NL Central Roundup: Epstein Shies Away from Playoff Talk; Cards and Pirates Battle for Wild Card

Labor Day is less than a week away, school is starting back up, and the Cubs are — wait, what??? These are not your father’s Cubs, everyone! Chicago is firmly cemented in first place in the NL Central and has even built a growing lead over fellow division leaders — the Nationals and the Dodgers. While the Cubs aren’t showing signs of slowing up, the Cardinals and Pirates still have very real designs on making the postseason. Let’s see exactly what is going on in this division.

Cubs (85-47)

Despite distancing themselves from their division rivals and other top contenders in the National League, the Cubs aren’t giving in to all the hype that everyone else, who covers the team, wants to talk about. There’s a laundry list of reasons the North-siders should be feeling pretty confident: (1) Cubs are 7.5 games better than the next best team in the NL (Washington); (2) the division race is not a race — it’s a matter of time before the Cubs nail it down; (3) the pitching has righted itself after some inconsistencies popped up back in June and early July; (4) Aroldis Chapman is a legit, no nonsense closer who can throw it by hitters in the 9th inning; (5) no manager in baseball knows quite what buttons to push like Joe Maddon does; and (6) MVP candidates Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo are on a collision course to finish 1-2 in the voting at the end of the season.

So what’s the problem? Well, it’s not really a problem — and, ultimately, Cubs fans should be grateful that president Theo Epstein is so reflective — but Cubs players will not likely be waxing poetic about wrapping up the division or what potential playoff matchup they’d be in favor of. Epstein knows from his days in Boston how it feels to get caught looking too far ahead — he experienced it firsthand in September of 2011 when the Sox blew a double-digit division lead in a month’s time and missed out on the playoffs altogether. Neither he nor Maddon will let the team get too far ahead of itself.

Cardinals (70-62)

The season-long battle between the Cardinals and the disabled list has still not ceased. Players get healthy, players get hurt — the cycle has been a thorn in manager Mike Matheny’s side all year. Starting pitcher Mike Leake’s bout with shingles is still keeping him sidelined and it doesn’t appear much hope is on the horizon. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Matheny isn’t exactly oozing confidence either. “We’re not seeing great progress. We’re obviously just trying to give him the best opportunity to get better. It’s been pretty slow.”

Despite the the injuries that have torn through the Cardinal clubhouse this year, St. Louis remains in position to clinch a Wild Card spot — 2.5 games clear of the Pirates for the second Wild Card. But it’s not all doom and gloom for the Cards — shortstop Aledmys Diaz took grounders and is expected to be re-evaluated in early September, as he attempts to return from a fractured thumb. In addition, Matt Holliday had his cast removed and the team is optimistic he will return if the Cardinals do indeed make the playoffs.

Pirates (67-64)

What the Pirates have done post-trade deadline has been nothing short of remarkable. The team all but threw in the towel as August 1 neared and left their fan base a little confused, a little frustrated, and a lot disappointed that their run of 3 consecutive postseason appearances would end this October. But…….

Here we are, bearing down on the final 30 games of the regular season, and Pittsburgh is only 2.5 games back of the second Wild Card position. Even if the Pirates do not qualify for the playoffs, they have made encouraging progress for next season. Corner infielder David Freese accepted a two-year extension offer from the club last week. Apparently Pittsburgh has made quite an impact on the 33-year old: “I’ve made a lot of money in this game. This contract helps a little more. But where I play and who I’m around is more important to me.” 

Brewers (57-76)

The prospects that Milwaukee general manager David Stearns has acquired during this rebuild have drawn plenty of attention and should provide a positive outlook for Brewer fans in the years ahead. But the work Stearns did buying low on veterans during his first offseason at the helm shouldn’t be overlooked. Two of the biggest success stories resulting from Stearns’s offseason bargain hunting are shortstop Jonathan Villar and pitcher Junior Guerra, while reliever Carlos Torres has also been a quality addition.

With 50 stolen bases, Villar ranks second in the league while also hitting right around .300 in almost 550 plate appearances. The 31-year-old Guerra, a waiver claim from the White Sox, has been among the top rookies in baseball this year, having logged a 2.93 ERA in 107 1/3 innings. The present seems dreary right now in Milwaukee, but the immediate future does look bright.

Reds (55-77)

Something has happened in the Queen City since mid-July. Since the All Star Break, the Reds have gone 23-19 — yet they still reside in the basement of the NL Central (just goes to show how poor their first half of the season really was).

A few factors could explain the Reds revival over the last month and a half, but one stands out: Joey Votto. The former MVP has put together one of the historically great second halves baseball has ever witnessed. After batting a measly .252 through the middle of July, Votto has lit his stat line on fire, hitting .428 in the 42 games since the break.

Votto’s on pace to obliterate some marks set by the all-time great hitters in baseball history. George Brett’s best second half batting average was .421 and Tony Gwynn’s was .423. Even the all-time great Ted Williams only hit .406 in the second half in 1941 — the same year in which he hit .406 for the season.


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