For the most part, the era of the wild card and the three-division league has been a net positive for Major League Baseball. But if there's one downside, it's that they have diluted the the meaning of the phrase "pennant race." Prior to the advent of the wild card in 1994, there were no back doors to the postseason. You either won your division or you went home, and that led to some fantastically interesting races in the final days of the season.
The change is probably for the best, though it's debatable. I prefer longer playoffs to shorter ones, and from a business perspective a full October of baseball at elevated ticket and advertising rates pulls in a lot more money than just a pair of championship series and a World Series, followed by a "see-you-later" to the game until the following spring rolls around.
Compared to the pre-wild card era, the importance of winning one of those divisions outright has lessened a bit, but the current setup has allowed more and more teams to stay in the chase until the end. That helps raise the chances that we might see an excellent -- and well-timed -- individual performance that will be remembered long beyond the season ends. So ven in the age of the wild card, it's possible to find players whose performance in late and close races helps put their club over the edge. As you'll see, two of the four men examined below had their great Augusts and Septembers after 1994 (though before 2012, when the second wild card was introduced).
It's perhaps unsurprising, then, that arguably the greatest and most famous pennant race performance in history came in 1967, two years before the introduction of divisional play.
The Red Sox left fielder would win the American League MVP in 1967, to absolutely no one's surprise. His Triple Crown would be the last until Miguel Cabrera performed the feat last year, and he also won a "sabermetric triple crown" of sorts by leading the American league in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, the three components of a player's triple slash line.
He received 19 out of 20 possible first place votes (a Minnesota writer would kick the lone dissenting vote to "versatile" Twins infielder/outfielder Cesar Tovar, who split time between six different positions that year but, according to the metrics, wasn't that great at any of them). That was based not just on the statistical merits of his season, but the narrative weight his stretch-run hitting had in August and September. The "Impossible Dream" Red Sox had to battle the Twins and Detroit Tigers until the final day of the season, eventually finishing in first by a single game as Jim Lonborg tossed a complete game victory against Minnesota.
From August 1st to the end of the season, Yastrzemski hit .333/.432/.640; from September 1st on, he hit .417/.504/.760, and in the last two weeks of the season, he hit .471/.557/.863. Those are absolutely ridiculous numbers, and with the exception of Mickey Mantle in 1962 (whose Yankees easily won the American League on their way to another championship) it would take the elevated run environments of the 90s and 2000s -- and Barry Bonds -- to produce hitters with better raw numbers in a September than Yaz's in 1967. (Bonds would have five such seasons over the course of his career, but none of them were in races both close and decided in his team's favor). Yastrzemski continued his great hitting into the postseason, where the Red Sox would claw their way back from down 3-1 against the St. Louis Cardinals before falling in seven games.
As great as the last fourteen days of Yaz's season were, recent history saw an even better performance in the final two weeks of September, during another nailbiter of a division race. In 2007, when the Philadelphia Phillies erased a seven-game deficit to the New York Mets in slightly more than two weeks, first baseman Ryan Howard hit an otherworldly .364/.541/1.000 over the final 13 games of the season. That's right, a slugging percentage of 1.000: Nine home runs, a double and six singles in 44 at-bats will do that. Howard, who was the defending league MVP, did not repeat that feat; he would finish fifth in voting that season, with teammate Jimmy Rollins winning instead. Since Howard on the whole hit worse in 2007 than in 2006, he likely wasn't going to repeat anyway, though what he and the Phillies managed to do instead was not only steal the Mets' spot in the playoffs, but potentially yank the NL MVP award out from under New York third baseman David Wright.
It's harder to give great starting pitching in a stretch run the same weight as a great performance by an everyday player, because pitchers in the rotation have much less of a chance to contribute day in and day out than a starting left fielder or shortstop. Mark Prior in 2003, however, was essential to the Chicago Cubs barely squeaking by the Houston Astros and into the playoffs, where ... well, Cubs fans remember what happened.
But before Bartman, there was Mark Prior, and the August and September that made Chicago fans believe they could have a future Hall of Famer on their hands. From August 5th to September 27th, Prior threw 82.2 IP of 1.52 ERA ball, striking out 95 batters and walking only 16 on his way to a 10-1 record, getting the decision in every game he pitched over that stretch. Dusty Baker's (ab)use of Prior was a huge point of contention at the time and shortly thereafter -- 2003 was the clear pinnacle of both his and fellow young starter Kerry Woods' careers as starters (with Woods having a fine August and September himself), and Prior would be essentially out of the majors by the end of his disastrous 2006 -- always trying to come back after one injury or another, never quite making it onto the field before getting hurt again.
Occasionally a pennant race hero doesn't need to be utterly amazing on his own, but merely so in comparison to his counterparts -- take the Royals' Dan Quisenberry in 1984, the year before Kansas City won their first and only World Series. Quisenberry was a closer, and those are generally understood these days to only be able to add so much value, but Quiz was an old school closer, the sort that pitched multiple innings, routinely recording two inning saves and sometimes pitching all the way from the start of the seventh or even the sixth inning to the end of the game.
He threw 129.1 innings in 1984, converting an AL-leading 44 saves with a 2.64 ERA (and a 2.22 ERA in 24.1 IP that September, with 10 appearances and eight saves). More importantly, though, consider the closer situation for the other contenders in the AL West that year. Luis Sanchez, the primary closer for the California Angels, converted 11 saves -- and blew 10. He was helped out by Doug Corbett (converted four, blew three) and Don Aase (converted eight, blew five). Ron Davis of the Minnesota Twins was able to convert 29 saves, but blew 14, and was assisted by Rick Lysander, who had five saves and two blown saves.
The AL West would be decided by three games in the end. The California Angels' closer "committee" blew four games that September alone, while Davis himself blew two games in the last week of the season. Dan Quisenberry wasn't the most valuable player in baseball in 1984, but he was a great strength in a position where everyone else in the race was weak.
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Pennant races only create heroes when they're won, of course, no matter how hard they're fought. Take Dick Allen in 1964, for instance, and what might have been. Allen won the Rookie of the Year Award that season, hitting .318/.382/.557 over the course of his first full year at third base for Philadelphia; he was the first major African-American starting player for the Phillies, a team that had famously fought against integration when the Dodgers brought Jackie Robinson into baseball years earlier.
The 1964 Phillies led the National League for most of the season, and were 6.5 games up over the St. Louis Cardinals as late as September 20. Over the next seven days, they watched the entire lead evaporate, and they missed the playoffs in a collapse still remembered nearly 50 years later.
What happened after that is well-known and uncomfortable: The public falling out between Allen and the media, Allen and the fans, Allen and his teammates; the columns about the clubhouse torn apart, allegedly on racial lines and allegedly due to Allen's faults; the near-begging from the team's young, excellent third baseman to be traded anywhere so long as it was not Philadelphia (which didn't happen until 1969). It was a saga that destroyed his reputation and arguably cost him a place in the Hall of Fame, and it all started during a losing streak in a September where Allen hit .313/.379/.540 as his teammates fell apart around him.
This has hardly been an exhaustive list of great stretch run performances, because almost every year there's someone who stands out clearly above his peers during a close finish -- men like Roberto Alomar for Baltimore in 1997, Matt Holliday for Colorado in 2007, or midseason gun-for-hire David Justice for the Yankees in 2000. As Dick Allen showed, no matter how many clutch hits a player records, no matter how many home runs he hits late and close -- no matter how well he plays -- no one person can win a pennant by himself. Still, every once in a while, you get lucky enough to see someone come close.