When the Washington Nationals dropped a 6-4 decision to the New York Mets at Citi Field on May 23, the Miami Marlins were breathing down their backs.
Yes, the 105-loss Marlins, who on May 23 were just 1 1/2 games back of the 19-31 Nationals in the NL East. The Toronto Blue Jays, who went on to lose 95 games, had one more win than the Nats on that date. Pitching coach Derek Lilliquist was replaced earlier in the month, and manager Dave Martinez's seat was on fire.
On Wednesday, those same Nationals beat the 107-win Houston Astros in Game 7 to win the World Series.
The Nats did it after their horrendous start to the season. They did it while winning four times on the road against the best team in baseball. And they did it with five come-from-behind wins in five different elimination games, the first time that's ever happened, according to MLB Stats.
What the Nationals just accomplished has already entered baseball lore. But are they the most unlikely champions of all time? Let's see how they compare to a few other stunning World Series winners.
The story: Nicknamed the "Hitless Wonders" - they hit a collective .230/.301/.286 in the regular season and averaged 3.68 runs a game - the 1906 White Sox won the pennant anyway, thanks to a 19-game win streak in August and a pitching staff that spun a modern-era record 32 shutouts. In the all-Chicago World Series, they hit .198 as a team but still upset the 116-win Cubs in six games. George Rohe - who had a 92 OPS+ in 1906, his second-last MLB season - torched the Cubs by hitting .333/.440/.571 with four RBIs. The Sox beat the great Mordecai "Three-Finger" Brown twice and knocked him out of the clinching Game 6 in the second inning.
Do they compare? The White Sox and Nats both ran on superb starting pitching and earned their first three World Series wins on the road. Of course, we all know the Nats were a far, far better team at the plate, though the "Hitless Wonders" are still one of the most unlikely champions of all time.
The story: The 97-win Giants were very good, featuring multiple All-Stars, an ace reliever in Hoyt Wilhelm, and NL MVP Willie Mays in center field. But they were huge underdogs in the World Series against a 111-win Indians team that was great enough to interrupt the Yankees' dynasty. Cleveland crushed 156 homers and had a star-studded pitching staff whose collective ERA was well below three.
Then Mays went to work in Game 1.
The catch demoralized Cleveland. Giants pinch-hitter Dusty Rhodes - who didn't start a game in the series but still hit .667 - walked off Game 1 with a pinch-hit homer in the 10th, and New York swept the Indians with ease.
Do they compare? There are plenty of parallels, with both teams employing star young outfielders who had breakout seasons at the plate. Also, both the 1954 Giants and 2019 Nats beat World Series opponents who had 14 more wins in the regular season, the second-largest gap in history (trailing 1906). The World Series win was shocking, but the pennant win wasn't a complete surprise.
The story: The Mets were hapless, lovable losers from their start in 1962 but roared to 100 wins behind a young pitching staff of Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Gary Gentry, and Nolan Ryan. After holding off the star-studded Cubs in the regular season, the Mets swept the Braves in the NLCS before stunning the heavily favored, 109-win Orioles in five games to win the World Series. They're still baseball's most famous underdogs.
Do they compare? Few Cinderella stories were better than the "Miracle Mets." But it's hard to put them in line with the Nats because these Mets featured all kinds of young talent whose careers were just getting started. It's not that the Mets weren't amazing - they still are. It's just hard to directly compare them to an older Nats club that finally got over the hump.
The story: The Reds had struggled for two years during the Pete Rose scandal and Marge Schott's unstable ownership, making the 1990 turnaround all the more surprising. Led by the great Barry Larkin, ace Jose Rijo, and the infamous "Nasty Boys" bullpen, Lou Piniella's Reds went wire-to-wire atop the NL West before stunning Barry Bonds and the Pirates in the NLCS.
They were heavy World Series underdogs against the defending champion Athletics, who cruised to a third straight AL pennant. But Billy Hatcher hit .750, the pitching staff (led by series MVP Rijo) held the powerful A's to just eight runs, and the Reds pulled off the unthinkable sweep.
Do they compare? This is one of the more shocking World Series outcomes, with the 103-win A's getting swept by a team with 12 fewer victories. But the Reds differ from many of the Cinderella teams on this list, including the Nats, because they went wire-to-wire. The lack of a midseason turnaround means these Reds were just a really strong team that did what they were supposed to do, even if few actually saw it coming.
The story: The Marlins were 16-22 when they fired manager Jeff Torborg in favor of Jack McKeon. It didn't help at first; Florida fell 10 games under .500 less than two weeks later, and didn't go above that mark for good until mid-July. But they scratched and clawed their way to October, fighting off multiple teams to sneak in as a 91-win wild card.
From there, the Marlins would not be denied. Pudge Rodriguez held onto the ball to upset the 100-win Giants in the NLDS. Down 3-1 in the NLCS, the Marlins came back (with help from a famous incident) to beat the favored Cubs in seven. And then for the grand finale, they showed no fear while beating Joe Torre's 101-win Yankees in six games, clinching it in the Bronx on Josh Beckett's five-hit shutout.
Do they compare? An NL East wild-card team that at one point was 10 games under, featuring a bright young hitting star alongside a hodgepodge of assorted veterans, coming from nowhere to stun heavily favored juggernauts? You better believe they're similar. One key difference is this year's Nats were at least expected to compete for a playoff spot, whereas the 2003 Marlins were supposed to be just another wretched squad. But this is more in line with the kind of jaw-dropping upset we're looking for.
The story: On July 4, the last-place Braves fell to 26-40 after dropping both ends of a doubleheader to Brooklyn. They sat 15 games back of the first-place Giants. But on July 5, the Braves suddenly started to win.
The "Miracle Braves" engineered one of the most remarkable midseason turnarounds in sports history. After that Fourth of July doubleheader they went 68-19, took first place from the Giants for good on Sept. 8, and ultimately won the pennant by 10 1/2 games. In the World Series, the Braves swept the dynastic Philadelphia Athletics - who boasted five future Hall of Famers and were looking for their second straight title, and fourth in five years - in stunning fashion, holding them to a .172 average while using just three pitchers in the process.
Do they compare? The "Miracle Braves" are the only other team besides the Nats to have won the World Series after being at least 12 games below .500 during the regular season, according to ESPN Stats & Info. And while the Nats' record through their first 50 games is now the worst for a champion, the Braves nearly turning a 15-game deficit into a 15-game lead is a feat that should stand the test of time.
Realistically, the 1914 Braves are just about the only club that can claim to be a more unlikely champion than the Nationals. Not only did they complete that wild midseason turnaround, but they did it with a largely anonymous team that returned to irrelevancy two years later. Outside of star infielders Rabbit Maranville and 1914 MVP Johnny Evers, the Braves fielded a roster of no-names like Lefty Tyler, Butch Schmidt, and Possum Whitted. And that group showed the same lack of fear as the Nats while taking down one of the greatest teams ever assembled.
So let's leave it at this: the 2019 Washington Nationals just did something we haven't seen in 105 years. It might take another 105 to see it again. It was that unprecedented.
You might as well call it a miracle.