Minnesota Twins ace Johan Santana, foreground, and outfielder Rondell… (Jim Mone / Associated Press )
You gotta believe. Or trade for Fred McGriff. Or have Johan Santana in your starting rotation. Or get Ken Griffey Jr. back from a debilitating wrist injury.
Wiping out a double-digit deficit in your division after the All-Star break isn't as easy as one, two, three, though it certainly helps when you win 21 of 23. That was one particularly hot stretch the Minnesota Twins put together during a 2006 playoff run after being 11 games back in the American League Central at baseball's unofficial midpoint.
"Everybody thinks you're out of it — the media, the fans, even your front office — but in that clubhouse we had faith and we kept working hard and kept fighting and battling," recalled Angels right fielder Torii Hunter, then the Twins' center fielder.
Getting back to .500, entering the playoff chase and overtaking Detroit on the final day of the regular season to win its division, Minnesota completed what seemed like an impossible comeback behind the pitching of Santana and the hitting of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau.
So maybe there's more for Dodgers fans to look forward to over the next few months than $1 Dodger Dog day and a Duke Snider bobblehead. The Dodgers' 11-game deficit in the National League West at the All-Star break put them in a better spot than one team that went on to win the World Series: the 1978 New York Yankees, who rallied from 14 games back in the AL East.
Sometimes all it takes to spark a postseason push is a key midseason acquisition (Carlos Beltran, 2004 Houston Astros), a new manager (Jim Tracy, 2009 Colorado Rockies) or an opponent that goes on an epic slide (Angels, August and September 1995). Mostly, it takes lots of winning.
The 1978 Yankees went 54-25 over the season's second half, an unlikely achievement for a team that trailed Boston by 111/2 games at the All-Star break and fell to 14 back on July 19. Manager Billy Martin, who had guided the team to a World Series title the previous year, resigned five days later.
"We were probably a little overconfident leaving spring training and probably didn't get as prepared as we should have," Lou Piniella, then the Yankees' right fielder, conceded in a telephone interview.
During the All-Star break, players held a meeting and vowed to hunker down for the next few weeks to see if they could make a dent in Boston's division lead. After losing four of their first five games, the Yankees won eight of nine to pull within eight games.
"With two months to go," Piniella said, "eight games isn't all that much [to overcome] if you play well."
A New York rotation that featured Ron Guidry and Ed Figueroa, who would combine to win 45 games, received a significant boost in July when Jim "Catfish" Hunter returned from an arm injury. Hunter went 9-2 the rest of the season and the Yankees swept Boston in a four-game series over Labor Day weekend to pull into a tie.
New York took a 31/2 -game lead before a late dip forced a one-game playoff with the Red Sox at Fenway Park. That's where light-hitting Bucky Dent crushed a three-run homer during the Yankees' 5-4 triumph, capping the biggest post-All-Star-break comeback in baseball history.
Piniella is something of an expert on late-season rallies, having also presided over a 13-game comeback in 1995 as manager of the Seattle Mariners.
"The secret is pitching and not beating yourself," Piniella said. "As you get more confident, you get on a huge roll. If the team that's in front of you hasn't won before, they start looking back and saying, 'Oh my God, here comes that team.'"
The Angels saw Piniella's Mariners closing fast late in the 1995 season. With his team trailing by 13 games in the AL West on Aug. 2, Piniella had already diverted his focus to the wild-card race.
No need for that. Seattle had ace Randy Johnson and a lineup that included three players — Tino Martinez, Jay Buhner and Edgar Martinez — who each had at least 111 runs batted in, plus another, Mike Blowers, who drove in 96. On Aug. 15, an already formidable batting order was strengthened when Griffey returned from a wrist injury that had sidelined him 73 games.
"If one component was missing, they wouldn't have made that comeback and we would have been OK," Angels outfielder Tim Salmon said.
The Angels were hit by bad luck when shortstop Gary DiSarcina sustained a torn ligament in his left thumb in early August, forcing him to miss more than a month. The Mariners went 35-19 over their last 54 games, while the Angels lost 29 of their last 43.
After the Angels fell three games behind during the last week of the season, it took a season-ending five-game Angels winning streak and two Seattle losses to Texas to force a winner-take-all showdown at the Kingdome.
It was Johnson versus the Angels' Mark Langston, a former Mariner. And it was no contest as Johnson put the finishing touches on a Cy Young Award-winning season with a complete-game 9-1 victory that clinched Seattle's first playoff berth in franchise history.