The Kansas City Royals and San Francisco Giants both entered the 2014 postseason at the end of September as wild-card teams. By mid-October, each club had won its respective pennant. The American League champion Royals and National League champion Giants will face off in the World Series starting Tuesday night, which guarantees that baseball’s last team standing will have come from the unassuming beginnings of the wild-card game.
It’s the first time since baseball expanded to two wild-card teams in each league in 2012 that a team has advanced from the relatively new wild-card game all the way to the Fall Classic, but it ensures a sixth World Series champion will come from the wild-card ranks since that invention first appeared in the MLB playoffs in 1995.
Here is a list of the previous five wild-card teams to win baseball’s biggest prize, listed in chronological order. (All stats and records are from Baseball-Reference.com.) Will it be the Giants or Royals that join this exclusive club in the next two weeks?
1997 Florida Marlins
The first wild-card team to win the World Series was the 1997 Florida Marlins. Jim Leyland’s team went 92-70, finishing the regular season nine games behind the Braves in the National League East, but eliminated Atlanta in six games in the NLCS. In the World Series, Florida and Cleveland alternated wins in each game, but it was the Marlins that started that trend in Game 1 and finished it with a walk-off win in Game 7. Livan Hernandez won twice for Florida in the Fall Classic as the team captured its first World Series title in only its fifth year of existence.
2002 Anaheim Angels
The 2002 World Series pitted two wild-card teams against each other, as the NL’s Giants battled the AL’s Angels in an intrastate affair. The Angels weren’t any sort of significant underdog that year, having won 99 games, but they still finished four games behind the Athletics in the American League West. Anaheim disposed of the Twins in the ALDS and the Yankees in the ALCS to win the pennant. The all-wild-card World Series ultimately went the distance, with Anaheim rallying — in the year of the Rally Monkey — to take both Game 6 and Game 7 at home for the series victory.
2003 Florida Marlins
The wild card was good to the Marlins once again in 2003, as Florida again went from lowest team on the National League totem pole to champions. The Marlins only won 91 games in the regular season, 10 less than Atlanta, but got hot at the right time in October. Florida came back from down 3-1 in the NLCS to stun the Chicago Cubs — Steve Bartman may or may not have had something to do with that — and then knocked out the Yankees in six games to claim the crown. World Series MVP Josh Beckett had an ERA of just 1.10 in two starts for the strong-armed Fish, who also got a pair of victories from Brad Penny against New York.
2004 Boston Red Sox
One of the most famous wild-card teams to ever win the World Series has to be the 2004 Boston Red Sox, who not only snapped an 86-year curse (thank you very much, Babe Ruth), but rallied from down three games to none against the dreaded arch-rival Yankees in the ALCS to get there in the first place. Boston had won 98 games in the regular season, three less than the Bronx Bombers, but saved their best for last. Facing elimination, Terry Francona’s team reeled off eight wins in a row to stun the Yankees, sweep the Cardinals, and go down in Boston history as perhaps the most beloved of all world champs.
2011 St. Louis Cardinals
Only one wild-card team in the last decade has won the World Series, and it’s the 2011 Cardinals. St. Louis won 90 games in the regular season compared to 96 for NL Central champion Milwaukee, but got the best of the Brewers in a six-game NLCS after initially getting past the Phillies in the first round. That set up a championship battle with the Texas Rangers, who had the Cardinals down to their final out and even final strike but couldn’t close the deal. Series MVP David Freese led the Cards to a comeback extra-innings victory in Game 6, then St. Louis finished off the Rangers with a 6-2 win in Game 7 for just the team’s second championship since 1967.