Navigating the marathon always the key
Players who figure out the pace of the season usually have the ability to finish strong
I entered September of the 1998 season with 171 hits. I was exhausted, almost on my knees, but I was still confident that I would soon be a member of baseball's exclusive 200-hit club. Instead, I crashed and burned, getting just 18 hits in my last 102 at-bats (.176), with one walk and 22 strikeouts. What in the world happened to me?
Have you ever seen a racehorse fade in the stretch? An NBA player come up short on his jump shot in the last two minutes of a game because he didn't have his legs? That was me. In a season in which I ended up playing 158 of 162 games, mostly as a leadoff hitter, and came to the plate 735 times, I simply had nothing left.
The dog days of baseball come in August, so imagine what September is like. You lose your bark and your bite. You don't want to play with that squeaky toy anymore. The stick your owner tossed you is laughing in your face. In effect, you are playing on fumes, on inspiration, on muscle memory, on guts and glory. Your tank is almost empty. You are so exhausted that strange things start to happen -- like when everyone in a red uniform looks the same. The Reds start looking like the Phillies, who start looking like the Cardinals.
It is no surprise. Especially if it's your first full season as a regular, as was the case for me in '98. Spring training started in February and, maybe like me, you left your home with snow still on the ground. By the time the season wraps up, fallen leaves are covering the sidewalk in front of your house. In between, you have shown up just about every day trying to perform and produce. Where did the year go?
Veteran players are well aware of the calendar at this point of the season. It might be because they can taste the idea that the offseason is around the corner, or it could be that they can taste the playoffs. If you are in the race, as I was in 2003 with the Chicago Cubs, every pitch is Armageddon. You are locked in and able to deny all exhaustion. If you are 25 games out, you are just trying to make it to the next day, even as you hope for a contract next year, or at least a spring training invitation because you are 37 years old.
Hitters aren't the only ones who have a hard time making it to the finish line. The 2010 season may be the "Year of the Pitcher," but as with many specialty positions, you don't find out the entire picture until the season is in the books. Come September, starting pitchers have entered uncharted waters for innings pitched. Arms are hanging, you need back up from the bullpen, you need to skip a start, you need a pitch count.
Hitter or pitcher, if you don't know how to pace the marathon season, you are in trouble.
Hitter or pitcher, if you don't know how to pace the marathon season, you are in trouble. Can you make the necessary adjustments? You may have to back off from side work, to miss a day of weight training to do some basic core work, to hit for seven minutes instead of 10. How you manage your time and your body is critical right now.
Some teams seem to know how to make those adjustments as a unit. Over the past two months, the Minnesota Twins have again stepped on the gas, even as the Chicago White Sox surged. The Philadelphia Phillies said, "Oh yeah, we have a few championships under our belt; the world is ours," and suddenly the hex that the Atlanta Braves had over them and the National League East for 14 years is gone. And then there are the Colorado Rockies, who until recently were riding a mile high again in September even as Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez were riding even higher.
In recent years the Rockies have become masters of the late-season heroics. They lurk in the shadows, they play coy, and then they go on a run and only the teams that paced themselves can hang with them. If you used all of your tricks early on in the season, you might as well plan that early October vacation. San Diego has won three of four after looking like it was limping home. If the Padres make it to the playoffs, it will be great for their confidence, their understanding of the long season and it will become part of their organizational makeup. But should the teams who embraced the "big picture" find a way to race by the Padres in the final weeks, it will be a big blow for Bud Black's men to have led all season only to run out of steam close to the finish line.
This energy shortage may have been forseen. The Padres have young starting pitching with little, if any, 200-inning experience. This reality begs for some pacing or the key move for a veteran who can eat innings, maybe squeeze in a few wins while a Mat Latos or a Wade LeBlanc regroups. The Rangers faced a similar danger, but they acquired Cliff Lee, and they have an offense that can protect pitchers who are tiring. That's not the case for the hitting-challenged Padres.
When the rotation begins to flounder, the ball literally finds its way to the bullpen. Short starts, long relief outings. Effectively using days off and maybe finding a diamond in the rough from Triple-A may also power the engine. As a young Phillies fan in 1980, I recall 21-year-old Marty Bystrom who made his big league debut on Sept. 7 and then went on to go 5-0 in the month. The Phillies won the division by one game and then went on to win the World Series.
I learned a few things from my own late-season collapse. Working smart is as important as working hard. You have to know when to back off and sit in the video room for a few days. You have to know when to stay away from your favorite nightclub until the next road trip. You have to ignore the peanut gallery that will think that because you took a day off from the gym, it means you are not working hard.
Once you figure out the pacing of a big league season, you have the ability to finish strong, be consistent, and run through the final game as though you are expecting to play 20 more playoff games. But it takes experience, and it takes planning. The teams that understand this are the ones that cross the marathon's finish line first and keep running right into October. Those that don't should start getting ready for their neighbor's Halloween party.
Doug Glanville, who earned a degree in systems engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, played nine major league seasons with the Cubs, Phillies and Rangers. He serves on the board of Athletes Against Drugs and the fundraising committee of Boundless Readers. His book, "The Game from Where I Stand," was released May 11. Click here to buy it on Amazon.com.