jays in 2015, but this was still an upset. Toronto was a much better team than their record indicated. They were 53-33 against teams .500 or better, which was by far the best mark in baseball. But they were a bit unlucky; the Jays’ Pythagorean Win-Loss was 102-60, nine wins better than their actual record. This was mostly due to the fact that they were only 15-28 (an MLB-worst .349 winning percentage) in one-run games. Behind three hitters who had an OPS of .900+ (MVP Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion), Toronto scored 891 runs during the season, a gaping margin of 127 more than any other team that year. And while Kansas City was third in the AL in ERA+, Toronto was right behind them, tied for fourth.
9 Cleveland Indians over New York Yankees, 1997 ALDS
Mariano Rivera didn’t blow many postseason saves in his career. The first time he did so came in his initial playoff series as the Yankees’ closer when he gave up a two-out home run to Cleveland’s Sandy Alomar in the bottom of the eighth inning of Game 4 in the ’97 ALDS. The Indians hung on for a 4-3 victory in Game 5 the next day and would eventually reach the World Series. But despite being a wild card that year, the Yankees were the much stronger team. They won 96 games during the season, which was 10 more than the Tribe’s total. And though the offensive production for the two teams were similar (the Yankees were second in the AL in runs scored; Cleveland was third), their pitching stats were not. New York’s 3.84 ERA led the league, while the Indians’ mark of 4.73 was nearly a full run worse.
8 Minnesota Twins over Oakland A’s, 2002 ALDS
The Twins had a deceptively good record in 2002 – and were still nine games worse than the A’s. Minnesota managed to win 94 times, despite having a Pythagorean Win-Loss of just 86-75. The reason for their success that season could most directly be attributable to their awful division, in which there were no other winning teams. Within the AL Central, the Twins went 50-25, but were just 44-43 against the rest of baseball, including 3-6 versus their ALDS opponent, Oakland. The A’s entered the playoffs winning nine of their final 11 games and had a big-three of Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder (57-21 and 3.05 ERA, collectively) heading their rotation. Conversely, three of Minnesota’s four starters in the series had a regular season ERA+ below 100.
7 Chicago Cubs over Atlanta Braves, 2003 NLDS
In 2003, the Cubs eked out the National League Central crown by a game over the Houston Astros. But at just 88-74, they entered the NLDS with 13 fewer wins than their opponents, the Atlanta Braves. With Glavine off to the Mets and Smoltz taking over the closer’s role, Atlanta suddenly found that its rotation wasn’t what it used to be. Chicago, led by Mark Prior (18-6, 2.43 ERA), had a modest edge in team pitching. The Braves’ offense, however, was far superior. All eight regular position players had double-digit homers. Five Atlanta hitters scored over 100 runs and four knocked in over 100 RBI. None of their starting batters had an OPS+ below 95. The Braves’ lineup was loaded from top to bottom, but the Cubs’ pitchers managed to hold them to just 15 runs during their five-game series.
6 Los Angeles Dodgers over Chicago Cubs, 2008 NLDS
Not many teams that are 70-70 through 140 games end up winning a division title, but the 2008 Dodgers did exactly that. No one on Los Angeles hit more than 20 home runs, had 100 runs or knocked in 100 RBI. On the mound, only two of their pitchers won as many as 10 games. But there they were, facing the 97-win NL Central champion Cubs in the NLDS. The Dodgers didn’t even drop a game, blowing Chicago out, 7-2 and 10-3 in the Windy City before hanging on for a 3-1 victory at home in Game 3. That would be a total of six runs for a Cubs team that led the NL in runs scored and, 100 years after their last World Series title, had the best record in the league.
5 Detroit Tigers over New York Yankees, 2011 ALDS
Only two games separated the 97-win Yankees from the 95-win Tigers in 2011, but digging below the surface shows the two teams were not so evenly matched. That year, New York scored 80 more runs than Detroit and gave up 54 fewer, which implied a 12-game Pythagorean Win-Loss spread. And they managed to do that while playing a much tougher schedule. While the Tigers were the only team in their division with a winning record, only Baltimore was below .500 in the AL East. Similar to what the 2002 Twins (#8 above) were able to do, Detroit went 50-22 against teams within the AL Central and just 45-45 against everyone else. Tigers’ outfielder, Delmon Young, was the unlikely difference-maker in the ALDS. After finishing the season with a .695 OPS, Young slugged three home runs – two came in one-run victories for Detroit - to go with a 1.170 OPS during the five-game series.
4 St. Louis Cardinals over Texas Rangers, 2011 World Series
This is the second time the 2011 Cardinals have appeared on this list (#11 above). St. Louis barely squeezed into the playoffs that year, edging Atlanta by a game for the National League’s wild card spot. After getting past the Phillies and Brewers to reach the World Series, they had to take on a formidable Texas Rangers team. Both clubs were similarly impressive offensively, but the Rangers had a huge edge in pitching. Specifically, each of the starters on St. Louis had an ERA+ below 110, while three of the Rangers’ hurlers were above 125 (led by C.J. Wilson’s 150, which was third in the AL). As a team, Texas was third in all of baseball with a 118 ERA+ and the Cards ranked 21st. However, the Rangers blew a 3-2 lead in the series when St. Louis came back from two runs down in two separate innings to win Game 6; in each instance, the Cardinals were down to their final strike.
3 New York Yankees over Oakland A’s, 2001 ALDS
The Yankees weren’t a bad team in 2001. In fact, they had Mariano Rivera on the mound with a one-run lead in Game 7 of the World Series (which Arizona won). But Oakland was really good that year. Their run differential was 148 runs better than the Yankees’ margin. That spread of nearly an extra run per game separated the two teams by 15 games in their respective Pythagorean Win-Loss records. During the regular season, the A’s were 6-3 against New York, outscoring them 44-30 in the process. And after winning the first two games in The Bronx, the A’s headed home, just one victory away from advancing. But then, Derek Jeter famously made “The Flip” to cut down the tying run in a 1-0 Game 3 win and the Yankees parlayed that into two more victories and an ALCS berth.
2 New York Yankees over Seattle Mariners, 2001 ALCS
As great as Oakland (#3 above) was in 2001, they weren’t even close to the Mariners that season. Seattle finished with 116 wins, which is tied for the most in baseball history with the 1906 Cubs. And they did that despite playing 19 intra-division games against the 102-win A’s. The M’s dominated the sport so much in ’01, they led all of baseball in both runs scored and allowed. Their lineup had eight of the American League’s top 36 hitters in WAR (New York had two). So the Yankees cemented a lofty position on this list once they knocked Seattle out of the best-of-seven ALCS in just five games. The Mariners put up 14 runs on 15 hits in their lone win of the series; in their four losses, though, they scored just eight runs with a .167 batting average and a .238 slugging percentage.
1 St. Louis Cardinals over Detroit Tigers, 2006 World Series
The only two teams to win a World Series championship with fewer wins than the 83-78 Cardinals had in 2006 were the 1918 Red Sox (who played just 126 games) and the 1981 Dodgers (in a strike-shortened season). In ‘06, Detroit won 95 games and even swept St. Louis in a three-game series just prior to the All-Star Game. The Cardinals barely even qualified for the playoffs, despite playing MLB’s easiest schedule, statistically (that tends to happen when you win your division with 83 wins). Heading into the Fall Classic, the Tigers had a decisive edge with their starting rotation. They had four pitchers among baseball’s top 31 in ERA+; St. Louis had just one. But the Cards’ hurlers stepped up when it mattered most. In five World Series games, the Tigers – who were one of just three American League teams with at least 200 home runs in ’06 - only managed to score 11 runs.