The Kansas City Royals are going on one of the more improbable runs in recent baseball history, and in the process, have captured our hearts. But what kind of chance does a team have in the American League Championship Series if they didn't even win 90 games in the regular season? Let's take a look back at other teams that reached the League Championship Series in the Wild Card era with fewer than 90 wins.
2012 Detroit Tigers (88-74)
The Tigers have reached the playoffs the last four seasons, and of course, it was the year they didn't win 90 games that they went the furthest in the post-season. The 2012 Tigers were a game behind the White Sox and only 11 games ahead of a crummy Royals team with a week and a half to go before sweeping the Royals in a four-game series to take first place and hold on for the division title. The Tigers got a huge complete game shutout in Game 5 in Oakland by Justin Verlander in the American League Division Series to stave off the Athletics, then swept an aging, listless Yankees team in the ALCS. They finally hit a wall in the World Series, getting swept to the San Francisco Giants, the first of their two consecutive titles.
2012 St. Louis Cardinals (88-74)
The Tigers were not the only team that year to reach the LCS with fewer than 90 wins, the Cardinals were able to do so from the newly-created Wild Card. 2012 was Year One in the post-Albert Pujols era, and the Cardinals were still able to put together a balanced team that easily grabbed the second Wild Card and were able to defeat the Braves on the road in the new one-game playoff. The Cardinals were one out away from elimination in Game 5 of the NLDS against the Nationals, when Daniel Descalso's two-run single tied it, and Pete Kozma drove in two more that inning to win it. The Cardinals led the NLCS three-game-to-one, but we know how St. Louis loves to blow large series leads. They scored just one run in the remaining three games combined, and the Giants went on to win the pennant and their first ever championship in San Francisco.
2008 Los Angeles Dodgers (84-78)
The Dodgers were five games under .500 on August 29, but went 17-8 to clinch a very weak Western Division by two games over the Diamondbacks. Like this year's Royals, they had a weak offense, finishing with the fourth-fewest runs scored, but had the league's best pitching staff, led by Derek Lowe and Chad Billingsley. The Dodgers swept a 97-win Cubs team before falling in five games in the NLCS to the eventual World Champs, the Philadelphia Phillies
2006 St. Louis Cardinals (83-78)
The 2006 Cardinals were the worst World Champion ever, by regular season winning percentage. They were actually a good team in the first-half of the season, and as of July 26, they had the second-best winning percentage in the league. But they were hit by injuries and dropped 15 of their last 23 to slump to an 83-win season. The Cardinals pitching staff was very thin that year due to injuries and poor performance, but they had a rookie in the bullpen named Adam Wainwright that proved to be nearly unhittable that post-season. The Cardinals easily defeated the Padres in four games in the NLDS, then took a 97-win Mets team to Game 7. With the game tied 1-1 in the ninth inning, Yadier Molina would seal his St. Louis legacy with a two-run home run off Aaron Heilman to give the Cardinals the lead for good. They would go on to defeat the Detroit Tigers in five games for their first World Championship since 1982.
2005 Houston Astros (89-73)
The Jeff Bagwell/Craig Biggio Astros had some fantastic seasons, but never found much success in the post-season until one of their weaker playoff teams broke through in 2005. The team was 35-41 at the end of June, but won 22 games in the month of July and were able to edge out the Phillies by one game for the Wild Card. The Astros defeated the Braves in the NLDS in four games, then took care of the 100-win Cardinals in six in the NLCS. Houston eventually fell to the Chicago White Sox in the World Series.
2003 Chicago Cubs (88-74)
The 2003 Cubs were just three games over .500 heading in September but used a late run to take over first place in the last week of the season past both the Astros and Cardinals. The Cubs faced long odds against the 101-win Braves in the NLDS, but with ace pitchers Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, they had a chance. They split the first four games before Wood tossed a brilliant performance in Game Five to win it. The Cubs took a 3-1 series lead in the NLCS against the Marlins before dropping a 4-0 games in Miami. Back in Chicago, the Cubs led 3-0 in the eighth. Then....Bartman happened. The Marlins exploded for eight runs to win 8-3, then knocked Kerry Wood early out of Game Seven as they went on to clinch the pennant while the Cubs once again stayed home.
2001 Atlanta Braves (88-74)
The Braves kept their post-season streak alive by barely edging the Phillies for the Eastern Division title, despite their worst winning percentage in over a decade. They quickly swept the 93-win Astros in three games in the NLDS, before running into the lethal one-two pitching combination of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling with the Arizona Diamondbacks in the NLCS. Those two pitchers allowed just three runs in three games as Arizona won all three of their starts and won the series in five games, en route to the only World Championship.
2000 New York Yankees (87-74)
The Yankees were looking pretty good in September, and had the third best record in baseball as late as September 13. But they dropped 15 of their last 18 games to turn a seemingly out-of-reach division title into a close race with Boston making a late run. The Yankees edged the Athletics in five games in a hard-fought ALDS, before taking out the Seattle Mariners in six games in the ALCS. The Yankees took on the 94-win cross-town Mets team in the Fall Classic dubbed the "Subway Series" , but made quick work of them, winning in five games for their fourth championship in five seasons.
1998 Cleveland Indians (89-73)
The '98 Indians were a terrific team with Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Omar Vizquel, Travis Fryman, Kenny Lofton, Brian Giles, and David Justice. They broke out to a double-digit lead in the Central almost immediately and pretty much put things on cruise control the rest of the year. They only failed to win 90 games because they dropped six of their last seven games, already having clinched the division along time ago. The Indians beat the Red Sox in the ALDS in four games, but dropped the final three games of the ALCS to fall to the Yankees in six.
1997 Cleveland Indians (86-75)
People remember the 90s Indians as a juggernaut, but twice they reached the playoffs with fewer than 90 wins. The '97 Indians were just 58-54 on August 9, but would still cruise to the Central Division title with a six game advantage. They were able to edge the Yankees in five games in the ALDS, then won the pennant on an 11th inning home run by Tony Fernandez in Game 6 against the Orioles. The Indians were two outs away from their first Championship in almost 50 years, but a Craig Counsell sacrifice fly tied the game in the ninth inning of Game Seven. Two innings later, Edgar Renteria would win it with a walk-off single, prolonging the misery in Cleveland.
1996 Baltimore Orioles (88-74)
The 1996 Orioles were a high-priced team full of stars like Roberto Alomar, Bobby Bonilla, Rafael Palmeiro, Cal Ripken, and Brady Anderson. They led the league in home runs, scoring an amazing 949 runs, but they still had to fend off the Mariners and White Sox to clinch a Wild Card spot. The Orioles made quick work of the Indians in four games in the ALDS, to set up a matchup against the first place Yankees. The Orioles led 4-3 in the 8th inning of Game One when Derek Jeter sent a fly ball into right field, where it was snatched by a young boy named Jeffrey Maier, much to the ire of right-fielder Tony Tarasco. The ball was ruled a home run, tying the game, a game the Yankees would go on to win in extra innings. The Yankees would go on to win the series in five games.
1996 St. Louis Cardinals (88-74)
The Cardinals were engaged in a tough divisional race with the Houston Astros all summer until the Astros absolutely imploded in September, dropping 17 of 25, while the Cardinals won 17 of 26. The Cardinals easily swept the Padres, then took a commanding 3-1 lead in the NLCS against a tough 96-win Braves team. Did I mention the Cardinals are notorious for choking with series leads? St. Louis was blown out 14-0 at home in Game 5, then Greg Maddux shut them down in Atlanta in Game 6. Game Seven was Tom Glavine vs. Donovan Osbourne which turned out to be just the mismatch it looked like on paper as the Braves scored six in the first to a 15-0 blowout victory to win the pennant.
So of the twelve sub-90 win teams to reach the LCS, five won the pennant, and two won a Championship. A World Championship is as good as ours.