Cards to be next surprise World Series champs?

On Aug. 25, the St. Louis Cardinals were 10½ games behind the Atlanta Braves in the NL wild-card race. The division title was out of reach, as the Brewers rampaged through the NL Central, so it appeared that St. Louis would be out of the postseason for the fourth time in five years.

On Wednesday, they'll be playing to win their second World Series in six years.

[Related: Cardinals' epic rise began at a Burger King]

The Cardinals are a most unlikely World Series participant. They only got here after winning 24 of their final 33 regular-season games, clinching on the final day to get by the slumping Braves, who lost their last five. They shocked the heavily-favored Phillies in five games in the NLDS and then beat their division rival Brewers in the NLCS. In the World Series, they'll again be an underdog, to the two-time AL champion Texas Rangers.

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Slideshow: Unlikely World Series winners

A St. Louis victory in the Fall Classic would rival its 2006 achievement in terms of becoming unlikely World Series champions. The 2006 Cardinals won just 83 games – the fewest total of any champion in baseball history – and limped into the playoffs after losing nine of their last 12. There have been other unlikely winners, especially in the wild card era, when the requirement of winning three series made the postseason more of a crapshoot than it's been in the past.

Since the wild card era began in 1995, half of the 16 World Series involved at least one wild card team, with the 2002 Series featuring two wild cards. The World Series between the Rangers and Cardinals will be the 11th time in the last 12 years in which the team with the best regular-season record will not be winning it. The MLB postseason is now nearly as unpredictable as that of the NBA and NHL.

[Related: Who has the edge heading into the World Series?]

Even before the wild card era, there have been a number of unlikely World Series winners. The 1954 New York Giants, for example, swept the record-setting Cleveland Indians in a series most memorable for Willie Mays' over-the-shoulder basket catch. The 1926 Yankees lost to the Cardinals when Babe Ruth got caught stealing for the final out in Game 7 after blowing a three-game-to-two lead. The '27 Yankees, of course, learned from that debacle.

But most of the surprising World Series winners came after the leagues split up into divisions following the 1969 expansion, necessitating an extra round of playoffs. In the very first year of that setup emerged the "Amazin' Mets," who won the World Series just eight years after an inauspicious debut season in which they went 40-120.

[Related: Cards closer Motte can't see where he's throwing]

The Mets had to first overcome the Chicago Cubs in the NL East, who collapsed in the face of a black cat, losing 18 of their final 26 games. Then they went on to beat the Orioles in the World Series, in an upset every bit as shocking as Super Bowl III just eight month earlier, in which the Mets' stadium mates (Jets) stunned the heavily favored Orioles co-tenants (Colts).

So what we have here are the World Series champions that nobody saw coming. Not before the season, not during the season and not until perhaps the final out of the Fall Classic. Some rallied late with a few games left, others with a few outs left, and still others both, and in dramatic fashion. These are our most unlikely World Series winners (in the division era):

The top five:

5. Cincinnati Reds (1990)
4. San Francisco Giants (2010)
3. Los Angeles Dodgers (1988)
2. Minnesota Twins (1987)
1. New York Mets (1969)
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