Saturday, July 01, 2006

A World Record Time for Running in Place

Long winning streaks are way outside the baseball norm, so they require no comment besides, "fans, relax and enjoy it." It's only after a streak ends and its dust settles one can assess its effect on a team's long season.

The Red Sox' delightful 12-game streak ended last night. Surveying the standings, we see the Sox got less return than is usual for their fortnight of invincibility. They're in first place in the AL East by 3 games over the Yankees and 4 over the Blue Jays, a real but hardly crushing margin. One bad week, it's gone.

Every game has a winner and a loser. In the ordinary order of things, a team that wins 10 or more in succession makes up or establishes far more ground on its rivals than a 3-game cushion, for the simple fact that it tends to have beaten some of those rivals during the streak. The Sox, however, did not receive their fair "streak divided." The teams they beat aren't their in-season rivals. Their victories were all in interleague play over National League teams, so while they counted in the standings, they didn't count AS MUCH. The wins helped Boston, but the losses it inflicted didn't. In hockey parlance, they were "small two-pointers."

Boston's winning streak wasn't even an anomaly. Red-hot ballclubs are a glut on the American League market right now-yet all the rampaging teams are getting relatively little benefit from their skeins if triumph.

The Twins won last night, their eighth straight. Minnesota has won 17 of its last 19 games, yet remains in third place in the AL Central. Indeed, the Twins remain 11 games back. Their 17-2 streak gained the Twins exactly one-half game on the first place Tigers, and 2 1/2 games on the second place White Sox.

Interleague play is also responsible for this phenomenon. The Tigers and Twins are both 14-2 against NL clubs, the same as the Red Sox, while the White Sox are 13-3. Unbeknownest to all, or at least to me and my fellow East Coast residents who go to bed before midnight, the Mariners, no juggernaut they, have crawled back into the AL West race thanks to a 13-3 mark against the very junior Senior Circuit.

The thrashing the AL has put on the NL so far this season has been national news, but few have stopped to ponder its consequences. Perhaps that's because American League domination has had relatively few consequences, at least so far as standings are concerned. With the AL winning at over a .600 percentage, interleague play has been a rising tide that's lifted all its boats, while sinking all NL boats at the same rate.

Long winning streaks break races open when the competition can't keep up. For all their June struggles, which were real enough, the Yankees went 8-5 over the period the Sox went 12-1. New York was able to keep Boston in sight because it too was playing the feeble representatives of the NL East.

The situation is the same, well, Bizarro World same, in the National League. Contenders are mired in wretched slumps, but their rivals can't capitalize because the American League is killing them, too. The Cardinals recently lost 8 straight and 9 of 10. They're tied for first in the NL Central. The Mets were swept by the Sox, lost to the Yankees last night, and remain firmly atop the NL East. Life is good in a division where one's the only team over .500.

Interleague play ends Sunday, to the joy of 16 NL clubs and the sorrow of 14 AL teams. The 2006 version of this marketing ploy has left two unique contributions to the history of the game. Never has there been such total domination by one league over its peer. Statistically speaking, EVERY American League team has become the 1927 Yankees when taking the field against an NL foe.

The result of that dominance is rarer still. June 2006 has witnessed some of the least meaningful winning streaks of all time. Sorry about that, Twins fans.


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