Cleat Geeks

Cardinals Pirates to Duel for NL Central – Cubs on outside

cardinals-vs-pirates-2015-score-mlb-baseballAfter the St. Louis Cardinals swept the Chicago Cubs the last weekend of June, everyone who follows the National League Central closely was set to crown the Cardinals division champions. The defending NL Central Division champions had the best record in baseball and were nine games up on the second-place Pittsburgh Pirates.

It looked like St. Louis would begin to run and hide even before the All-Star Game break approached in a couple of weeks.

Then something strange happened – the Cardinals lost five straight games at home. Chicago’s Southside team, the White Sox, came into Busch Stadium and swept a two-game series. That was followed by the NL West’s fourth place San Diego Padres taking the first two of a four-game weekend series.

The Cardinals then traveled to Wrigley Field to play the Cubs again in a four-game series which included a doubleheader to make up a rain out game from April. St. Louis would bookend the series with wins, but get swept in the doubleheader.

Suddenly, the Cardinals found a once comfortable nine-game lead chopped in half. To make things even more interesting St. Louis headed to Pittsburgh to face the team, which now was closer than it had appeared July 1 in the rearview mirror for a crucial four-game series to reach the All-Star break.

The Cardinals were sputtering into the weekend tilt having won only four of its last 11 games. Conversely, the Pirates were baseball’s hottest team. Pittsburgh had won eight of its last nine including a five-game winning streak, which also counted a three-game sweep of the Padres, who had split with the Cardinals right before facing the Pirates.SNBcardsVSpirates

St. Louis won the first game Thursday night and Pittsburgh took the second game on Friday. In Saturday’s game, the Pirates came back twice and then finally won the game in the bottom of the 14th inning with a two-run homer by Andrew McCuthen. Then Sunday night in front of a national television audience the Cardinals had a two-run lead in the 10th inning only to see the Pirates again make a miraculous comeback with Gregory Polanco’s  line drive with the bases loaded to right field scored the game-winning run.pirates-cardinals-5-08

Now the NL Central heads into the All-Star break with a completely different look than anyone expected at the beginning of the month. The Bucs are only 2 ½ games behind the Cardinals and if the momentum from the back-to-back-walk-off wins sustains after the break it’s the Pirates who could see themselves atop the division at the end of the month.

How the NL Central shapes up once play resumes after the All-Star Game break later this week:

  1. Milwaukee Brewers: The current cellar dwellers of the division put together an eight-MILWAUKEE, WI - SEPTEMBER 27: Francisco Rodriguez #57 of the Milwaukee Brewers celebrates with Jonathan Lucroy #20 after the 2-1 win over the Chicago Cubs at Miller Park on September 27, 2014 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images)  *** Local Caption *** Francisco Rodriguez; Jonathan Lucroygame winning streak at the beginning of the month. The BrewCrew even swept the Reds in a three-game series in Cincinnati during the Fourth of July weekend. Milwaukee returned to reality losing four of its next six against Atlanta and Los Angeles. It would appear the only players, who are not going anywhere before the trade deadline would be Ryan Braun and Jonathan Lucroy. The Brewers would be smart to listen to any deals which would include Carlos Gomez, who is a free agent at the end of next season. Any deal struck must help Milwaukee and GM Doug Melvin rebuild a fledgling farm system for the future. Depending on what deals are made before the end of the month the season should be warranted a success if the Brewers catch the Reds and finish in the fourth place.RedsCelebration
  2. Cincinnati Reds: The city where baseball began continues to celebrate and show the nation its heritage for the game hosting the All-Star Week festivities. That all stops after the final out of the All-Star Game Tuesday night. Then we see what moves if any Walt Jocketty makes to begin the retool. Jocketty says All-Star third baseman, Todd Frazier, isn’t going anywhere. Most insiders speculate the dominos on any trades don’t begin to fall until Jocketty moves the ace of the Reds pitching staff, Johnny Cueto. ESPN’s Buster Olney tweeted Sunday night the only player Jocketty has been shopping around on a consistent basis is right fielder Jay Bruce. Even before Opening Day it was going to be tough to see this Reds team contend for the division title let alone the wildcard. The Reds expected to have three solid starters in the rotation and hoped a fourth would surface, which could help them contend. Then Homer Bailey required “Tommy John” surgery along with Cueto having minor elbow issues and having multiple starts pushed back, the Reds slid into an abyss of mediocrity including a nine-game losing streak. Cincinnati has been working on extending Tony Cingrani as a starter at Triple-A Louisville and Robert Stephenson has been impressive with his two outings since being called up to the Bats. For the most part, the Reds have needed Mike Leake and Cueto to be near perfect in every start while hoping the other three rotation spots gave outings good enough to not work the bullpen to near depletion. Matters haven’t been helped with the bats being inconsistent with a prime example begin the Reds are next to last in all of baseball with a team-batting average of .210 with runners in scoring position.
  3. Chicago Cubs: The good news for the Cubs is prospects Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber have been as good as advertised. Bryant of CoghlinCubscourse participating in the home run derby and Schwarber winning the Most Valuable Player award in Sunday’s Futures Game at Great American Ballpark. The Cubs currently hold the second wildcard spot in the National League. As we saw last year the one-game playoff could be all that’s needed to make the World Series run and end all the curses bestowed upon the lovable losers from the Northside. With all the moves, that Theo Epstein made at the winter meetings back in December the talk was the Cubs were going to be handed the World Series. Of course, that was easier said and done. At times, Chicago has looked every bit of a serious October contender then again the Cubs have well been the Cubs. Chicago currently stands eight games out of first place and that’s only with Anthony Rizzo and Bryant being the most productive in the lineup. Jake Arietta, who was snubbed from the All-Star Game, won both of his games last week and allowed three runs in 15 2/3 innings pitched. If the Cubs offense gets going and Lester can join Arietta with strong outings Chicago could make a run at both the Pirates and Cardinals.Cutch2the sky
  4. Pittsburgh Pirates: The Pirates have been here before recently. A great first half of the season to get everyone’s hopes up along the three rivers only to collapse in the final month of the season. If there is a team which has it all going in the right direction it’s Pittsburgh. The Pirates finally have the ace of the pitching staff in Gerrit Cole and the superstar in Andrew McCutchen along with other veterans and a mix of youth, who don’t know any better. It’s a deadly combination for the current first-place Cardinals to see in their rearview mirror. It’s a seller’s market this trade season, the Pirates need to decide if it’s worth making a big buy for three months for World Series glory this year and not three years down the road.
  5. St. Louis Cardinals: The Cardinals were in cruise control for the first three months of the season. St. Louis swept the Cubs and it jay&Carpentarappeared the Cardinals could easily be double digits in front of everyone in the division at the pace they were playing. Then the aforementioned slide happened to begin the month and suddenly St. Louis is clinging to a slim divisional lead. The offense went dormant and in dire need of a hit producing first baseman with the season-ending injury of Matt Adams. The offense should pick up once Matt Holliday rejoins the team from the disabled list, but a move for another bat would solidify the Cardinals at keeping the division lead or at worst the top wildcard spot. Injuries to pitchers Adam Wainwright and Jaime Garcia also has manager Mike Matheny making several adjustments with call ups from Triple A Memphis. Garcia threw a bullpen on Saturday but noted discomfort still with his groin injury. Despite the Achilles tendon rupture, Wainwright says he could possibly be ready for any post-season appearances. For a team which two weeks ago looked to be steamrolling through the season the wheels are suddenly coming off for the Cardinals.

How I see the teams in NL Central finishing at the end of the season after the All-Star break:

  1. Pirates
  2. Cardinals (Wildcard)
  3. Cubs
  4. Reds
  5. Brewers

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