The NL Central race is just that. A race. If we had projected the season’s final outcome when Spring Training ended, most of us would have said that the Cubs would win the Division in a breeze, that the Cardinals had an outside shot at a post season berth and the Brewers would just be another team on everyone’s schedule.
The Brewers surprised us right from the outset. They played well for the first half of the season, overcoming what most of us thought was weak starting pitching to lead the division for a good period of time until the Cubs got their act together. A brief slump by the Brewers was corrected by some very astute deadline deals by the front office when Mike Moustakas and Jonathan Schoop were acquired at/just before the non-waiver deadline and then when Curtis Granderson and Gio Gonzalez were acquired at the August 31 deadline. When those deals were made, I was suspicious that the Brewers may have messed with one of their strong points; chemistry, but their play since September 1 (11-6) has proved me wrong.
The Cardinals were seemingly going nowhere, playing very “un-Cardinal like baseball when they fired Manager Mike Matheny on July 14 with the team 47-46 and in third place in the division. Bench Coach Mike Schildt was appointed Interim Manager and that had all the signs of a “get us to the end of the season when we can hire a permanent replacement”.
Along with some minor deals, contributions from the farm system and some players returning from injury, Schildt was able to turn things around and the Cardinals have gone 37-23 since his taking over to put themselves right back in the NL Central race. The team played so well that on August 28 the “Interim” tag was removed from Shildt’s title.
The Cubs have been the target of both the Brewers and the Cardinals all season. Everyone expected the Cubs to win. The Cubs have made it a lot more difficult than it should have been. They started slowly; perhaps taking teams for granted, then got rolling, but still can’t shake the Brewers and the Cardinals. They may have to finish out the season without the services of shortstop Addison Russell, who was placed on leave by MLB on September 21 as a result of an accusation of domestic violence. MLB continues to investigate, but if the Roberto Osuna situation is anything to use as a barometer, the chances of Russell playing this week are slim.
Make no mistake; all three teams want to win the Division. The prize of staying out of that Wild Card game, a winner take all game is the big carrot. No team wants to find themselves in a “one and done” scenario and also have to use a key member of their starting rotation simply to get to the National League Division Series.
The Cubs are obviously in the driver’s seat. Before the games of September 21, they have a two and a half game lead in the Division, with 10 games remaining, all at Wrigley Field. In succession, the White Sox are in for three, followed by the Pirates for four with the Cardinals providing the opponent for the last three days of the regular season. The Cubs need any combination of Cub wins and/or Brewer losses totalling eight to clinch the Division or any combination of five Cub wins and/or Cardinal losses to clinch the Division. With the White Sox record of 60-92 and the Pirates record of 77-74 it would seem that the most difficult opponent on the home stand will be the final one; the Cardinals.
The Brewers challenge is simple: keep winning. They have no head to head games with the Cubs, but can help their own cause by winning the three game series in St. Louis next week against the Cardinals.
The Cardinals had dug themselves a big hole when Matheny was replaced by Schildt. They got back on track, then hit a bump in the road and now find themselves five and a half games behind the Cubs for the Division lead and three games behind the Brewers for the top Wild Card position. Both the Brewers and the Cardinals also have to keep the Dodgers, Rockies and to some extent the Diamondbacks in their rear view mirrors as it remains likely that the runner-up in the National League West will also still be in the Wild Card hunt at the end of the regular season next weekend.
If all three NL Central teams continue to play at their current pace, the Cubs will finish 95-67, the Brewers 92-70 and the Cardinals 89-73. All would make the post season, assuming that the three NL West teams also continue to play at their current pace.
But, as always, there are variables to consider. All three teams played well in Inter-League play (going 32-22 to date vs. the relatively weak AL Central), but perhaps where the deciding factor lays is in the records within the NL Central. The Cubs are currently 37-32 in the NL Central with seven division games to play. The Brewers are only 34-36 in the NL Central with six games to play within the division. The Cardinals have the best record within the NL Central so far at 40-30 and also have six games left against NL Central opponents. Winning the division is likely too tall an order for the Cardinals, but securing home field advantage for the Wild Card game is still a possibility.
What does all this mean? It means the National League Central is once again the most competitive division in baseball and that we have an exciting week of baseball still to come and we may not know the final outcome of either the Division race or the Wild Card race until next Sunday night, when game 162 is in the books.