It's a great day in St. Louis, and you're trying to make sense of the Cardinals' inexplicable sweep of the Hated Cubs after a rough series in Milwaukee. If you think team momentum has shifted, flip to LEDE ONE. If you think the team played poorly last week, and really well this week, flip to LEDE TWO. If you want to leave Diane and Berk behind and explore the dark cave, flip to LEDE THREE.
Momentum has shifted, after that neutral-site series in the Slough of Despond, and it feels pretty good. I'm not a member of the pitching-wins-championships fraternity, and I never have been, and to be honest I'd rather see a 5-3 game than a 3-1 game. But I'll give the sportswriters of that esteemed group this: good pitching makes a team feel invincible in a way that good hitting doesn't.
I mean, travel back with me, if you will, to the last Cardinals-Cubs sweep, when Gary Bennett pulverized the Cubs and earned himself a lifetime pass with a two-out walk-off grand slam, which is really just dramatic excess, at that point. (Backup catcher hits game winner? Sure. Home run? Sure. Two outs? Well... alright. Grand slam? This is the part where the producer suggests you remove the baseball-following guardian angels from your screenplay.)
At any point in that series did you feel that they could not stop Gary Bennett? I might be wrong, here, but I didn't. I may have joked about it and then pretended I wasn't joking after I looked Eerily Prescient, but I was never honestly expecting Gary Bennett to put the team on his shoulders.
But after Joel Pineiro got going in game one—say, by the fourth or fifth inning—I felt good about the game, even after the nightmares visited on us by the series that wouldn't end. I'm skeptical of his season-long chance at success, and I don't normally feel confident heading into a Pineiro start, but at that point I began to think—that's a little too charitable. I began to feel: they can't touch Pineiro tonight. Then Carpenter after that, and Wainwright—new and improved Wainwright—after that? The Cubs didn't stand a chance. If the Cardinals had won that first game because Jason LaRue had hit three home runs I would have been able to make more cheap Camaro jokes, but I wouldn't have been nearly as confident.
If you're going to continue to watch the Cardinals now that they've righted the ship, turn to ENDING TWO. If you've had enough, turn to ENDING ONE.
This is exactly why team momentum is a bankrupt concept. The Cardinals came into this Cubs series looking like garbage. They couldn't pitch, they couldn't hit, and every move they made turned out poorly. One of their players more or less announced, in a heartbreakingly quiet way, that he wasn't ready to play baseball. The pitching was a catalogue of frustration.
And in the Cubs series—despite rolling into the most pressure-packed rivalry in the NL with no momentum at all—they pitched beautifully. Different pitchers but the same team, in the same clubhouse, with the same murky forecast. Pineiro threw the game that Dave Duncan has been waiting for his entire life, just six fly balls, just five strikeouts, and then Chris Carpenter came back and showed he was healthy, and Wainwright came back and showed that he, unlike the rest of the rotation, had gotten over his love affair with the base on balls.
And the team did the little things, even, the things that teams who are dogged by a losing streak are supposed to fumble. The important run in the Pineiro game was scored thanks to a sacrifice hit and a steal of third base by a player who wears his socks in the little-things fashion. The Carpenter game was sealed by a sacrifice fly from the player who needed it not just as an athlete but as a human being, and the dugout—which had to have been a morgue throughout the last series—greeted him with genuine affection, the kind that isn't quite captured in the concept of team chemistry.
If you're going with momentum, here, you can say that changed things—the mood shifted, things seemed possible once Ryan ran down third base. And they did seem possible. But if Lilly strikes out Molina instead of Duncan, what happened in the moment between the stolen base and the strikeout? Or if Khalil strikes out and his team has to pat him on the back and say he'll get them next time, where did the momentum go? If it's powerful enough to ruin a pitcher's command on a game-by-game basis, how can it shift on such a dime?
At this point, even if momentum exists, why write about it? It only means that they're not playing well right now, and that at any moment they might be ready to play well, often for an extended period of time. It can only be given to and taken away from a team in hindsight. It has no predictive value, and very little descriptive value, which makes one wonder what value it has at all.
These Cardinals are capable of wonderful things. They've got players with very particular skills, like Pineiro's control and Ryan's grace on the basepaths and afield, and when those skills are in effect it's a lot of fun to watch. And when the particular skills aren't in effect, it can be a nightmare. I'm sure this is true of a lot of teams, but these Cardinals have a lot of patched holes; there's not a lot of room for average on a team that starts Joe Thurston across the diamond from Albert Pujols.
If you're resigned to the ebb and flow of baseball, the frustrations and the ecstatic, fist-pumping, goatee-rattling victories, turn to ENDING TWO. If you're determined to find some order in this chaotic baseball world, flip to ENDING THREE.
You take the flashlight from Diane and head into the cave. "Be careful!" she says.
You shine the light down the center of the cave. That bat's in there, alright, and he has Diane's necklace! But by the time you two make eye contact, he's gone. Does that mean—could it mean—
If you're pretty sure the necklace isn't worth all that much, anyway, and want to leave the cave, go to ENDING ONE. If you're ready to move further into the cave, turn to ENDING THREE.
"Hey!" Berk shouts. "Remember what the bat did to Mr. Whillicker's dog!"
You remember—how could you forget? Your hands are shaking pretty badly, but by the time the bat's cries begin to echo louder and closer you've found some solid footholds and begin your climb back up to the mouth of the cave.
Light and fresh air greet you at the top, and as you pull yourself up by the tree stump you walk back to Diane. She'll be alright—you and Berk mean more to her than some old necklace, anyhow.
Baseball lends itself to patterns because it's so long and daily a grind—players do incredible things one month, teams seem to fall apart the next. And the whole thing can be read down the columns of a box score or Baseball-Reference's game logs and encapsulated in moments like Bennett's grand slam or Pineiro's shutout.
I can't honestly say whether it's a cause or an effect of some amalgam of factors, but sometimes team just Come Together. The Cardinals had several things in their favor heading into this series—Carpenter's return, Wainwright's one-start return to form, Rasmus's blossoming power—and they managed to cash in every single positive chit in their favor, along with plenty that nobody could have expected. Whether it was a confluence of those circumstances and luck or a team-wide desire to turn things around I can't say. But I'm glad it happened.
As you climb deeper into the cave things get so dark that the flashlight can barely show you the edges of the big bat, which seems to be leading you someplace. Its squeaking gets so quiet that you remember what Diane's mom said when you first saw it in the neighborhood: It's probably as afraid of you as you are of it.
But as the cave opens wider all of your empathy vanishes—the bat charges toward you, Diane's necklace glinting in your flashlight, so quickly that you hardly realize what's happened when it's got you in its talons. Before you can fight it off it's flying you off of the ledges and into the open center of its lair!
This must be how Mr. Whillicker's dog felt! You don't know whether the bat is really a vampire or not, but now that's hardly your most pressing concern. A particularly rough flap knocks the flashlight from your hands, and it seems to fall forever before it splashes into an underground lake and the big hall goes completely dark. You're afraid of heights.