The 2014 Royals were the latest team to seemingly come out of the woodwork to reach the World Series. But while Kansas City deserves a world of credit for its magnificent run, the club should not be regarded as an outlier or even an exception.
After all, the Fall Classic encourages precisely this kind of transformation. Here are a few more upstart teams that surprised the baseball world in their quest to make the World Series.
2011 St. Louis Cardinals
On Aug. 25, 2011, the Redbirds trailed the Atlanta Braves by 10 1/2 games in the National League Wild Card race. The Cards would rally, though, finishing on a 22-9 run, while the Braves floundered, going 10-20 down the stretch. As the regular season ended, St. Louis narrowly secured the Wild Card spot.
The Cardinals would then come from behind to defeat the Phillies in the Division Series, before repeating the feat against the Brewers in the NL Championship Series. Third baseman David Freese was named NLCS MVP, batting .545 with a 1.091 slugging percentage and a 1.691 OPS. But he was just getting started. In Game 6 of the World Series, the Cardinals trailed the Rangers, 3 games to 2, and were down by two runs, when Freese came to the plate in the ninth with two on and two outs. On a 1-2 count, he tripled in both runners to send the game to extras. Leading off the 11th, Freese came through again with the game-winning home run. The Cardinals eventually took Game 7, too, after the third baseman got them going with a two-run double in the first inning.
"We were on the edge game after game after game," manager Tony LaRussa said. [When] you play with that urgency, it's a little scary at times, and it takes a lot out of you, but it's really fun to compete that way."
2008 Tampa Bay Rays
In its first 10 years of existence, Tampa Bay had won as many as 70 games in just one season. In fact, the Devil Rays, as they were then known, averaged 97 losses per season. And then, presto: with a 97-65 record in '08, they secured first place. They brushed aside the White Sox in four games in the American League Division Series, and then defeated the defending World Series champion Red Sox in seven games to win the AL pennant.
"I knew we were going to be good, but never in a million years would I ever have expected this," Rays left-hander Scott Kazmir said.
Although the Rays ultimately lost to the Phillies, the force that had propelled the club to success all season long was a confluence of organizational efforts. Sound scouting, effective player development, shrewd acquisitions, a developing talent base and the relentless but thoughtful optimism of manager Joe Maddon had pulled together a genuine baseball breakthrough.
"This has been a remarkable year for us on so many different levels," Maddon said after the World Series. "Very few people would have even guessed that we could get here … And now I think this country, as well as the baseball world, knows who we are."
2004 Red Sox
The Red Sox had not won a World Series in 86 years. And in the ALCS, they had lost the first three games. No team in the history of MLB's postseason had ever overcome such a deficit.
But the Red Sox did it -- and they did it against the Yankees, who had crushed their postseason dreams repeatedly over many decades. Boston won two games, which spanned a combined 26 innings, at Fenway Park, and then it took the last two at Yankee Stadium to unseat the New York dynasty.
"Not many people get the opportunity to shock the world," Red Sox first baseman Kevin Millar added. "We came out and we did it. We beat the Yankees."
The Red Sox went on to face the Cardinals in the World Series, a team that had won 105 games in the regular season, still the best record any National League team has recorded in this century. But sometime that October, the Red Sox had been transformed from a band of also-rans into a force of nature. They swept the Redbirds and wrote for themselves a new and improved history.
In 1997, the club's fifth year of existence, the Marlins enjoyed their first season over .500, posting a 92-70 record. Ownership had made serious investments during the offseason, producing a talented team led by accomplished skipper Jim Leyland. Following a second-place finish in the NL East and a Wild Card berth, they swept the Division Series against the San Francisco Giants. Then, in the NLCS, the Fish took down the Braves, the team that had finished ahead of them, and moved on to face the Cleveland Indians in the World Series.
The Marlins won every odd-numbered game, including Game 7 in thrilling fashion, a 3-2 verdict in which an Edgar Renteria RBI single in the 11th inning provided the winning margin. It was a big upset, and, understandably, the Indians took it hard. "About a year and a half or so after that World Series, a guy asked me how long it took me to get over that last game," Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove said. "I told him: 'As soon as it happens, I'll let you know.'"
1991 Minnesota Twins/1991 Atlanta Braves
In 1990, Minnesota had finished last in the AL West, at 74-88, and Atlanta followed suit, posting a Senior Circuit-worst 65-97 record. But in '91, the Twins bettered themselves by 21 games to win the division, while the Braves ran over the NL West with a 29-game regular-season improvement.
The Twins disposed of the Blue Jays in five games in the ALCS as the Braves got past the Pirates in the NLCS in seven. They would then put together one of the greatest World Series clashes in history. Five of the seven games were decided by one run, and neither team lost a single game at home. Future Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett starred at the plate and in the field for Minnesota. He was the hero of Game 6, launching an 11th-inning home run. Jack Morris, who would take home the World Series MVP Award, nailed down the victory with a 10-inning shutout in a taut Game 7.
"I just didn't want to let them down," the hurler later recalled.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.