Jays From the Couch looks at the impact momentum might have on the postseason hopes of the Toronto Blue Jays
It started when the calendar changed to October. The Toronto Blue Jays started winning. At that point, there was legitimate concern that their season would end before they could fulfill the lofty expectations heaped on them. We expected that they would again appear in the postseason, but it was starting to look like they would disappoint. September was a struggle for the boys in blue. They went 11-15 and fell in the standings. We worried, we panicked, we stressed.
But, a funny thing happened. They started October with a win against the Boston Red Sox. They won again on the final day of the season to clinch their postseason spot. They won the Wild Card game in dramatic fashion. In fact, all they’ve done in October is win. They are now 5-0 and find themselves one win away from heading to the ALCS. It has been quite the shift in fortunes. Many would call it “a roll”. Some would call it “momentum”; that the club got hot at the right time. I wanted to look into this idea of momentum.
Dan Peterson at LiveScience wrote about this topic in 2008. In short, there is legitimate weight put into something that is not exactly measurable. The idea of momentum is real in sports. We see examples of it all the time. Think about the 2007 Colorado Rockies who got hot and made it to the World Series. That’s just one example of the many times teams, in all sports, ride a hot streak to advance, and perhaps overshoot predictions. When the postseason began, the odds of the Blue Jays making the World Series were low. Just about everywhere you look had them with a minimal chance. Yet, as of the time of writing, Fangraphs puts Toronto’s World Series odds at 23.3%.
That is quite the turnaround. Things are looking up. But, is it momentum? It would appear so. To really answer that question, I will use the stages of the Multidimensional Model of Momentum in Sports that Peterson refers to in his 2008 piece. The Blue Jays October path actually follows these stages.
So, in order for momentum to begin, there has to be a spark; that noe event that turns things around. Often, we don’t recognize it as it is happening, which is why we often here announcers, etc say “Could this be the spark they need?”. But, once a team gets on a roll, we can look back and identify that event. For the Blue Jays, it was when Dalton Pompey sprinted home in the 9th inning of a tie game against the Red Sox.
This play, a sac fly off the bat of Ezequiel Carrera sparked confidence in the team. It showed that they could come back against one of the best closers in baseball. This play showed them that despite a month of frustration, winning is possible, that they can fight and win. Often, when a club is dealing with the disappointment of a rough month, the confidence takes a hit. It’s this kind of play- a grinder- that can spark confidence.
Change in Cognition
Once a precipitating event happens, there needs to be a change in the way a team thiks. For the Blue Jays, the Pompey play sparked a confidence that the season was not over and that they can come back against the division leading Sox. Despite playing rather poor baseball, a team sometimes needs to experience a play like this to put meaning to the words they offer up when their suffering through their disappointing stretch. We hear them tell us that things will be OK, that we just need to believe in them. They tell us that they’re a good ball club and that they can win. But, during a losing stretch, it can be difficult for us to believe and you have to wonder if it is just them saying the right things. For the Blue Jays, a play like this adds meaning to those cliche comments; it allows the club to believe the things they are saying.
Change in Behaviour
The next day, Troy Tulowitzki hit a clutch single in the 8th inning to give the Blue Jays a 2-1 lead against the Red Sox. This being the final day of the season, you could see a determination in the club. Aaron Sanchez starte dthe game and dominated for 7 innings. Tulo’s single was an example for his teammates. He showed the club how you scrap and fight to win. He’s the example of confidence that exemplifies this change in behaviour. Roberto Osuna came on and shut things down for the save. It wasn’t easy, though. He had 2 runners on when he earned his 36th save. But, like Tulo, he never wavered in his attack. The confidence was there.
Change in Performance
With the preceding stages under way, the next result in momentum shift is that you begin to see a change in outcome. We see that with those two gutsy wins against Red Sox, which led to a confident approach in Wild Card game. Despite the worry over what would happen in a one game playoff game, there was a sense of confidence heading in. Even though anything can go wrong in the Wild Card format, facing the Orioles didn’t seem as worrisome as the games in September.
Because of the previous 3 stages, the confidence of winning led to a dominant mindset in Game 1 of ALDS. By that point, the Blue Jays had taken 2 of 3 against the Red Sox and walked off the Orioles with a giant 3-run bomb from Edwin Encarnacion. The shift in performance was on full display in Game 1 against the Texas Rangers. That opening game saw the club firing on all cylinders. The bats were on point and Marco Estrada was his 2015 dominant form. Game 2 was more of the same. The bats didn’t explode for as many runs, but they were still dropping bombs left right and center. J.A. Happ was not perfect, but he did his job. Lo and behold, the Blue Jays now hold a 2-0 series lead. How’s that for a change in performance?
Change in Opponent
With momentum, if one team is going through this positive change, the other has to be going through the opposite. Momentum doesn’t happen when both are balanced. Instead, the opponent has to feel less confident. Well, the Texas Rangers have looked flat and reeling against the Blue Jays.
In fact, Rangers manager, Jeff Banister acknowledged the respect Tulo gave the home team as already being down. There was a passed ball that Tulo could have advanced on late in Game 1. But, with his club up by so many already, he chose not to. Banister tipped his cap to the veteran, saying “Thank you. You could have beaten us more, but we appreciate that you see we’re down already”. When the opposing manager sends that kind of message, you know that you are in the driver’s seat. Some will say that that is reading too much into a gesture that is just about the ‘unwritten rules’ of baseball and they might be right. But, it is too difficult to ignore the shift in power that the gesture symbolizes.
The Toronto Blue Jays are winning. Things are much more enjoyable. They are smiling, they are enjoying baseball again. When the whole team comes out on the field with their arms raised in the Edwin parrot walk, you know things are going well. There is a confidence change, here. They are not pressing too hard like they did when they were losing. They are visibly ‘free and easy’. They are playing with confidence.
Rather than seek revenge on the Texas Rangers for cheap sucker punches, they are letting their play speak for them. While the Rangers fan base focused on their pride over a jaw shot, the Blue Jays were focused on winning games. And, they are riding a winning streak because of it. The team we’re watching during this recent stretch, even though it is just 5 games, is a far cry from the group we watched suffer through September.
How long this run lasts remains to be seen. But, it looks as though the Blue Jays are smack dab in the middle of riding momentum at the right time of year. While 11 game winning streaks are nice in May and June, they are so much better in October. The Blue Jays look to meet all the criteria for momentum carrying them. Momentum in sports is real. It can carry a team a long way. For the Toronto Blue Jays, it very well could carry them to the promised land.
*Featured Image Credit: C Stem- JFtC
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Shaun Doyle is a long time Blue Jays fan and writer! He decided to put those things together and create Jays From the Couch. Shaun is the host of Jays From the Couch Radio, which is highly ranked in iTunes, and he has appeared on TV and radio spots.