9/2/2013 12:09 A.M. ET
Contenders need not look far back for inspiration
Cardinals of 2011, A's of '12 show it's not over 'till it's long after Labor Day
By Richard Justice / MLB.com
If you are the manager of the Royals, D-backs, Indians, etc., you might want to remind your players of baseball's recent history.
To sum up: It ain't over 'til it's over.
That is this Labor Day's lesson. Buck up, boys. Keep going. You never know. When Tony La Russa began mapping out the final 32 games for the 2011 Cardinals, he called a team meeting.
Forget the standings, he said. The Cardinals trailed the Braves by 10 1/2 games in the National League Wild Card race, but those were just numbers.
La Russa reminded his players they had achieved a reputation around the game for professionalism and effort.
So finish hard, he told them. You never know, he added.
The 2011 Rays and Cardinals taught us all a lesson about playing hard until the end. The 2012 A's did the same thing.
At the moment, six teams are within 6 1/2 games of one of the second Wild Card berths. In the American League, the Orioles are three games behind the Rays. The Indians and the Yankees are right behind at 3 1/2 games. The Royals are still in it, too, at 5 1/2 games back.
In the NL, the D-backs are six games out, half a game ahead of the Nationals. If any of that seems like a little too much ground to make up, history says otherwise.
As La Russa told the Cardinals in 2011, pay no attention to the numbers. Or the doubters.
He preached that it is all about winning today and worrying about tomorrow later. It is sometimes easier to have a we've-got-to-win-every-game mentality than to be the team trying to finish off a race.
La Russa's 2011 Cardinals went from 10 1/2 games out Aug. 25 to win the World Series. That year, the Rays were nine games out Sept. 2 but clinched a playoff berth on the final day of the regular season.
Both teams needed help. Had the Red Sox not finished 7-20, it would not have mattered that the Rays went 17-8 down the stretch. Likewise, the Braves opened the door for the Cardinals by losing 16 of their final 23. But the Cardinals did their part with a 16-5 finish.
The 2012 White Sox spent 126 days in first place in the American League Central. But they could not close the deal, losing 11 of their final 15 to escort the Tigers to the postseason. The Tigers were given an opportunity and took advantage with a 15-7 finish.
In fact, Texas and Chicago -- two of the three first-place teams in the AL on Sept. 1 last season -- ended up finishing second. The White Sox missed the playoffs entirely. The Rangers did not get out of the Wild Card game despite spending 186 days in first place and leading the AL West by 6 1/2 games on Aug. 12.
The A's did not give up on last season either, even when they trailed the Rangers by five games with nine to play. They had the lead down to two when the teams finished the regular season with a three-game series at the Coliseum. In other words, the Rangers needed to win once to clinch the AL West.
The A's won the opener, 4-3. Lead down to one. OK, no big deal.
Only thing is, you could see it coming from miles away. Baseball is the weirdest of sports. Teams can reel off five- and six-game winning streaks all season long. But when the finish line is near, when the heat is on, sometimes the simplest things become impossible.
The Rangers could be saved only if someone stepped up. In the first round of last year's playoffs, that one player was Justin Verlander, rescuing a series for the Tigers against the very same A's.
The Rangers did not have a Verlander. Their best players stopped producing. The A's Travis Blackley beat the Rangers in the second game. Tie division.
On the final day of the regular season, Rangers starter Ryan Dempster, acquired for the stretch run, could not hold a four-run lead, Josh Hamilton dropped a fly ball and the A's won, 12-5, and staged a wild clubhouse celebration. Meanwhile, the Rangers, once touted as the best team in baseball in 2012, limped back to Texas and lost the American League Wild Card game to the Orioles.
That is the lesson for the Indians, Royals and other others. There is still everything to play for. They all have a chance to write a spectacular ending to their season. Plenty of guys have played a long time without having this kind of opportunity. Go for it, fellas.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.