After Wednesday’s win against the St. Louis Cardinals, the record of the Tampa Bay Rays remained the worst in the majors with 25 wins and 42 losses. A team that fans, pundits, and players expected to contend for the pennant now sits in last place in the AL East, 14 games back. Some sportswriters and bloggers are already speculating about who the Rays will trade by the deadline, and if it’s time to give up on this season. There’s no question that the Rays have dug themselves a deep hole at the beginning of the season, and it is now very unlikely that they will contend this year. But history shows that some major league teams have come back from similar circumstances to win the pennant. This year is the 100th anniversary of just such a miracle season.
In 1914, the Boston Braves (now in Atlanta) were finishing off a decade of second division finishes. They had a great manager, George Stallings. They had a Hall of Fame double play combination with Rabbit Maranville at short and Johnny Evers (of Tinker to Evers to Chance fame) at second. They had a strong starting rotation led by Dick Rudolph, Bill James, and Lefty Tyler, and one of the best young catchers in baseball, Hank Gowdy. Yet they found themselves in last place on July 4 with a record very similar to the Rays, 26 wins and 40 losses.
Stallings made some mid-season moves, adding some new players that enabled him to platoon at all three outfield spots and first base. While platooning was used by some managers in baseball before then, Stallings was the first manager to platoon at several positions. Whatever the reason, the Braves got hot in July and went 70-19 over the last 89 games to finish in first place with a 94-59 record, 10 games ahead of the second place Giants. The Braves then swept Connie Mack‘s Philadelphia As in the series, with Hank Gowdy hitting .545 for the series.
Writers understandably dubbed Stalling’s men the “Miracle Braves,” and platooning became a popular strategy for the rest of the teens and 1920s. Then it fell into disfavor until Casey Stengel brought back the strategy with his Yankee teams during the 1950s.
A ‘miracle’ season for the Tampa Bay Rays is still possible, but only if they turn things around and start playing as well as we thought they would at the start of the year. They would need a record similar to the Braves’ last 89 games to contend for a title in the AL East. It is highly unlikely that it happens, but as the Miracle Braves showed 100 years ago, it’s not impossible.