The Royals have wildly exceeded expectations this season and will go into September with an incredible record of 80-50, a ten game lead in the division, and they currently lead the Blue Jays by six games for home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Their playoff odds now stand at a virtual certainty, and they could clinch a playoff spot with two weeks left to go in the season.
This big lead allows the Royals many luxuries, such as resting players, auditioning players, and setting their post-season rotation. But it may come at a cost too. Having little to play for the rest of the season could make the team complacent, or even rusty if the regulars rest too much. At least, that is the conventional wisdom when a team with a big lead surprisingly loses in the post-season. Is the narrative true? Do teams with large leads have trouble turning it back on when October rolls around? The evidence suggests a large lead has no bearing at all on how a team performs in the post-season.
Let's take a look at teams in the Wild Card era that went into September with at least a ten-game lead in the division, and a six-game lead for home field advantage, and see how they fared.
1995 Cleveland Indians
81-35, 21.5 divisional lead, 9.5 game home field advantage lead
The Indians were an absolute beast, winning 100 games in an abbreviated 144 game-season. They led the Royals by 21.5 games, giving them little to play for, but they still reeled off a six-game winning streak at the start of the month, and a five-game winning streak to end the season. Their 19-9 record in September was the second-best record in the league. They continued their dominance in the post-season, sweeping the Red Sox in the ALDS, then beating the Mariners in the ALCS in six games. Their run did end in the World Series against a very good 90-54 Braves club that defeated the Indians in six games.
"Don't look behind you to see who's catching you. This team has come too far to lose their focus now."
-Manager Mike Hargrove
1996 Atlanta Braves
84-52, 10 game divisional lead, 9 game home field advantage lead
It was looking like smooth sailing for the Braves in 1996 as they entered September with a double-digit lead in the division. But the club had a terrible stretch in early September, dropping 11 of 13 games in early September. They saw their lead over the Expos shrink to just 4.5 games and began feeling the pressure of avoiding one of the biggest collapses in baseball. Offensive slumps, errors, and poor relief pitching plagued the team as Bobby Cox began to snap at reporters. The Braves quickly righted the ship by reeling off eight wins in nine tries and were still able to clinch the division with a week to go. They easily swept the Dodgers, then battled back from a 3-1 deficit in the NLCS to win the pennant over the Cardinals. They fell to the 92-win Yankees in six games in the Fall Classic.
"We were playing awful. We shocked a lot of people, even ourselves. We were just going through the motions. But the luxury of having a 12-game lead is that you have time to take a good long look in the mirror. We knew we had to step it up."
1998 New York Yankees
99-37, 19 game divisional lead, 19 game home field advantage lead
No one was catching the Bronx Bombers, who clinched the division on September 9 and went on to win a franchise-record 114 games. Despite wrapping things up early, the Yankees continued to play starters Chuck Knoblauch, Derek Jeter, and Bernie Williams regularly. After an ugly 7-0 loss to last-place Tampa Bay, Joe Torre gave his team a lashing for their sloppy play. The went on to shutout the Rays 4-0 the next night, then won seven in a row to end the season. They Yankees steamrolled teams in October, winning 11 of 13 games, including a quick sweep of the San Diego Padres in the World Series.
"I think it was important for [Joe Torre] to make a stink about the way we've been playing. We hadn't lost a series for like six months ... I think it was important to remember how we got here."
-Outfielder Tim Raines
2001 Seattle Mariners
97-37, 18 game divisional lead, 17 game home field advantage lead
The Mariners were a juggernaut in 2001 with Rookie of the Year and American League MVP Ichiro Suzuki. The Oakland Athletics had the fourth-best record in baseball, yet found themselves 17 games behind the Mariners at the outset of September. The M's took seven of the first eight games in September and were on the verge of clinching the division. Then the World Trade Center and Pentagon were hit by planes hijacked by terrorists. Major League Baseball postponed a week of games, and when the Mariners clinched when play resumed, it was a somber prayer on the field instead of a raucous celebration. The Mariners continued to play their regulars as they chased the 1906 Chicago Cubs record for most wins ever by a team, eventually tying them with 116 victories. The Mariners defeated the Indians in five in the ALDS but would fall to the Yankees in five games in the ALCS, making them the best team ever that failed to win the pennant.
"We have to shake the cobwebs off and get ready to play some baseball. We can't come out like a wounded dog. We've got to come back with some fire."
-Outfielder Mike Cameron
2004 St. Louis Cardinals
88-44, 15.5 game division lead, 10 game home field advantage lead
The Cardinals carried an eight-game winning streak into early September, but played around .500 the rest of the way to finish with 105 wins. They would clinch on September 19, but starter Chris Carpenter left that game early with elbow irritation, an injury that would keep him out of the entire post-season. The Cardinals made quick work of the Dodgers in the NLDS then topped the Astros in an intense seven-game series. But they were unable to match the intensity of the Red Sox, who had just made the most improbable comeback in LCS history, and went on to sweep the Cardinals in four games.
"We’ve been celebrating all year. We came up one celebration short."
-Pitcher Chris Carpenter
2005 St. Louis Cardinals
85-49, 13.5 game divisional lead, 9.5 game home field advantage lead
The Cardinals again dominated the National League in 2005. They would clinch the division on September 18, at Wrigley Field, no less. They went just 15-13 in the final month of the regular season, sweeping their final series to give them 100 wins on the year. They continued to play all their starters down the stretch, including stars like Albert Pujols and older veterans like Larry Walker and Mark Grudzielanek. They swept the Padres in the NLDS but lost to the Astros in six in the NLCS.
"I think you get into the playoffs and you have to flip the switch up."
-Outfielder Jim Edmonds
2006 New York Mets
83-50, 16 game divisional lead, 11 game home field advantage lead
The Mets put it all together in 2006 for a fantastic season and clinched the division on September 19, despite playing just under .500 the final month of the season. Manager Willie Randolph did rest his regulars quite a bit the final two weeks of the season, allowing some rest to David Wright, Carlos Delgado, and slugger Carlos Beltran, who nursed a quadriceps injury that month. They still won 97 games, tops in the league. The Mets swept the Dodgers to face an 83-win Cardinals team in the NLCS. The Cardinals scored two in the top of the ninth to take a 3-1 lead in Game Seven, followed by Carlos Beltran striking out as the tying run at the plate.
"We had the best team. And that’s not to take anything away because the Cardinals, they ended up winning it all and they had a solid team too. They limped into the playoffs that year, but they had some injuries and they had a solid team. And we had our chances. But we really felt that was the year."
-Catcher Paul LoDuca