As a fan of the Tampa Bay Rays, I have witnessed a good deal of playoff surprises in the past 5 years. When the Rays posted a 97-65 record on the way to the 2008 World Series, few had predicted such remarkable success. The squad was coming off a miserable 66-96 campaign and expected again to occupy the cellar of the East Division. Instead, Tampa Bay captured that year's American League pennant and cemented its reputation as a capable team constructed around steady pitching.
Though the Rays no longer catch many off guard with their continued success, their manner of playoff qualification has impressed. The franchise failed in the quest for a 2012 wildcard, but did manage a late-season charge that put contenders on notice. Last year, however, the Rays' comeback prowess was among the most impressive in baseball history. The team overcame both a 9 game deficit in September and a 7 run deficiency in the 8th inning of must-win Game 162 to qualify for the playoffs on the final day of the season.
I don't think any of this year's contestants possess a tale quite as dramatic. Yet, 3 of 10 fortunate clubs did raise eyebrows on their march to the post-season. Here are the most surprising teams to earn admission to the 2012 Major League Baseball playoffs.
1.) Baltimore Orioles: No team reaching the 2012 playoffs executed a bigger turn-around than the Baltimore Orioles, who earned one of the American League's wildcards. And they didn't sneak into the party either. Their 93 wins would easily have captured the Central Division. Manager Buck Showalter's upstart club was even tied with the mighty New York Yankees for the East lead entering the final series of the season. No team was more clutch in 2012 than the Orioles, who carry a 16 game winning streak in extra-innings into the post-season. The greatly-improved club only triumphed in 69 games in 2011, but used a youth movement to transform their fortunes rapidly. Rookie pitchers like Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez provided just enough pitching, while the offense slugged the 2nd most homers in baseball. Shortstop J.J. Hardy and catcher Matt Wieters both enjoyed superior campaigns, but nobody thrived more than centerfielder Adam Jones, who is just entering his prime at age 27. The O's hope he shines on the bright stage about to unfold.
2.) Oakland Athletics: Much like Baltimore, little was expected from an Oakland team that finished 14 games below .500 last year. In fact, the team experienced so much chaos that manager Bob Geren was fired in the middle of 2011 and replaced by current skipper Bob Melvin. This proved another shrewd move by movie star GM Billy Beane, as the A's reached the playoffs for the first time since 2006 behind the 2nd stingiest team ERA in the American League, which is composed of largely unknown hurlers. While the offense wasn't among baseball's finest, the club excelled at clutch hitting and used the long-ball to propel their way to the top of the West Division by the final day of the season. Oakland received breakout campaigns from Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes and 25 year-old Josh Reddick, who was acquired in a much maligned trade with the Boston Red Sox.
3.) Washington Nationals: With an 80 win effort last year for manager Davey Johnson, the Nationals had already taken giant steps coming into 2012. No longer expected to serve as a doormat, many thought Washington would make noise in the National League pennant chase. What few predicted was that the club would run away with the East Division title and post the best record in MLB at 98-64. The strength of the Nats is their robust starting pitching, as top hurlers Gio Gonzalez, Stephen Strasberg, and Jordan Zimmerman all performed like Cy Young contenders for much of the season. In a familiar theme, Washington's offense generated plenty of power and the team was 2nd in the N.L. in home runs. While experienced sluggers Adam LaRoche and Ryan Zimmerman enjoyed solid seasons, the Nationals received breakout performances from shortstop Ian Desmond and 19 year-old phenom Bryce Harper.
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