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The NL Central race: Three teams could be playoff bound

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Normally this time of year I would say something about how the temperatures have begun to moderate and the feel of the brisk autumn air is creeping in to major league ballparks across America. However, as the temperatures in the Midwest heat up, so does the pennant race in the NL Central.

One month ago it appeared as if the Cardinals were going to blow every other team in all of baseball out of the water. But as quickly as the Cardinals began to push towards 30 games over .500, they seemed to take a month off and found themselves trailing the Pittsburgh Pirates by 3.5 games.

Fast forward to today. The Cardinals sit 0.5 games ahead of Pittsburgh for the top spot in the NL Central and 1.5 games behind the ailing Atlanta Braves for the best record in baseball.

As with all of life, however, the Cardinals should cherish every day they sit atop the NL Central standings because, for the first time since Barry Bonds was in Pittsburgh, the Pirates are still in the hunt and only six wins away from finishing the season at .500 or better, a feat they haven't accomplished since 1992. With recent trades bolstering their lineup, including the addition of Marlon Byrd and John Buck from the New York Mets, it seems likely they will stay in the hunt to the end.

I'm not foolish enough to think this is a two team race, however. The defending NL Central division champion Cincinnati Reds sit just 3.5 games out of first place and saw the recent return of slugger Ryan Ludwick with the return of pitching ace Johnny Cueto just over the horizon.

The Cardinals will play the Reds and the Pirates six more times each over the last 31 games of the season, while the Pirates and Reds will square off against each other six more times (the last three being the final series of the regular season).

The question we need to address isn't whether these three teams will all be in the playoffs, along with the Dodgers and the Braves, but rather how will they line up to get in?

With the addition of an extra Wild Card, winning the division becomes so much more important and beneficial. If you don't believe me, ask the 2012 Atlanta Braves or Texas Rangers. A loss in the one-game Wild Card playoff can completely devastate what would have been a remarkable season. There is so much that can happen in the course of only one game. One ball between the legs of the shortstop; one hit batter or passed ball; one pitch you should have hit to the next county but you couldn't get the bat off your shoulder or one double play can send a team packing for vacation while the other team continues its dance with destiny.

The Pirates are 8-5 against the Cardinals heading into their final six

games together, but while the Pirates have seemingly been stymied by the heat the Cardinals' bats have been rising with the mercury. While the Cardinals have gone 15-10 so far in the month of August, thanks in large part to the recent power surge in the offense, the Pirates have gone just 11-12, with the Cardinals winning three of the last four head-to-head matchups.

The chances of the Reds gaining ground on either St. Louis or Pittsburgh, while not impossible, seem improbable. The Reds are 6-7 so far against the Pirates this season and are yet to win a series against St. Louis, with a head-to-head record of 4-9.

Here is how I see the standings after 162 games for these three teams:

1. St. Louis 94-68

2. Pittsburgh 92-70

3. Cincinnati 89-73

The Pirates will end up beating the Reds in the Wild Card game, then have a much easier road divisional series against the Atlanta Braves than the Cardinals, who will end up playing their first series against the hottest team in recent memory, the LA Dodgers.

Come to think of it, maybe winning the division isn't that meaningful after all.

About the Author
Steve spends his time here at The Peorian analyzing data and networking to develop solutions to bridge the gap between…no wait, that’s what he does as a career. He’s here at The Peorian to write about other things. And in order to facilitate these efforts, we have banned him from using any forms of the words “data”, “engineering” and “antidisestablishmentarianism”. The latter should be for obvious reasons. I mean, really, how could anyone be FOR the disestablishment of the Anglican Church in 19th-century Britain?