The energy around the Milwaukee Brewers right now is palpable. The team carried the MLB’s best record since early May into a crucial early-season series with the Cardinals, and they swept their way into first place. Perhaps one of the most talked about and least tangible aspects of sports is momentum. If anything generates positive momentum, it’s a sweep of hated Cardinals to vault into first place, right?
Our quick reactions no doubt agree. But wouldn’t that be too easy? If everything in sports (or life, for that matter) was so cut-and-dried, we would all be Jimmy The Greek. This isn’t to suggest I’m necessarily a momentum atheist. Momentum in sports probably does exist and it probably leaves its mark in win-loss totals on a yearly basis. But pretending that we, outside observers, can determine how the outcomes of certain games impact the psyche of groups of athletes is stupid at worst and naive at best.
As with most discussions of sporting momentum, the following is nothing but anecdotal evidence, although I personally find it to be quite telling. Consider the turning point in the NL Central race merely one year ago. It was August 11th, 2010, and the St. Louis Cardinals just finished a sweep of the Cincinnati Reds to wrest first place away from those cheeky youngsters from Ohio. With a one game lead (up two in the loss column), the veteran Cardinals appeared to have all the momentum in the world.
Except, apparently, they didn’t. From the September 3rd, 2010 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
When the dust settled, the ramifications seemed profound. The Cardinals were in charge, the Reds were chum, or so it seemed stated. Not everyone was listening.
“I’ve never been a big believer in ‘statements’ or momentum,” Cincinnati third baseman Scott Rolen said. “This isn’t football. It’s not like you can go out there and play ‘better’ defense, or play more physical or something like that. You don’t bang on the table at halftime and charge out of the locker room. Baseball isn’t like that.
That contentious Aug. 9-11 series truly was a fork in the road for two teams, but in diametrically different directions.
The Dusty Baker Boys have gone 14-4 since the series against the Cardinals, climbing a season high 23 games over .500 and gaining nine games in the standings. The Cardinals have traveled a more southerly route at 5-13. Now eight games clear in the standings, the Reds look forward to this do-over date.
Looking back, there just may have been some momentum created in that early August series. If it was, that momentum spawned in the Reds’ locker room, not on the field, and the Reds rode that momentum — and a very talented roster — all the way to the top of the National League Central. The Cardinals’ fate? Tougher to explain. Did they relax because of their easy series victory over Cincinnati? Did they burn all their energy in sweeping the Reds? The explanation here is tougher, and given the eighteen games the Cardinals’ rough streak spans, is probably just as related to chance as it is to momentum — a factor that should not be overlooked in the Reds’ breakaway from the Cardinals in the standings as well.
The point is, it is just far too easy to assume that winning games alone creates positive momentum for the psyche. Nearly anybody who has participated in team sports at any sort of serious level has been a part of a team which took victories for granted after a hot streak. Obviously, the suggestion isn’t that winning games is bad. Instead, it is the idea that winning itself can only breed more winning that I take issue with. First of all, these players are professional athletes with thousands of games under their belts. Secondly,
For the 2011 Milwaukee Brewers, this past weekend’s sweep could very well produce the positive momentum the Reds realized and the Cardinals sought back in 2010. The team is playing with energy not seen since CC Sabathia awed the Miller Park faithful every five days in 2008, and the talent is there to match. But, as the Cardinals and Reds showed, what can look like momentum on the outside can be quite the opposite.
With nearly 100 games left to go, the argument that momentum would be the deciding factor between these two teams is tenuous at best. It very well could play a role, and if the Brewers are able to create a division lead based on the superficial momentum of the win-loss column over the next week or two, their chances of playing in October increase greatly. Although I don’t reject the importance of the mental aspects of the game, despite my adoration for the spreadsheet, I have tough time imagining the rather abstract concept of momentum playing in too much over the course of the next four months. If the Brewers find themselves on top, momentum may have given them a push, but it will be the primary work of the tremendous talent on the field instead.