NL Central Race Heats Up

By Erik Lewis, Feature Writer

It’s that time of year. The second half of the marathon that is Major League Baseball’s regular season is about to get underway. And, surprisingly, there is no shortage of competition in both leagues. With eight teams in the race for the remaining two Wild Card spots, things will get crazy.

Even though the game is slow, and old-fashioned, there is never a shortage of drama in just about every division in the league.

The National League Central is the mother of all races, perhaps followed by the American League East with Baltimore, Toronto and the NY Yankees all within five games of first. That can obviously change, as ups and downs are a natural part of the game.

But back to the point. Milwaukee, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh all sit — amazingly — within three and a half games of first place. This was all made possible after the Brewers finished 2-8 in their last ten games, including just three wins in their final 15 games. Poor hitting and pitching throughout the rotation, which had been a strong suit for the Crew, fell apart during that streak.

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Google Images

There was probably no surprise among Brewers fans that they struggled so mightily over the last two weeks. The Brewers M.O. is to be aggressive on the first pitch (or fastball) at the plate. When pitchers adjusted, though, that strategy failed. But again, slumps are bound to happen.

Ron Roenicke shook up the lineup a few times in hopes of getting the Crew out of their funk. Despite the slump, the Brewers are still atop the NL with a .257 team average and 423 runs scored (second best). Consistency in the order will be the key if the Brewers want to be around in the hunt for October. 

Meanwhile at the hall of justice the rest of the division, save for the Cubs (may their 2014 playoff hopes RIP), didn’t go away. 

The Mike Matheny Cardinals, much like La Russa’s bunch, is seemingly always in the hunt for a World Series. The Cards finished 6-4 and were one game short of taking over first place — a spot Milwaukee held for 100 straight days. That win for Milwaukee gave it the slightest momentum and could prove crucial as the second half starts. 

The Big Red Machine over in Cincinnati didn’t stop motoring either. Even with their MVP, Joey Votto, on the 15-day disabled list, the Reds won seven of their last 10. Todd Frazier picked up any slack left by Votto, who was only hitting .255 before being injured. Frazier made the All-Star team, hitting .290 with 19 home runs, 53 RBIs and slugging .500 slugging. The Reds have no shortage of power hitters, and with Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos and Aroldis Chapman pitching well, they will certainly make a push in late August. 

Over in Pittsburgh, the Pirates have made a push of their own. Despite struggling in April and May, the Bucs were propelled when their MVP, Andrew McCutchen, got back to his usual .324 BA with 17 home runs and 61 RBIs. The Pirates fielding problems, especially with Pedro Alvarez at third and Josh Harrison in the outfield, will be their downfall. While their 3.76 ERA isn’t terrible, good for ninth best in the NL, their 67 errors and .982 fielding percentage places them 14th in the NL. 

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Google Images

With the NL Central race having a cluster of teams, it's probable that the Wild Card positions will flip-flop early and often when August hits, especially with all four teams pounding on each other series after series. 

The Pirates are the only team likely to drop out of contention because of their aforementioned problems. The Reds, Cardinals and Brewers remain then. Unless the Brewers add depth to their bullpen or rotation, and maybe another hitter, I think they are destined for one of the Wild Card spots. The problem there is the "do or die" game. 

The Cardinals might be able to fend off the Reds because of their pitching (3.42 team ERA),  but the Reds hitting has been much stronger over the course of the season (a 377-360 advantage in runs and an 81-60 HR advantage). 

MLB.com says the Brewers have a 66 percent chance of making the playoffs, while the Cardinals have a 52 and 48 percent chance of making it to October.  I still think the Cardinals will most likely grab the top spot in the Central because of their playoff experience and pitching rotation, but maybe this year they won't stick around too long? That's doubtful, though. 

The countdown to October starts now, and with no shortage of suspense. Who is actually in on first? The Brewers are...for now. 

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