Commentary

Slow starters in April who rose to play in October

Originally Published: April 9, 2008
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

Barely a week into the season, the baseball version of "Campaign 2008" has a jumbled, upside-down feel to it. Dennis Kucinich is a fundraising machine, Ron Paul leads in pledged delegates and Sam Brownback has vowed to take this thing all the way to the national convention if necessary.

If you predicted that Baltimore, Florida, the Chicago White Sox and the pitching-deprived St. Louis Cardinals would be early feel-good stories while Detroit, Colorado and the revamped Seattle Mariners would be this bad out of the gate, you're a lot more prescient than ESPN's panel of experts.

Assuming that April really is a sign of things to come, the outlook is grim for the Tigers. No team has ever made the postseason after an 0-7 start, and only two 0-7 clubs (the 1980 Braves and 1983 Astros) finished with winning records.

But that time-worn baseball proverb -- "You can't win a pennant in April, but you can lose one" -- applies only in the most extreme cases. According to statistical whiz Dave Smith of Retrosheet, 53 teams in the modern era have posted sub-.500 records in April and survived to make the postseason. The San Diego Padres, those never-say-die guys, achieved the feat in both 2005 and 2006.

So Major League Baseball's slow starters can find lots of inspiration, if they're in the mood. This week's "Starting 9" looks back through baseball history and pays homage to nine April laggards who found their mojo in time to play in October, when the games mattered most.

2007 Philadelphia Phillies
1 The low point: Fresh off a 1-6 start in 2006, the Phillies are determined to play better and prevent another outbreak of "Here We Go Again"-itis in Philadelphia. When the 2007 version goes 3-10 out of the chute, even folksy, homespun manager Charlie Manuel gets testy.

Following an ugly 8-1 loss to the Mets, local radio host-provocateur Howard Eskin pushes Manuel's buttons during a press conference. Manuel, clearly angered, invites Eskin into his office for a chat, and coaches Milt Thompson and Mick Billmeyer have to intervene.

Amid speculation that he's on the firing line, Manuel receives a vote of confidence from general manager Pat Gillick. He declines an invitation to rehash the incident on "Cold Pizza."

The happy ending: The Phillies rally behind pitcher Cole Hamels and the league's most prolific offense, and they pull even at 20-20 by mid-May. They go 13-4 down the stretch as the Mets collapse, and they win the NL East title to end a 14-year postseason drought.

2007 Colorado Rockies
2 The low point: With the Rockies on the way to the third-worst April in franchise history, dissatisfaction mounts. Fans were dubious when the team gave general manager Dan O'Dowd and manager Clint Hurdle two-year contract extensions in spring training, and the team's poor start is leading to rampant unrest in the Rockies.

Three weeks into May, Colorado is 18-27 and last in the NL West. Club president Keli McGregor supports his managerial tandem, but the underlying tone of his comments suggests that his patience is being taxed.

"The fans don't want to hear about the different gyrations. They want results," McGregor tells the Denver Post. "And with the way we have played, I understand their frustration. There's no excuse. We need to play better."

The happy ending: Josh Fogg and three relievers combine to beat Arizona 3-1 and start a seven-game win streak. The Rockies survive some agonizing twists and turns, win 13 of their last 14 regular-season games and beat San Diego in a playoff to make the postseason for the first time since 1995.

The magical run ends against Boston in the World Series, but it's still refreshing to hear those "Tulo" chants emanating from the packed Coors Field stands in October.

2007 Chicago Cubs
3 The low point: Where do we begin? Team harmony takes a hit when pitcher Carlos Zambrano and catcher Michael Barrett duke it out in the Wrigley Field home dugout. The next day, manager Lou Piniella goes ballistic during an argument and kicks dirt on umpire Mark Wegner. It's the precursor to a four-game suspension.

Fans litter the field in protest and there's a seven-minute delay while the grounds crew collects the debris. When the Cubs drop their sixth straight decision to fall to 22-31, some players admit they're pressing.

"We make mistakes because everyone is trying too hard," says outfielder Alfonso Soriano. "As soon as we win the first game, we'll be fine."

The happy ending: Score one for perspective. Mark DeRosa's grand slam sparks a 10-1 win over Atlanta on June 3. The Cubs go on a 35-18 run and make up a 7½-game deficit to forge a tie with first-place Milwaukee.

As the Cubs close in on the NL Central title in late September, some players reflect on Piniella's tirade as a turning point. The episode took the focus off Zambrano and Barrett, the battling battery-mates, and put it squarely on the manager.

"If you don't think he did that on purpose, you're crazy," says reliever Scott Eyre.

2005 Houston Astros
4 The low point: Shortly after the Astros bottom out at 16-31, the Houston Chronicle goes for the throat. Beneath the caption, "Grave Circumstances," the paper runs a half-page graphic of a tombstone. It signifies the Astros' season, and the inscription reads, "RIP."

The story headline: "The cold, hard truth: It's off." And that's with 111 games left in the regular season.

Hey, why bother with false optimism? The Astros are last in the majors in runs, and Craig Biggio leads the team in hitting at .284. The bullpen is a mess, the team is pathetic on the road and Jeff Bagwell looks done because of a shoulder injury. Even Lance Berkman figures the choice comes down to a youth movement or dealing for a Todd Helton, Mike Sweeney or Brian Giles if the team wants to have a prayer of making the postseason.

The happy ending: The Astros go on a 70-41 roll with Willy Taveras, Mike Lamb, Jason Lane, Chris Burke et al playing significant roles. They become the first team since the 1914 Boston Braves to make the postseason after being as many as 15 games under .500.

The Astros lose to the White Sox in the World Series, but it's a major accomplishment given where they were in May. Even manager Phil Garner concedes that the Chronicle obituary wasn't out of line.

"The truth of the matter is, we did look dead," Garner says. "We didn't look like we were going anywhere. And you can't fault anybody for writing what looks like the truth."

2003 Florida Marlins
5 The low point: It's stone quiet in the Florida clubhouse after the Marlins fall to 19-29, a season-worst 10 games under .500, on May 22. They've hit .109 with runners in scoring position during back-to-back sweeps at the hands of Los Angeles and Montreal, and the pitching is strapped because of injuries to starters A.J. Burnett, Josh Beckett and Mark Redman.

Reliever Braden Looper describes the team's plight as "obviously pretty miserable."

Management doesn't have a lot of options. Owner Jeffrey Loria has already fired manager Jeff Torborg and replaced him with septuagenarian Jack McKeon, and the Marlins are so desperate for a pitching fix, they've rushed lefty prospect Dontrelle Willis to the majors from the Double-A Carolina Mudcats.

The happy ending: Willis' energy and funky motion make him a national sensation. General manager Larry Beinfest bolsters the bullpen by acquiring Ugueth Urbina from Texas, and Jeff Conine, Mr. Marlin, comes home to provide some big, late-season hits. The Marlins make the playoffs as a wild card and beat the Giants, Cubs and Yankees for their second world championship in seven years.

2002 Anaheim Angels
6 The low point: When the Angels limp out of the gate at 6-14, the franchise's worst start in 20 years, it's only natural that manager Mike Scioscia winds up fielding questions about his job security.

Three managers -- Detroit's Phil Garner, Milwaukee's Davey Lopes and Colorado's Buddy Bell -- have already been fired in April, and expectations are high in Anaheim now that Disney has raised the team payroll to a record $60 million.

Scioscia responds to the scrutiny with the calmness of a man who: (1) is secure that he's not going anywhere, and (2) has faith that his players will turn it around.

"We still believe in this club," he tells reporters.

The happy ending: Hey, the man knows his team. The Angels go on a 93-49 tear after their slow start and they make the playoffs as a wild card entry. They take their cue from club MVP Garret Anderson, who sets a franchise record with 88 extra base hits.

The Angels outlast New York and Minnesota in the playoffs, then rally from a 5-0 deficit against San Francisco in Game 6 of the World Series before clinching in Game 7. Ever wonder what Giants starter Russ Ortiz did with that game ball that manager Dusty Baker handed him as a souvenir?

1998 New York Yankees
7 The low point: The Yankees have a star-studded roster and a whopping $73 million payroll, second-highest in the majors behind Baltimore. But that doesn't help Joe Torre's team from starting 0-3 for the first time since 1985.

No big deal, you say? Well, it is New York.

The Yankees are the last team in the American League to win a game and the last to hit a homer. Darryl Strawberry is 0-for-8, Chuck Knoblauch's arm looks shaky and Derek Jeter says the team is "out of sync" because inclement weather has messed up the batting practice schedule.

After the Yankees lose 7-3 to Oakland on a Scott Spiezio grand slam, Torre is asked if he's concerned about his job status given owner George Steinbrenner's track record for impatience.

"If I start worrying about that," Torre says, "I'll manage scared and distracted, and I can't do that."

Still, the tension is starting to mount. "Yankees Winless and Grinless," reads the headline in the Bergen County Record.

The happy ending: In hindsight, three games was probably a little early to panic. The Yankees post a 114-48 record and finish 22 games ahead of Boston in the AL East, then storm past Texas, Cleveland and San Diego in October. Those three days in April might be the only time all year that this juggernaut is out of sync.

1969 New York Mets
8 The low point: Opening Day is a real downer, as the expansion Montreal Expos beat the Mets 11-10 behind the hitting of Maury Wills, Rusty Staub and Coco Laboy. It's nothing new for the Mets, who've averaged 105 losses per season since the franchise's inception in 1962.

The Mets have some talented young arms in Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Gary Gentry, Nolan Ryan and Tug McGraw, among others. But in early May, they're 9-14 and eight games behind the deep and talented Chicago Cubs.

The happy ending: The Mets kick it in gear with an 11-game win streak in early June. And the Cubs, with their bad black-cat karma, do their part with a memorable implosion. Seaver and Koosman combine for a 42-16 record, and New York wins 100 games and beats Baltimore in the World Series despite one of baseball's weakest offenses.

Hank Aaron calls the Mets "amazing," and they're memorialized in the film, "Oh God!" when George Burns (as God) tells John Denver, "The last miracle I did was the 1969 Mets. Before that, I think you have to go back to the Red Sea."

1951 New York Giants
9 The low point: Manager Leo Durocher's squad gets off to a 2-12 start before grinding its way back to .500. In late May, the Giants get a boost from young outfielder Willie Mays, who is summoned from the minors after hitting .477 in 35 games with the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association.

The happy ending: Mays goes hitless in his first 12 at-bats before homering off Warren Spahn at the Polo Grounds. He proceeds to hit 20 home runs and win the Rookie of the Year award, and he's in the on-deck circle when Bobby Thomson hits his "Shot Heard 'Round the World" off Ralph Branca. The Giants lose the Series to the Yankees, but they've already provided enough excitement for a decade's worth of summers.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer