The limits of momentum
The Cardinals are baseball’s hottest team, but history suggests cooler times ahead
The experts are telling us that the St. Louis Cardinals will be a very dangerous team in the playoffs, a potential candidate to sweep all the way through the World Series.
Don’t believe them.
The reason for their optimism, of course, is the amazing 17-game winning streak that propelled the Cards safely past the other contenders for the National League’s second wild-card berth.
St. Louis won every game between September 11 and September 28, improving from a mediocre 71-69 record to a playoff-worthy 88-69 mark.
The streak came too late to win the National League’s Central Division crown. The Cards were mired 15 games behind the Milwaukee Brewers when they started their run. But they were able to lock down the NL’s final wild-card spot, which had once seemed only a dream.
St. Louis is clearly the hottest team in baseball, even after the Brewers brought their winning streak to an end on Wednesday night. But can they ride their momentum through the wild-card game (probably against the imposing Dodgers), the NL Division Series, the NL Championship Series, and the World Series?
Diehard St. Louis fans might believe, but history says otherwise. Profiled below are eight clubs that played white-hot ball in late August and September, winning at least 10 games in a row and engendering hopes of World Series rings. All of them, as you’ll see, were disappointed in the end.
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1920 Brooklyn Dodgers
Winning streak: 10
Span: September 7 to 13
Position at start of streak: Second in NL, 1.5 games behind Reds
Position at end of streak: First in NL by five games
Postseason: Lost World Series to Indians
Notes: This was a compact winning streak, including three doubleheader sweeps in less than a week. Yet it proved to be decisive in the pennant race, vaulting the Dodgers to a five-game lead. They won 10 of their remaining 14 games to lock down the NL title. But the World Series was a different matter, with the Indians outscoring Brooklyn by the lopsided margin of 21-8.
1935 Chicago Cubs
Winning streak: 21
Span: September 4 to 27
Position at start of streak: Third in NL, 2.5 games behind Cardinals
Position at end of streak: First in NL by six games
Postseason: Lost World Series to Tigers
Notes: The league office somehow awarded the Cubs a 20-game September homestand, and they took full advantage. Chicago split a doubleheader to begin the long encampment, then won the remaining 18 games. The streak continued with three victories in St. Louis. The title was safely in hand by then, and the Cubs lost the final two games of the season. Then they fell in the World Series, losing in six games.
1951 New York Giants
Winning streak: 16
Span: August 12 to 27
Position at start of streak: Second in NL, 13 games behind Dodgers
Position at end of streak: Second in NL, five games behind Dodgers
Postseason: Lost World Series to Yankees
Notes: This wasn’t a stretch-drive winning streak, but there would have been no stretch drive without it. The Giants pulled within striking distance of Brooklyn by the end of August, then went 20-5 in September to draw dead even on the final weekend of the season. New York won the three-game NL tiebreaker playoff on Bobby Thomson’s famous home run, but fell flat against the Yankees in the World Series.
1960 New York Yankees
Winning streak: 15
Span: September 16 to October 2
Position at start of streak: Tied for first in AL with Orioles
Postion at end of streak: Won AL title by eight games
Postseason: Lost World Series to Pirates
Notes: The Yankees put away the pesky Orioles by winning the final 15 games of the regular season. Their momentum contrasted nicely with the Pirates’ sluggish 3-4 record during the final week of National League play. The pundits agreed that New York would roar through the World Series, perhaps in a sweep. But Bill Mazeroski’s immortal home run capped Pittsburgh’s seven-game triumph.
1969 Atlanta Braves
Winning streak: 10
Span: September 19 to 30
Position at start of streak: Second in NL West, 0.5 game behind Giants
Position at end of streak: First in NL West by 2.5 games
Postseason: Lost NL Championship Series to Mets
Notes: This was the first year of divisional play, and the NL West staged a four-team dogfight to celebrate, involving the Giants, Dodgers, Braves, and Reds. They were bunched within two games in the standings on September 19, but Atlanta’s winning tear broke the race open. The streak ended with only one meaningless game left, which the Braves lost. What came next shocked the baseball world — a playoff sweep by the once-lowly Mets.
1983 Philadelphia Phillies
Winning streak: 11
Span: September 16 to 26
Position at start of streak: Tied for first in NL East with Pirates
Position at end of streak: First in NL East by 4.5 games
Postseason: Lost World Series to Orioles
Notes: Not only were the Phillies tied with the Pirates at the start of the streak, but the pesky Expos were just a half-game back. The situation was vastly different just 10 days later, with Pittsburgh 4.5 games off the pace and Montreal seven games back. The Phillies coasted to the divisional title from there, then beat the Dodgers in the NL Championship Series. But they fell meekly to the Orioles in a five-game World Series.
2007 Colorado Rockies
Winning streak: 11
Span: September 16 to 27
Position at start of streak: Third in NL West, 4.5 games behind Padres for wild card
Position at end of streak: Third in NL West, one game behind Padres for wild card
Postseason: Lost World Series to Red Sox
Notes: The Rockies’ wild-card hopes seemed faint by mid-September, but their 11-game streak propelled them back into the battle against the Padres and Mets by the final weekend. They won three of their last four games to secure the berth, then swept the Phillies and Diamondbacks to make it all the way to the World Series. That’s where their momentum ran out. The Red Sox won all four games by a collective score of 29-10.
2017 Cleveland Indians
Winning streak: 22
Span: August 24 to September 14
Position at start of streak: First in AL Central by 4.5 games
Position at end of streak: First in AL Central by 13.5 games
Postseason: Lost AL Division Series to Yankees
Notes: No, the Indians’ streak didn’t propel them into first place. They already had a nice lead before they started winning and winning and winning. But 22 consecutive victories is an intimidating number, and the experts duly established Cleveland as the odds-on favorite to seize the American League title, perhaps the world championship. Yet the Indians fell in the very first round to the Yankees.