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Four MLB teams that were previously counted out but are still in playoff contention

Attaining 62 wins over the course of a full season doesn’t get you very far—except for a high pick in the following year’s amateur draft.

For the same team to rebound and get to 62 by mid-August, on the other hand, is a sign of significant progress.

That mark is where the Miami Marlins were at the end of 2013 and are at this point in the 2014 season—as they notched victory No. 62 on Sunday over the Arizona Diamondbacks.

The 10-3 win not only put them at the .500 mark, but also places the Marlins 3.5 games back of the second and final NL Wild Card spot—currently occupied by the San Francisco Giants.

A most unlikely scenario, considering what manager Mike Redmond had to work with early on.

The team was just a couple years removed from snake oil salesmen-like management gutting the roster by trading away high-priced veterans that had just recently arrived to welcome in a brand-new stadium (mostly paid for by the city).

In short time, the ballpark became an eyesore—and so did the ballclub that played in it. An injured Giancarlo Stanton for part of the year made a bad offensive club even worse—and contributed heavily to a 100-loss campaign. The only bright spot was Jose Fernandez, who, at 21, captured NL Rookie of the Year honors and nearly won the league’s Cy Young Award with a 2.19 ERA and 187 strikeouts.

But all hopes dimmed and darkened in May when Fernandez suffered an elbow injury. That forced him to miss the rest of 2014 as he underwent the ever-prevalent Tommy John Surgery.

All hope lost, right? Not so, thanks to a revived offense—led by their much healthier slugger. Arguably the best power hitter in the NL and the leading candidate for MVP, Stanton ranks first in homers (32), RBI (88), walks (77), slugging percentage (.566) and OPS (.964).

But the Marlins’ surge upstream in the playoff race wouldn’t be possible without some support around him. Enter Casey McGehee, who joined Miami after spending a successful season in Japan. It’s translated nicely back to the states, as he leads the Fish with a .300 batting average to go along with 60 RBI and 26 doubles.

The pitching staff has also picked up the slack in the absence of Fernandez. Henderson Alvarez ranks seventh in the majors with a 2.43 ERA while closer Steve Cishek has notched 31 saves.

Miami is now within shouting distance of the Giants, but they’ll have to pass two teams in between them—one of which is the Pittsburgh Pirates.

After washing away a drought of 21 consecutive losing seasons, the Bucs are vying for a much more pleasant streak: back-to-back playoff appearances.

The chances of this happening—like the season itself—has taken on the effects of a roller-coaster ride.

From the highs of preseason expectations to the lows of a sluggish 18-20 mark in mid-May, then the resurrection of 2013 NL MVP Andrew McCutchen and the call-up of five-tool talent Gregory Polanco leading Pittsburgh’s surge back to the forefront of the Central standings.

Their 32 wins in June and July combined put them in a position this franchise has rarely seen—if ever—over the past two decades: favorites to win the division. Those happy thoughts in the steel city soured after several key players were found on the disabled list instead of the active roster.

First, it was starting pitching phenom Gerrit Cole (expected to return this week). Then came the big blow—made more unseemly by the way in which it occurred. In retaliation for seeing their top player, Paul Goldschmidt, suffer a season-ending hand fracture after a hit-by-pitch, McCutchen was on the receiving end of the D-Backs’ revenge. He was drilled by a fastball in an early August contest—causing a rib fracture that forced him out of action and on the 15-day DL.

The recent struggles of Atlanta, St. Louis and San Francisco have kept the Bucs in the race despite being severely hampered and currently suffering through a season-long six-game losing streak, which included two excruciating losses to the Washington Nationals.

The Pirates were temporarily without their top player. The departure of the Rays’ most important commodity, on the other hand, is permanent.

David Price had been floated around as a trade chip for several months. Tampa’s No. 1 arm had intentions of signing a high-priced contract upon becoming a free agent—something that the low-budget Rays couldn’t afford.

Those rumors got louder once the team got off to an inauspicious start: a league-worst 24-42 on June 10.

But this team was far too talented, both on the field and on the bench, to be a cellar dweller. Behind the ingenious cajoling of Joe Maddon, the hitting of Evan Longoria and James Loney, a defense that has the third-fewest errors in the AL, as well as the efforts of their lefty ace, Tampa quickly became baseball’s hottest team and all indications were that Price would remain in south Florida for the long haul (or at least through this season).

Management then interjected with a cool rejoinder—stunning everyone with a trade that sent Price to Detroit and receiving very little in return.

What appeared to be a raising of white flag by those in the front office could very well turn out to be a motivational tool for Maddon’s bunch. They improved their record to 61-61 with a win on Friday night, becoming the fourth team in major league history to reach the .500 mark after falling 18 games under in the same season.

At ten games behind Baltimore in the AL East, the Rays’ chances of capturing the division are next to none. The second AL Wild Card spot, which seemingly changes hands every other day, is still attainable (6.5 games out)—but they’d have to jump five teams in the process.

Nevertheless, to even be considered a threat for a playoff berth after the depths they sunk to in June is quite a testament to their manager and the resiliency of a ballclub that has done more with less over the past six seasons.

While the Rays have limited resources, the Yankees’ wealth is unmistakable. The means by which they spend their money, however, can certainly be questioned.

But there was no questioning the money grab made at highly-touted Japanese pitching product Masahiro Tanaka. That was made especially true when the 24-year-old big league rookie won 12 of his first 16 decisions with three complete games and a 2.51 ERA.

His value went beyond the numbers. As CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova scuffled and ultimately saw their seasons come to a close due to injuries, Tanaka became the leader of a starting rotation that was mediocre at best.

So when the news came down on July 9 that he had succumbed to elbow inflammation, it appeared to be a death nail in the Bombers’ hopes.

That didn’t stop Joe Girardi from once again pulling off his best McGyver impersonation. For the second straight year, Girardi has managed to keep the creaky Yankees from falling apart—despite having their star pitchers dropping like flies.

The Yanks have used 12 different starting moundsmen. Only the Rockies and Rangers can claim to having at least that many—and are a collective 45.5 games out of first place.

Girardi’s batting orders have also been makeshift thanks to Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran’s inability to stay healthy. The recent additions of position players such as Chase Headley (acquired on July 22 from the San Diego Padres) have helped keep New York breathing on more than just life support.

They are very much alive at this point, especially after taking two from Tampa to improve to 63-59. What’s more, the recent return of Michael Pineda and the potential return of Tanaka instill a bit more hope that Derek Jeter’s final season can last more than the allotted 162 games.

The Yankees, Marlins, Pirates and Rays are four clubs that have managed to hang around in the playoff picture—despite unforeseen circumstances that would cripple weaker teams.

Brian Wright

About Brian Wright

With over a decade's worth of sports journalism experience, MLB Lead Writer Brian Wright has been featured on Bleacher Report, SB Nation, as well as The Washington Examiner, and is currently a staff writer with the Stafford County Sun (VA). While attending Virginia Tech, Brian covered Frank Beamer's Hokie football teams (among other sports) for the school's daily campus newspaper. As a lifelong die-hard New York Mets fan, there is very little chance Brian will be an unbiased reporter come October.

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