The Race For The NL Central: Three Teams, One Title
Going into play Monday, the Pittsburgh Pirates (75-54) and St. Louis Cardinals (76-54) are tied for first place and lead the Cincinnati Reds (74-57) by 2 1/2 games.
Anything can happen in baseball. But with the Arizona Diamondbacks (66-63) who can’t seem to close out games next in line 7 games behind the second wild card spot with around 32 games left to play, it appears three playoff positions in the NL will come from the Central division. It all comes down to where the pieces fall into place.
All three teams have been close in the standings so far in 2013. Pittsburgh and St. Louis started to pull away from the Reds in the beginning of the second half, but Cincinnati’s recent surge tightened the race once again. Each team has had its share of hot and cold streaks, making it a race that will go down to the wire. Let’s take a look at how the teams stack up against each other.
Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Cincinnati rank near the top of the league in almost every pitching category so far this season, which is why they are some of the hardest teams to beat. The edge here though goes to the Pittsburgh Pirates. The biggest difference with this year’s Pirates is its dominating pitching staff. The Bucs rank 1st in ERA (3.19) and Opp BA (.235), tied for 2nd in saves (43) and tied for 4th in WHIP (1.22) in the majors. Francisco Liriano (14-6, 2.74 ERA, 1.23 WHIP) has emerged as the club’s ace and contributed much to their success, finally returning to the 2006 Liriano we saw in Minnesota.
The Reds and Cardinals have two of the most potent offenses in the NL, making this a close one to call as well.
The Reds have lethal hitters stacked at the top of their lineup in Shin-Soo Choo (.278/.413/.445), Joey Votto (.314/.433/.507, 20 HR, 61 RBI), Brian Phillips (16 HR, 95 RBI) and Jay Bruce (24 HR, 81 RBI), but lack depth in the bottom half of the order.
The slight edge in this category goes to the Cardinals, since they can consistently bop anywhere from 1-7 in the order. Six Cardinal starters are slugging over .450, led by Carlos Beltran (.309/.342/.525, 23 HR, 70 RBI) and Yadier Molina (.335/.375/.503), who is having a career year at the plate. No one in the NL wants to face this lineup down the stretch.
Pittsburgh’s only liability in September may be on offensive production. The Pirates are not a poor hitting team to sleep on, but are not great either. Despite stellar performances by All-Star Andrew McCutchen (.321/.399/.507, 17 HR, 73 RBI) and Pedro Alvarez (31 HR, 85 RBI), the Pirates rank 11th in the NL in total runs scored (506) and 8th in team OBP (.312). If the pitching stays its course allowing under 3 runs per game, averaging 3.6 runs per game may be enough to win big games in September.
All three teams play a considerable amount of their remaining games against sub .500 teams. The Cards play the Reds seven times and the Pirates six times, so they have the most control over whether or not they finish the season atop the division and get the slight edge. Pittsburgh has the slightly lighter schedule, playing 17 of their last 32 games against teams under .500, including eight in a row against the Cubs and Padres.
The St. Louis Cardinals will prevail in the last couple of days in the season, leaving the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds with the first and second wild cards respectively to duke it out for a spot in the NLDS in a one-game playoff. The Cardinals led the division for the majority of the first half, holding the best winning percentage in baseball for most of that time as well. They hit a rough patch losing 4 out of 13 games shortly after the All-Star break that saw their lead slip away, but have returned to their dangerous formula of timely hitting and solid pitching over the past couple of weeks to a share of the division lead. They’ve also been the team with destiny on its side in big games. It’s tough to root against the Cards in September and October.
The Reds are the reigning division champs and are finally hitting on all cylinders. They have been the hottest team in August, going 14-8 as of Monday, but will need to play even better ball in their last month and hope both St. Louis and Pittsburgh falter significantly down the stretch in order to take the Central. It seems like whenever they get an opportunity to gain ground on the division lead, they struggle against losing teams like they did this past weekend at home against Milwaukee.
Recent history indicates the Pirates are the risky pick here. Over the past two years, they burned out in the second half after promising starts. It wouldn’t be surprising if the pressure of a playoff birth for the first time in 22 years hinders their performance down the stretch. However, the 2013 Pirates are a different team with more experience and stronger arms than in their previous two seasons. Just 5 years ago, the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays went all the way to the World Series after 10 straight losing seasons.
No matter how it all shakes out, this race will be an interesting one to watch all the way to the end of September.
Reach Staff Writer Josh DeMilta via e-mail.