A Momentum-Changing Flashpoint
Baseball statistics are terrific analytical tools for heated baseball discussions, but the truest aspects of the game cannot be computed in a table or mapped out in a graph. We can compute the dynamic forces on a ball in flight, but we cannot compute the minute emotional and neurological forces placed on that ball from the player who threw it. Baseball cannot be summed up in a table or mapped out in a graph. Slumps and streaks, momentous highs and devastating lows, the cohesion of a clubhouse against the adversity of a soul-testing schedule … the game is a series of tiny, imperceptible fluctuations in momentum adding up to losses and wins, empty failures and glorious triumphs.
However, we can sometimes identify a moment we might call the “flashpoint,” where momentum and all of the other mystical forces of the game turned in favor of a winning team. Virtually every pennant-winning team has such a moment in their season. Sometimes that moment comes early in the schedule, and the team cruises the rest of the summer. Other times, it happens late in the season, often when the team is at its lowest ebb.
Fans hung up on stats often miss these subtle fluctuations and forget their importance in the outworking of a season. That’s why it’s a good thing to reflect on how quickly the emotional and mystical elements of this game can turn on one flashpoint, forever altering the direction of a team and a season.
The flashpoint for the 1967 World Championship season came on June 10th. On that Saturday afternoon, the Cardinals found themselves trailing the Cincinnati Reds in the standings by 3.5 games and trailing the lowly Los Angeles Dodgers 2-0 in the game after six innings. A two-run Bobby Tolan home run tied the game in the seventh and sent it into extra innings. In the eleventh, new addition Roger Maris smashed a three-run homer to dramatically win the game. The moment galvanized the club, and the Cardinals went 71-40 (.640 winning percentage) the rest of the way to win the National League pennant by 10.5 games.
The 1985 Cardinals had multiple momentum-shifting moments. One was the April 18th debut of Vince Coleman, who drastically changed the offensive approach for the entire season. Still, the team found itself 7.5 games behind the streaking Mets on May 19th after another loss by new acquisition John Tudor, who was 1-6 at that point. Then, Tudor received a phone call from his high school catcher about a flaw in the lefthander’s delivery. Once corrected, Tudor went 20-1 the rest of the way and frequently outdueled the Mets to lead the revamped Cardinals into the playoffs.
We like to remember the 2004 Cardinals as the dominant powerhouse that muscled through the National League to win 105 games, but they didn’t look like the best team in baseball on May 28th. At that point, the Cardinals were 25-22 (just a .532 winning percentage) and trailing both the Reds and the Astros in the division. That Friday evening, the Cardinals battled the rival Astros to a 1-0 lead in the ninth and closer Jason Isringhausen on the mound. But Izzy gave up two singles and then a double to Lance Berkman to tie the game; it was a devastating blow. But the Cardinals scratched out a run in the top of the tenth to take a 2-1 lead. Izzy went back out for a second inning, determined to make the win stick, and this time he succeeded. The extra inning win jolted the team into an unprecedented run of 80-35 (a jaw-dropping .696 winning percentage) the rest of the way to decimate the division.
For the legendary 2011 team, the galvanizing, momentum-changing moment came off the field and very late in the season. After the Los Angeles Dodgers completed a sweep of the Cardinals at Busch Stadium on August 24th, the team found itself 10 games back in the standings and little season left. Manager Tony La Russa was secretly confiding in close friends that he intended to retire after the frustrating season was finished. That Wednesday night, the clubhouse doors closed and Chris Carpenter gave a fiery, inspirational speech to the fractured and frazzled team. From there, the Cardinals went on a magical, momentum-inspired 23-9 tear (a heart-stopping .719 winning percentage) to capture the wild card on the very last day.
So what will be The Flashpoint for the 2013 Cardinals?
I think the momentum shifted for this team on August 13th. At that point, the Cardinals had endured a frustrating month of injuries, unfocused starting pitching, and a dramatic power outage that dropped them into second place in the division. The division-leading Pirates, riding a wave of success, came into town determined to put a nail in the Cardinals’ coffin. In the first game of the series, things looked bleak; the Pirates had a 3-2 lead going into the bottom of the ninth. Until that moment, the Cardinals had not come from behind to win a game when trailing after eight innings. The Pirates were statistically-assured of a victory. But an Allen Craig single scored Daniel Descalso, sending the game into extra innings.
Keep in mind that the Cardinals had just one extra inning win up to that point in the season, so the Pirates felt confident as the game went on late into the night. But Jon Jay singled with one out in the 14th inning and stole second, setting the table for seldom-seen bench player Adron Chambers. With a 2-2 count, Chambers singled into left field to win a dramatic, season-changing game. Since then, the Cardinals have a .714 winning percentage and have reclaimed the division from the reeling Pirates.
A month remains in the schedule, and anything can happen in that time. An important injury can drastically mitigate the effects of a momentous flashpoint. On the other hand, dramatic moments like Craig’s seventh-inning grand slam two night ago can add additional leverage to the positive vibes emanating from a seasonal flashpoint. In any event, it’s clear that the tide has changed for the 2013 Cardinals, who now seem poised to abandon their divisional rivals and charge into the playoffs.
Just remember where you were when momentum turned this season around.