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Making sense of season at one-quarter marker

Cardinals, Rangers, Yankees all off to strong starts, but campaign still young

The opening quarterly report for the Major Leagues in 2013 shows the usual array of optimistic projections, along with the annual disclaimer that long-term performance is not guaranteed based on one quarter of a long baseball season.

While the Cardinals, Rangers and Yankees are all off to excellent first-quarter earnings in the standings, all one needs to do is look back at 2012 to know that the first quarter can be a distant memory once October rolls around.

The best team in the first quarter of 2012, as a reminder, was the Dodgers. At 27-13, Los Angeles had the most wins through 40 games, or roughly the first 25 percent of the 162-game season. The Dodgers didn't make the playoffs. But the Detroit Tigers -- 19-21 through 40 games in 2012 -- made it all the way to the World Series.

The lesson learned: When wins and losses are the currency and the season is 162 games, the first 40 can mean a lot, but certainly not everything. You can be on top of the world or in the poor house in mid-May, only to see your fortunes turn by the time the final bell rings in October.

This year, the Cardinals are poised to grab the best record, tied with the Rangers for the most wins at 26, but with one more game left to play to reach the 40-game mark. And Cards manager Mike Matheny knows what a good first quarter gets you: three more quarters of the season to play.

"The guys are feeling good about themselves right now, which is a nice feeling and something you want to ride out as long as you can," Matheny said as the Cardinals were reeling off 12 wins in their last 14 games. "But we realize we have a long way to go. Slow and steady. I want them to keep pushing."

It pays to keep pushing, as the Tigers can tell you from last season. A year after their turnaround from a lackluster first-quarter performance, the 2013 Tigers are in better standing this year, knowing they already have 22 wins with two more to play before they reach their quarter point. The defending World Series champion Giants are slightly ahead of their pace of a year ago, having lost Wednesday to hit the 40 mark at 23-17, after going 21-19 in the first quarter a year ago.

Wins by quarter for each 2012 playoff team
Team Qtr. 1 Qtr. 2 Qtr. 3 Qtr. 4
Giants 21 24 21 28
Tigers 19 20 25 24
Cardinals 22 20 23 23
Yankees 21 28 23 23
Reds 21 23 29 24
Nationals 23 25 27 23
A's 20 19 26 29
Orioles 26 18 22 27
Braves 25 17 28 24
Rangers 25 25 21 22

The roads taken by those clubs to the 2012 World Series help demonstrate how the first quarter does not a season make. Sometimes it's the second, or the third, or in the case of the Giants, the fourth quarter of the season that ultimately does the trick. The 2012 Giants were behind the Dodgers for much of the campaign before winning 28 games in the final quarter, using the first 40, the 81-game mark, the 121-game mark and the 162nd game as quarter-season milestones.

The Tigers, meanwhile, remained two games under .500 after 81 games -- or the first two quarters -- but finished strong by playing 17 games over .500 the rest of the way. That said, Detroit is one of only six teams among the 42 that played in the last five postseasons to have a losing record at the one-quarter marker.

Other 2012 playoff teams had similar peaks and valleys among their four quarters. A few examples:

• The Orioles got off to a great start, with a 26-14 first quarter, slipped to 18-23 in the second before rallying, especially at the end, going 27-14 in the fourth quarter.

• The A's were at .500 through the first, lost three games on that in the second and then went on a tear, going 26-14 the third and 29-12 in the fourth quarter to blow past the Rangers en route to the American League West title.

• The Rangers were one of the top teams through the first three quarters of the season and finished 22-19 in the fourth quarter, including that fateful season-ending sweep in Oakland.

• The Yankees started four games behind this year's pace, at 21-19, but picked up the tempo with a 28-win second quarter.

• The Cardinals went from 22-18 in the first to slumping to 20-21 in the second before stalking the second Wild Card spot in the National League down the stretch.

• The Reds had the best quarter of the 2012 season, going 29-11 in the third; the Braves had the worst quarter among last year's playoff teams, with a 17-24 second quarter; and the Nationals got to a Majors-high 98 wins by winning 23, 25, 27 and 23 in their four quarters.

When teams hit the first-quarter mark last year, those in what would be playoff spots included the Indians (23-17), Rays (24-16) and Blue Jays (22-18), while the Marlins (21-19) and Mets (21-19) were in very early Wild Card contention -- but, then, there's a reason you don't project playoff spots in May.

Ultimately, teams that want to reach the postseason need to have something resembling a good first quarter. There are outliers -- like the 2011 D-backs, who started out 17-23 but rallied for an NL West title; the 2007 and '09 Rockies with their furious comebacks; and the 2003 Marlins, who went 18-22 in the first quarter, the last two games of which were managed by Jack McKeon, before a furious run to the Wild Card and then the World Series title.

Great teams certainly have great first quarters, too. The 116-win Mariners in 2001 had a 31-9 start, as did the 114-win Yankees in 1998. Those Mariners steadily climbed to the AL wins record, while the Yankees posted the previous record with three quarters of 30 wins or more.

But no first quarter was like the 1984 Tigers' 35-5 start to the season. Detroit wound up winning a relatively pedestrian 104 games before dominating October for what stands as the Tigers' last World Series title.

Detroit got back to the Fall Classic a year ago after a much lesser start to the season, and the club is purring along a little better to begin 2013.

But with only the first quarter of the season in the books, everyone has a lot of work to do, and what you see now may not be what you see in October -- as 2012 showed us, once again.

John Schlegel is a national reporter for