And the Cards parlayed their unexpected Wild Card berth into a World Series championship.
With two additional Wild Cards entering the fray in October, GMs are having sleepless nights. Do they roll the dice and try and make a deal that will propel them to the playoffs, or call it a season and become a seller at the Deadline?
Buyers or sellers? As close as the races are today, that decision might make or break the season.
Through Wednesday's games, 19 of Major League Baseball's 30 teams were no further than 6 1/2 games out of first place. And that is exactly the margin which separates all five teams in the rugged American League East.
"I don't think most clubs have gotten to the point to even try and decide if they're buyers or sellers," Mets GM Sandy Alderson told MLB.com. "That will probably happen over the next couple of weeks. I've had one or two conversations with clubs who I think have decided they're sellers.
"Yes, the extra Wild Cards will leave more clubs in perceived competition for the postseason when we get closer to the deadline. My sense is there will be more buyers than sellers than in the past."
GMs Ben Cherington of the Red Sox and Ruben Amaro, Jr. of the Phillies face the most difficult decisions, based on their disappointing seasons and huge payrolls.
The Red Sox are tied with the Blue Jays for last place in the AL East, and have the third-highest payroll of the 30 teams at $173.18 million.
I can't imagine a deal Cherington could make, even with the eventual returns of Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury from the disabled list, that would improve this team enough to compete with the Yankees, Rays and even the surprising Orioles in the division.
A possible trade of Kevin Youkilis heads the rumor mill. His new team would have to pay a prorated amount of his $12.25 million salary this season unless the Red Sox assume some of it. Even for a team that thinks Youkilis might help them get to the postseason, giving up a premier prospect or two, plus paying the salary, is unlikely.
Amaro has been active and very successful at the Trade Deadline in the past. Over the years, he's obtained the likes of Joe Blanton, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Hunter Pence. And in each case, these players have been key ingredients to the Phillies winning the NL East.
This year is different. Coupled with devastating injuries to Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Roy Halladay, plus poor play on the field, the Phillies are in last place in the division. They're the only team in the NL East with a losing record.
At this stage of the season, it seems unlikely the Phillies, even with the return of their injured All-Stars, can rebound and win their sixth consecutive division.
With the second-highest payroll at $173.95 million, the Phillies are reluctant to take on an expensive contract because they don't want to go above the $178 million luxury-tax threshold.
The Philadelphia media has floated the names of Pence and outfielder Shane Victorino as players who would have trade value. Victorino can be a free agent after the season. Pence would be an attractive acquisition for a contender because he'll be eligible for arbitration for one more season before he becomes a free agent in November of 2013. Lefty starter Cole Hamels is expected to be one of the top free agents this fall if the Phillies are unable to sign him.
In a conversation with Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal, Phillies president Dave Montgomery said he believes his team can get back in the race. That would indicate it's premature to call the Phillies sellers.
"We still think we have a lot of season left and opportunity for us," Montgomery said. "Come August or something, maybe we feel differently. But that's not our emphasis right now. Our emphasis is to try to get ourselves back in a position to compete this year.
"We owe it not just to our fans, but we owe it to the group in the clubhouse. We've battled a few challenges this year, but there's still opportunity."
|"I don't think most clubs have gotten to the point to even try and decide if they're buyers or sellers."|
|-- Sandy Alderson|
The Dodgers have the best record in the Majors, so it figures that GM Ned Colletti will be a buyer. The Cubs may make pitchers Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza available.
The Washington Nationals are loaded with young talent. GM Mike Rizzo has built his career around player development. Even though the Nationals have proven they're for real, I do not expect Rizzo to pull the trigger at the expense of the youngsters he's assembled in the Minors. He might tweak the big league roster to take advantage of their amazing record, but will refuse to tamper with his long-range plans.
Across the Beltway, look for Baltimore GM Dan Duquette to seize the moment. With second baseman Brian Roberts back and the Orioles aiming for their first winning season since 1997, look for them to bolster their lineup, but not at the expense of their top Minor League prospects.
Other surprise teams such as the White Sox and Indians -- and maybe even the Blue Jays -- are not about to pass up their chance to make it to the postseason.
On the other hand, there is a good chance that Houston will dangle veteran closer Brett Myers, first baseman Carlos Lee and lefty Wandy Rodriguez.
"Given the fact so many teams think they're in the chase, what with two more Wild Cards, I predict there'll be some very surprising deals," an AL GM told MLB.com. "The feelers are already out and you'd be shocked at some of the names I'm hearing."
In 1990, when Alderson was the Athletics' GM, he pulled off what he terms his most memorable deal.
And it didn't even happen at the July deadline.
In late August, he obtained Willie McGee, who was leading the NL in hitting at the time, from St. Louis, and he snagged Harold Baines from Texas. Both players helped the A's make it to the World Series before being swept by Cincinnati.
Bottom line: Given that over half the teams are seemingly in playoff contention, and with the addition of two postseason berths this season, there might be a damper on the July 31 deadline.
But that's not to say a blockbuster isn't waiting in the wings.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.