As a Point A to the Point B of Labor Day, Memorial Day marks the start of the part of the baseball season when teams will be made or broken: summertime. There's a lot of time to jockey for position, but every team out there wants to make sure it's a hot summer in the standings.
Looking back over the past few years, it's evident that teams in good shape at Memorial Day need to keep on the treadmill and stay in that fine shape throughout the summer if they want to taste October success. True also, teams that might be a little below water can still be swimming along into September with a solid summer.
Being the best in the standings as of Memorial Day doesn't get you any sort of trophy, but it's a fine way to start. This year, it's the Cardinals on the pole position with a 33-17 (.660) record, and they're certainly liking how that feels.
"It's not a surprise to me at all," Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright said. "I think we just have a great all-around team. We can win games in a lot of different ways."
Fact is, they'll have to continue to do so as the summer goes along if the Cardinals want this strong start to mean anything.
When it comes to the summer months, no team in the past few years has been hotter than the Yankees. They have a combined .623 winning percentage over the last three summers, as measured from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and are the only team to have won more than 50 games each summer from 2010-12. But only their 2009 summer, in which they went for a sizzling .670 winning percentage (63-31), led to a World Series title.
Last summer, the hottest team in the season's middle months was the A's, who won at a .635 (54-31) pace en route to a stunning September and October. Six of the 10 playoff teams -- the A's, Reds (55-33, .625), Nationals (53), Giants (51), Braves (50) and Yankees (50) -- won 50 games between Memorial Day and Labor Day, a benchmark for a strong summer. The Tigers went 49-37 (.570) after being two games under .500 on Memorial Day and took that momentum all the way to the World Series.
A winning summer and a trophy in October should go hand in hand, one would figure. The Giants, who have won two of the last three titles, used a .593 (51-35) summer in 2012 to wrest the NL West title from a Dodgers team that went for .466 (41-47) despite huge personnel moves. In 2010, it was a .568 (50-38) mark between the holidays that did the trick for the Giants, inching them past the Padres (46-39, .529) on the season's final day.
On the other hand, the 2011 Cardinals proved that even a sub-.500 summer can lead to riches in the fall. The Cardinals got off to a great start that year at 32-23 by Memorial Day, but by Labor Day had struggled -- as evidenced by a 42-45 (.483) summer. A 16-5 mark after Labor Day got them into the postseason, and it turned into quite the swan song for Albert Pujols as the Cardinals claimed the World Series title.
But the Cardinals are the only team these last three years to even reach the playoffs with a sub-.500 summer, so a strong one certainly seems like the best route.
As several other teams in recent years know, too, that hot start as of Memorial Day can wilt a bit in the hotter months. The Marlins, for instance, had strong starts each of the past two seasons but went 20 games under .500 last summer and 22 games under the summer before.
As the 2013 summer begins, the Indians are one team that would love to reverse the trend of the last couple of seasons and make this summer in Cleveland one to remember in a good way. Each of the past two years, the Tribe has been above .500 at Memorial Day only to see the summer suck the wind out of its sails. In 2011, a .448 (39-48) summer did the Indians in, and last year it was even rougher at .345 (30-57).
Of course, this is a different Indians team and with a new manager in Terry Francona and some new faces in the lineup, and at 27-23, Cleveland is heading into the summer determined to make this year the one that works out.
"The past couple years, it's been, 'Yeah, it's a great start, but when's this going to slow down?'" Indians setup man Vinnie Pestano said recently. "'When's that speed bump going to come? When's it going to get derailed? When are the real Indians going to show up?'
"I think with the start this year, people can start buying in, because it's not the same team."
Every team has a summer ahead of it to prove its worthiness to reach the playoffs. Other than those 2011 Cardinals, it's safe to say a solid summer is a ticket to success in the autumn.
One thing's for sure: Where you are on Labor Day means more than where you are on Memorial Day, and what's in between amounts to the very heart of the baseball season: summertime.