Answer Man: What's the earliest date for a baseball team to clinch a playoff berth?

News-DemocratMay 15, 2013 

This appears to be another incredible start for the St. Louis Cardinals. Although it is inevitable that they will lose a few more games this season, can you tell me the earliest date in the season that any team has clinched a playoff berth? -- Rick Carpenter, of McKendree University

When the Bronx Bombers of New York opened their 1998 campaign 0-3, probably nobody expected a season worthy of the record books. Had he still been managing, Billy Martin even might have been fired for the umpteenth time after that horrendous start.

But on Aug. 29, the rest of Major League Baseball once again was muttering, "Those damn Yankees!" Not only had they set the standard for the earliest clinching date of a playoff spot in history, but they also would shatter a decades-old American League record for most victories in a season with 114.

As the New York Times reported the next day, the Yanks were crazy good that year. They were 61-20 at the All-Star break and earned their 100th victory on Sept. 4, which beat the previous mark of Sept. 9. During the year, they put together a 10-game win streak, two nines and two eights while limiting their longest losing stretch to four from Aug. 23-26.

They had no big home-run hitters -- Tino Martinez led the pack with just 28 -- but their regular lineup boasted four .300 hitters. Topping the list was Bernie Williams, who became the first player ever to win a batting title (.339), Gold Glove and World Series ring in the same year.

Then there was the starting pitching of David Cone (20-7), David Wells (18-4), Orlando Hernandez (12-4) and Andy Pettitte (16-11). If they needed help, they could always count on Mariano Rivera, who recorded 36 saves, and Mike Stanton, who came in 67 times and chalked up a 4-1 record.

Put it all together, and it becomes easy to see how Joe Torre's Yanks set a new standard of baseball excellence. Up to then, the previous record for earliest clinch was Sept. 4 -- by Joe McCarthy's 1941 Yankees during a season that featured Joe DiMaggio's still unmatched 56-game hitting streak. (Remember that back then only one team qualified for post-season play from each league, not two, four, or, now, six.)

But here's the funny thing: On Aug. 29, 1998, nobody knew immediately that the Yankees had clinched after they mauled Seattle 11-6 at home before a sellout crowd of 55,146. To the best of anyone's knowledge, their magic number for the A.L. East title was 11 while the number for a wild-card berth was still 2, the Times reported the next day. So there was no champagne waiting after Chad Curtis snared David Segui's fly for the final out.

But after the game, some industrious sportswriters re-examined the standings. They figured that because Anaheim and Texas had to play each other five times in September, there was no way both teams could amass 98 victories. So long after the Yankees had left the stadium, it was determined that New York had clinched at least a wild-card berth.

With their 114 regular-season wins, the Yankees eventually demolished the previous record of 111 by Cleveland in 1954 before they swept San Diego for their 24th World Series crown.

New York's record number of wins, however, was short-lived. In 2001, the Seattle Mariners went on a 15-game tear from May 23 to June 8 en route to a 116-46 record.

That win total finally matched the record 116 victories by the 1906 Chicago Cubs, although the Cubbies had played 10 fewer games (including two rainouts that were not made up). As a result, the Cubs' .763 winning percentage (116-36) remains the best ever. (I probably shouldn't mention that the crosstown-rival White Sox bested them 4-2 in the 1906 World Series, preventing them from a threepeat after titles in 1907 and 1908, their last.)

If you're interested, the earliest clinch date from 1969 to 1993 (two divisions) was Sept. 7 by the 1971 Cincinnati Reds. From 1994 to 2011 in the three-division, four-team playoff format, the earliest date also was Sept. 7 by the 1995 Cleveland Indians.

But the Cardinals will be hard pressed to match any of those marks. Even at their current victory pace of about .660, they would win only about 107 games and they'd have to hope that other potential wild-card teams would be left far in the dust. Besides, a playoff berth before Labor Day? Compared to the Birds' nail-biting finish last year, what fun would that be?

Today's trivia

What was the greatest baseball team ever, according to a calculation of team strength by baseball-reference.com?

Answer to Wednesday's trivia: Leonarde Keeler, who helped invent the modern polygraph machine, figured nobody could administer a lie-detector test as realistically as he could. So if you watch the Jimmy Stewart classic "Call Northside 777," it's Keeler himself grilling murderer Frank Wiecek in the campaign to overturn his conviction.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 239-2465.

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