As the current best team in Major League Baseball, the Chicago Cubs are on pace to win around 105 games this season. Even with an off-day last Thursday, they drew closer to clinching the National League Central division because the St. Louis Cardinals — who are in second place behind the Cubs — lost their game against the Milwaukee Brewers. At this rate the Cubs may be able to clinch a playoff spot some time in the next week, with plenty of games left to play. But despite how good they are, Chicago won’t be the earliest team to ever guarantee their playoff spot. Here are the five teams who clinched their divisions earliest in baseball history.
5. Atlanta Braves (2002)
The 2002 Atlanta Braves ran away with a weak NL East on their way to a 101-win season and a disappointing loss to the San Francisco Giants in the NLDS. This team featured Gary Sheffield, Andruw Jones, Chipper Jones, and a young Rafael Furcal on offense, with Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and Kevin Millwood on the pitching side. It was a great team, no doubt, but failing to cash in on their historic run of playoff appearances and win a World Series makes them forgettable in the long run.
But they’re not forgettable on this list, at least. The Braves went into play on September 8 looking to beat the Montreal Expos and clinch their 11th straight NL East division crown. But Bartolo Colon — yes, that Bartolo Colon — threw seven shutout innings, and the Expos beat up Glavine, putting off the celebration for another day. On September 9, with the Braves scheduled off, the New York Mets beat the second-place Philadelphia Phillies, 6-4, which clinched the division for Atlanta, who didn’t even have to lift a finger.
4. New York Yankees (1998)
One of the greatest teams to ever step onto the field, the legendary 1998 New York Yankees finished the season with a 114-48 record. Even more impressive: They not only tore through the regular season, but they finished the postseason with a 11-2 record, beating the Texas Rangers, Cleveland Indians, and San Diego Padres. This team featured Derek Jeter, Paul O’Neill, Bernie Williams, Tino Martinez, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, David Wells, and David Cone — all performing at their peak.
The interesting thing about this team is that, because of the wild card, they actually clinched a playoff spot on August 29. However, as far as closing up their division, New York entered a series with the second-place Boston Red Sox on September 7 and needed to win two games. The Yankees lost the first game, but then won on September 8 to set up a potential division-clinching game on September 9. Orlando Hernandez struggled and was pulled early, but the Yankees held on for a 7-5 win that day.
3. Cleveland Indians (1995)
Young talented filled the roster of the early ’90s Cleveland Indians. Kenny Lofton, Manny Ramirez, Albert Belle, Jim Thome, Omar Vizquel, and even an aging Eddie Murray all appeared in the regular lineup on the 1995 team. The Indians finished 100-44 in a strike-shortened season, making their first appearance in the postseason since losing in the World Series back in 1954. They went all the way to the World Series yet again, but they lost to the Braves, who collected their only trophy in the ’90s.
However, on the positive side, the Indians wrapped up their division early thanks to their excellent regular-season record. On September 8, they went into their matchup against the Baltimore Orioles 22.5 games ahead of the Kansas City Royals. They beat the Orioles, 3-2, in a game where Baltimore left the bases loaded. Watching Indians fans be able to celebrate the victory on the home field after 41 years of missing the playoffs is something special.
2. Cleveland Indians (1999)
Down the road, the 1999 Cleveland Indians turned the trick again. They finished the season 97-65 but yet again disappointed in the postseason, this time losing in the ALDS to the Boston Red Sox. Many of the same players were still around, including Lofton, Ramirez, Thome, and Vizquel. They also had Roberto Alomar, Harold Baines, and a young Richie Sexson.
On the very same September 8 date as the 1995 team and their clinching party, the Indians headed into a matchup against the Texas Rangers, up 23.5 games on the Chicago White Sox. There were only 24 games left in the season,so the Indians didn’t even have to win their game to clinch the AL Central, as long as the White Sox lost. They didn’t win, losing 3-0 to Texas. But the White Sox also lost to the Anaheim Angels, 6-5, sealing up the division for the Indians.
1. Cincinnati Reds (1975)
In 1975, the Big Red Machine was well-oiled, with Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Pete Rose, and Ken Griffey leading the team toward the best offense in baseball that season. The Reds won 108 games, beating up the Pittsburgh Pirates and Boston Red Sox to win the World Series. Not too bad for a team that started 28-22 but finished 80-33. It was their third appearance in the World Series at that point in the decade and the first of back-to-back championships they won.
But other than winning the championship, they also set a mark no other team has touched yet; they clinched their division on September 7 that year. Going into their matchup against the San Francisco Giants that day, the Reds had a 19.5-game lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West. That’s right. For some reason the Reds were in the NL West while the St. Louis Cardinals were in the NL East. Cincinnati beat the Giants, 8-4, while the Dodgers lost to the Atlanta Braves, 5-4, clinching the division for the Reds.
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