It’s long been said that baseball season is more of a marathon than a sprint, and nothing backs that up like MLB’s storied history of improbable second-half comebacks.
With the 2019 MLB trade deadline behind us, now is the time for today’s teams with fading — or ascending — playoff hopes to kick it into high gear. And while not everyone can be heroes, there are plenty of examples of teams catching fire at the right time over the course of baseball’s later half of the season.
1978 New York Yankees
- Division deficit: 14 games back in mid-July
- Season result: Beat Red Sox in one-game playoff, went on to win World Series
Fresh off a World Series title, the Yankees were all but falling apart in the middle of the ’78 season. Legendary owner George Steinbrenner was on edge with manager Billy Martin, whose club sat in fourth place in the AL East, back 14 games of Boston, in mid-July. Martin slapped Jackson with a suspension that summer and then resigned. Guided by new manager Bob Lemon, Ron Guidry’s pitching and Bucky Dent’s heroics the Yankees beat Boston in a one-game playoff and then went all the way back to the Series, where they downed the Dodgers.
1995 Seattle Mariners
- Division deficit: 11 games in August
- Season result: Lost in ALCS
Playing in their 19th season, the Mariners had yet to make a single postseason entering 1995. All signs pointed to that trend continuing, as Ken Griffey Jr. was lost for months due to a wrist injury he suffered in May. But when he returned in August, with the Mariners behind the then-California Angels by 11 games, the team caught fire,. They rode Jay Buhner, Randy Johnson and co. to a one-game tiebreaker, where they blasted the Angels, 9-1, to make their first playoffs and advance all the way to the ALCS. Even their Division Series win featured some heroics, with Edgar Martinez stroking a clutch 11th-inning double against the Yankees in Game 5 to secure an ALCS bid for the club.
2012 Oakland Athletics
- Division deficit: 13 games on June 30
- Season result: Lost in ALDS
They had the second-lowest payroll in baseball, and even more notable, they trailed the Texas Rangers by 13 games on June 30 — and by five whole games with just nine days left in the season. Eight games under .500 at the start of June, the Athletics completely rewrote their destiny as the summer progressed, claiming 19 victories in July alone and then taking sole possession of first place in the AL West — for the first time all season — thanks to a win in their 162nd game. Billy Beane’s A’s ultimately fell in five games in the ALDS, but the way they got there, with a league-leading 15 walk-off victories, confirmed them as one of this generation’s top comeback artists.
2006 Minnesota Twins
- Division deficit: 9 1/2 games on Aug. 1
- Season result: Lost in ALDS
The way the Twins got to the playoffs — even though though didn’t last long once there — is forever memorable. Despite a slugging trio of Justin Morneau, Torii Hunter and Michael Cuddyer, the Twins sat seven games below .500 in mid-May and 9.5 games out of first place as late as Aug. 1. Boosted in part by a lousy finish from the Detroit Tigers, Minnesota came alive when it counted, winning eight straight after the All-Star break and finishing with a 49-27 second-half record to record the biggest late-season comeback of the Wild Card era. They secured their fourth division title in five seasons but were promptly swept in the ALDS by the A’s.
1951 New York Giants
- Division deficit: 13 games in mid-August
- Season result: Lost in World Series
No one was on their bandwagon out of the gate. Seeking their first NL pennant or World Series title since the 1930s, the Giants stumbled out to a 3-12 start and trailed first place by as many as 13 games in mid-August. Then came an absolute tear: A 54-24 record over the second half of the season to secure a three-game playoff against the rival Brooklyn Dodgers. History has not necessarily been kind to this Giants run, with longtime rumors of their alleged sign stealing resurfacing in the 2000s, but there’s no denying how spectacular New York’s rebound was. Powered by a 20-5 September, the Giants capped off their heroics with Bobby Thomson’s walk-off homer, the famous “Short Heard ‘Round the World.” They then fell in the World Series to the Yankees.
The 2002 Oakland Athletics headline our list of runner-ups. While they don’t really qualify for greatest second-half comeback because their large 10-game deficit dates to May of tat season, they will always be remembered for their rebound from the offseason losses of key players under general manager Billy Beane. They won a whopping 20 straight games starting in August, topping their 100-win 2001 record. The A’s won the AL West but lost in the ALDS. This team inspired the book “Moneyball,” which later became a movie. They both tell the story of how Beane used analytics to build the roster. Other honorable mentions include: