Labor Day is welcome sign for leaders

Labor Day is welcome sign for leaders

Players say it all the time: "There are a lot of games left." That's true of course, unless you don't consider a month of baseball a lot of games.

When the month happens to be September, specifically the Labor Day milepost of the season, recent history suggests there may not be as much time remaining as those players would have us believe.

The only thing guaranteed about Labor Day is that it always falls on the first Monday in September, but for teams leading pennant races, the Labor Day holiday has usually been a reliable measuring stick when it comes to a team's chances of reaching the postseason.

Since baseball expanded the playoffs in 1995, 73 of 92 leaders (67 first-place clubs and 25 other teams either in sole possession or tied for first in the Wild Card standings) went on to reach the playoffs.

That's a 79.3-percent success rate for the teams on top when the fireworks subsided on Labor Day. Conversely, only 20.7 percent of the leaders, or 18 teams, missed the playoffs after leading on Labor Day.

Fifty-six of the 67 Labor Day division leaders during the last 11 years were eventually crowned division champions. Of the 11 that did not win its divisions, four went on to capture a Wild Card berth and seven (10.4 percent) missed the playoffs altogether.

That means 60 of the 67 Labor Day division leaders, or 89.6 percent, went on to the playoffs via one route or the other, which certainly bodes well for the current division leaders: the Yankees, Tigers, A's, Mets, Cardinals and Dodgers.

Leading the Wild Card standings on Labor Day has more often than not meant a playoff berth, but it's not as lopsided as the numbers for division leaders.

The good news for the Wild Card-leading Twins and Padres is that of the 25 Labor Day Wild Card leaders during the past 11 seasons, eight were not leading when the season ended, and yet two of those made the playoffs as division champions. Six of the 25, or 24 percent, missed the playoffs.

On the other hand, it's certainly not hopeless for those hopefuls not in first place on Labor Day. In 10 of the past 11 seasons, at least one team not leading a division or the Wild Card on Labor Day has wound up making the playoffs. The only year it didn't happen was 1999.

That year, Labor Day fell on Sept. 6, with the Yankees, Indians, Rangers, Braves, Astros and Diamondbacks as division leaders and the Red Sox and Mets in first in the Wild Card standings. The Mets were up by four games on Cincinnati, but the two teams were tied at the end of the regular season, forcing a one-game playoff, which the Mets won, 5-0, to capture the Wild Card.

So fans of teams not leading, but close to the lead in the Wild Card races (White Sox, Reds, Phillies, Giants, Astros, Marlins and Braves) can take heart.

The Wild Card races in recent years have often gone down to the wire, and as such, being on top in that race on Labor Day is certainly no guarantee of a ticket to the October dance.

For instance:

• The Phillies led the Astros and Marlins by 2 1/2 games in the NL Wild Card standings on Labor Day last season. The Astros won the Wild Card.

• In 2004, the Cubs led San Francisco by a half-game and Houston by 1 1/2 games in the NL Wild Card. The Astros wound up winning it.

• In 2003, Seattle led Boston by one game in the AL Wild Card on Labor Day, but Boston won the race.

• In 2002, the Dodgers enjoyed a 2 1/2-game lead on the Giants in the NL Wild Card on Labor Day, but the Giants went on to win the Wild Card and reach the World Series.

• In 2001, St. Louis overcame a three-game deficit in the Wild Card race (the Cubs led on Labor Day with the Giants in second place) to win the playoff spot.

• In 2000, the Indians led the AL Wild Card standings on Labor Day, only to be caught and passed by the Mariners.

That wasn't the first time the Mariners had come from behind after trailing on Labor Day to reach the playoffs. Seattle trailed the Angels by 6 1/2 games on Labor Day in 1995 before going on a 17-7 run to tie the Angels and force a one-game playoff. The Mariners and Randy Johnson won, 9-1, to give Seattle the AL West title. No team has overcome a bigger Labor Day deficit to win a division crown during the past 11 years.

At the conclusion of this Labor Day, six teams are fewer than seven games behind their respective division leaders, including the Twins and White Sox (AL Central), the Angels (AL West), the Padres and Giants (NL West) and Reds (NL Central).

When the Cardinals came back from third place and three games back to win the Wild Card in 2001, it was the largest Labor Day deficit any team has overcome en route to the Wild Card.

That's encouraging history for the seven teams in a similar situation this year: the White Sox, Reds, Phillies, Giants, Marlins, Astros and Braves.

Fans of the Yankees, Tigers, A's, Twins, Mets, Cardinals, Dodgers and Padres should take note of the standings today for another reason.

For the last 28 years, every World Series-winning team either led a division or the Wild Card on Labor Day. Not since the 1978 New York Yankees has a team won the World Series without leading a race on Labor Day.

Jim Molony is a writer for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.