So here’s the deal. With last night’s win over Pittsburgh, the Cardinals have 10 consecutive series wins. This is a feat achieved only twice previously (’44 & ’09) in the franchise’s history. They have not lost back-to-back games since dropping a finale in Chicago and an opener in Cincinnati on July 22nd and 23rd, 38 days (and 34 games) ago. The run of success has not only catapulted them into the playoff race, but also to the NL’s 2nd best record. They trail only the Cubs, who have been on an equally hot stretch over the last 10 days. With the struggling Reds in town for the weekend, the Cardinals have a great opportunity to stretch their series winning streak to 11. And that’s where I want to turn my focus today, on the importance of winning series.
Back in the glory days of the Tony LaRussa managed Cardinals, winning series was emphasized. There was a mindset, a philosophy, that focusing your efforts in this way would achieve the most efficient results. Doubly, a sense of urgency when viewing each series as an individual entity would help prepare a team for the there-is-no-tomorrow environment of postseason baseball.
It seems obvious. If you win series then you stack wins consistently. You rarely find yourself mired in a long losing streak. Also, if you approach the rubber game of a series with more urgency, you don’t waste all the effort put into preparing for that particular opponent. Apparently it’s not such an obvious approach.
One Game at a Time
Early in the Mike Matheny era, I recall him being asked if he shared this LaRussa belief in emphasizing winning series. His response was along the lines of, ‘we want to win every day.’ That’s a paraphrase because I can’t find an exact quote from that time period, but it struck me then and has stuck with me for these past 7 years. He all but dismissed the ‘win the series’ premise.
This quote, from a 2016 story in the Belleville News Democrat, gives you an idea of Matheny’s mindset:
“I don’t get too far ahead of ourselves,” Matheny said. “Just that one-game-at-a-time approach is really where we should be … Every day I anticipate we’re going to go out there and win. I think we’re the kind of team that can win against anybody any night.
“If it happens we put together a long streak, that’d be a great thing. But I think we need to just get back to simple — let’s win today.”
It sounds fine, but it’s too simplistic.
The thing about a 162-game season is: you can’t win everyday. LaRussa wanted to win daily as well, but he focused on a more attainable, short-term goal. Focus on winning the series at hand, then move on and focus on the next. Short-term goals are great momentum builders. Unlike a single-game attitude, you have to truly work towards something over a span of time, there is room for failure on a particular day, but there is incentive to bounce back to still meet the goal.
Imagine you want to lose 30 pounds.
That is your long-term goal, to achieve that within 3 months time. You could say that you want to lose 1 pound every 3 days, because that will get you there. But here is the thing; sometimes weight fluctuates, there are good and bad days and 1 pound is too small of a measure. You may hop on the scale Wednesday and see yourself down a pound, only to get back on Saturday and have gained 2 back. You get discouraged, grab a bag of Doritos and hit the couch. Next thing you know, you’re 5 pounds in the hole and the long-term goal appears out of reach.
But if you stretch the goal and look for 5 pounds over the course of 10 days, you have something that you have to work for and try to sustain, but is also achievable. You may slip up on Tuesday, but you know you can still get where you need to be if you buckle down on Wednesday and Thursday. Then when you hit your goal you think, ‘Ok, I can keep that going,’ and you stay motivated for the next period. Occasionally you will miss the mark, but you know that you have pulled it off before, so you go out and make sure you get it done over the next 10 days. You have some room to fail, you can slip during one round, but even if you make your goal only 3 out of every 4, you reach the 30 pound mark in 3 months.
Day-by-day is too small and hard to control, the success is fleeting. But a short-range goal builds a sense of earned accomplishment that motivates and builds momentum.
That’s a long-winded analogy to approaching a baseball season by focusing on each day’s results versus results over the span of multiple days. LaRussa’s teams, and this current team, have done a tremendous job at building momentum. One of the biggest frustrations with the previous manager was how often his teams would seem to let up and lose their head of steam.
A New, Old Philosophy
I wondered — considering how close he had grown with LaRussa — whether Mike Shildt shared the same ideal. It seems that way. It seems that the Cardinals hold more urgency when they reach the pivotal game in a series. We are seeing them get off the mat and respond, where too many times under Matheny they seemed to play out the final game as if they were already on the plane. Too often, Matheny would play the getaway lineup even in the rubber game of a series because he had a plan mapped out and he didn’t want to deviate.
Well, it appears I’m not the only one thinking about the renewed focus on winning series. While looking for direct quotes from LaRussa on the topic, I found this very fitting nugget in Derrick Goold’s gamer from the Pittsburgh finale.
Focusing on series and stressing the importance of winning series was the hallmark of the Cardinals’ previous manager to win a World Series, Tony La Russa. When talking to his teams or media he would describe how winning series would inflate a record five games better than .500, then 10, and then 15, which is when a team really knew it was a contender. The Cardinals reached 16 games better than .500 with the win Thursday. That series mentality has been adopted by manager Mike Shildt since taking over at the All-Star break.
It has also been preached internally, by veterans Yadier Molina and Matt Carpenter, two position players who played for La Russa. It’s an approach as direct and pointed as Gant’s.
A team, after all, is the sum of its series.
“We talk about it. The guys talk about it,” said Shildt, whose team is 21-6 in August with a game to play. “It’s an important thing. We want to get better as the game goes, and we want to get better as the series goes. And if you take care of winning series, the rest of it just kind of falls into place. Playoff baseball — you have to win series to win the series. It’s, for us, how we want to look at playing the game.”
I would say that confirms my suspicions. Shildt is a believer in the “win the series” philosophy.
The 2nd to last line in the quote is something really I love to hear. Instilling a playoff mentality is a side effect of the “series” approach.
Baseball is a huge mental game. The problem with the “win today” outlook is that it doesn’t put you in a playoff mindset. When you lose it turns into the “just one of those games, try to get them tomorrow” mentality. That mentality assumes that there is always a tomorrow, even if its against a different opponent. When you get comfortable in knowing that there is a tomorrow, you have let down games, you alternate a few wins and a few losses and hover around .500. When that has been your thinking all season, you fail to close out series in the playoffs.
The “win the series” mentality puts a finality on a group of games and makes them stand alone. It builds the sense of urgency. Shildt’s Cardinals have had that sense of urgency, whereas Matheny’s Cardinals haven’t played with that edge in several years.
Rounding Things Off
As I leave you, consider a few LaRussa snippets from a 2014 Daily Beast article on what it takes to make it to the World Series, that echo what I’ve been talking about.
According to La Russa, a team must already be consistently playing well and have their skills and attitude properly focused to make it to the Series. He pointed out that “the postseason experience has an added dimension that makes it the most fun and excitement. The reality is that lose and you’re done, but win and you go on until you’re the champion. This creates an ‘urgency’ that managers must use to drive up their team’s focus and energy level!”
“Managers and coaches absolutely make a difference. They don’t bring in the runs or make the outs, but they do help put the team in a position to win—if and only if players perform on the field. Managers and coaches help the team prepare to compete, to get their heads in the right place—and keep them there.” They contribute during the game “by leading the actual execution of the game plan, by helping the team adjust to game situations and what the other team is doing.”
“Leading is about communicating and inspiring people throughout the organization to perform at their best.”