The Tenth Inning Week 10 NL Central Excitement

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The Tenth Inning Week 10 – NL Central ]]> include($base_url . “/includes/header.htm”); ?>


By Mike Ivcic

What’s the best division in baseball? The easy answer is the American League East, with four teams that are at least six games over .500 and all within three games of each other. And if you wanted to make that your answer, you’d probably be right. Toronto is probably the best last-place team in baseball, in a close race with the Dodgers, so from top to bottom the AL East certainly has the pole position in the discussion of “best division in baseball.”


But what if I changed the question to, “What’s the most exciting division in baseball?” Some fans, especially along the eastern seaboard, would probably stay with the same division. After all, Boston and New York – two traditional powers – have now been joined by Tampa Bay and Baltimore in what should be a wonderful four-way race for only three playoff spots, more likely only two. Excitement will abound as the calendar flips to July, then August, and finally September, and there will no doubt be plenty of games featuring these four teams – especially the Yankees and Red Sox – on ESPN and MLB Network as the playoff chase heats up.

I don’t like that answer, though. First, it’s too cliche, and that’s never been something I’ve enjoyed. Secondly, I don’t find the storylines in the AL East nearly as intriguing as the ones in the NL Central, where the Cardinals, Reds, and Pirates are promising to engage in one of the best division races of all-time. Is that a little too much to say this early in the season? Perhaps. But look closely at these three teams and you’ll see why the most exciting baseball of the season will be played in the Heartland on the senior circuit.

St. Louis Cardinals (37-19)
At some point, the Cardinals will suffer a down year. I feel quite comfortable and confident in making that guarantee, but it apparently won’t be this year. After surprising many last year by losing Albert Pujols and still making the NLCS, the Cardinals were supposed to finally take that step back this year. Chris Carpenter’s career was likely over, Lance Berkman had left for Texas, and the middle infield was supposedly suspect enough to think that both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh would surpass the Redbirds in a significant fashion.

Instead, all St. Louis has done is posted the best record in baseball through the season’s first two months, doing it mostly on the backs of the best pitching staff in the game. The Cardinals team ERA of 2.99 is the only team ERA under 3.00, and they are second with a 1.19 WHIP, all while using eight different starting pitchers this season. Lance Lynn and Adam Wainwright have done exactly what they were expected to do – Lynn is 7-1 with a 2.91 ERA, while Wainwright is 8-3 with a 2.33 ERA with just six walks compared to 84 strikeouts – but the real emerging star has been Shelby Miller. Figuring to be a back-end starter who would learn the ropes from guys like Wainwright and Jake Westbrook as the season progressed, Miller instead has arguably outpitched everyone on staff, going 6-3 with a 1.82 ERA and 0.98 WHIP in his 11 starts. The lesson – pitching, as always, wins games, and it’s helped the Cardinals to the top of the baseball heap a third of the way into 2013.

That’s not to say this team can’t hit. The power numbers aren’t the league’s best – only Carlos Beltran (12) and Matt Holliday (8) have more than four round-trippers – but they are hitting .267 as a team and just about every starting position player is having at least a solid season, if not better. Beltran, Yadier Molina, Allen Craig, and Matt Carpenter are all hitting over .300, and it’s Carpenter’s emergence as a truly legit middle infielder that has really helped to catapult this team from above average to really good. His .313 average is third on the club, while he leads the Cardinals with 17 doubles and a .394 on base percentage. Now that David Frease is back from injury and Mike Matheny can trot out his full lineup, don’t expect this group to falter one bit if the pitching continues to remain as outstanding as it’s been.

Cincinnati Reds (35-22)
So what has the Cardinals’ tremendous first third done for them? How about given them just a 2.5 game lead on both the Reds and Pirates. Last year’s NL Central champs haven’t had too shabby of a season in their own right, led by another MVP-caliber season from first baseman Joey Votto. His .336-10-28 line is right there with his career best, but it’s the 47 walks that have led to his .460 on base percentage that really shows his continued development as a hitter. That he’s done all this without another .300 hitter in the lineup is also impressive, but it’s not as if guys like Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce, and Shin-Soo Choo haven’t also contributed in a big way. I wrote in the preseason preview that the Reds were going to need Choo to prove he’s a capable major league centerfielder in order to compete in this division this season, and he’s done just that while adding 10 homers of his own to boot. The real issue lineup-wise is behind the plate, where the Reds preferred starting catcher, Ryan Hanigan, is hitting a paltry .179 with just three extra base hits and a .540 OPS. He’s done a tremendous job handling the Reds pitching staff, but the fact that he’s hitting like a pitcher means two easy outs at the bottom of the Cincinnati batting order – and it’s not like Devin Mesoroco and his .232 season average, which actually trumps his career average of .219, is a much better offensive alternative.

Speaking of pitching, where the Cardinals have been spectacular the Reds have been just solid straight across the board. Each of Cincinnati’s top four starters – Bronson Arroyo, Mike Leake, Homer Bailey, and Mat Latos – have sub 4.00 ERA’s and only Leake’s 1.31 WHIP is north of 1.2 in that category. And to top it all off, the Reds most talented starter, Johnny Cueto, missed a month before returning with two stellar outings against Chicago and Pittsburgh. His season stat line of 3-0 with a 2.17 ERA and 0.88 WHIP through his six starts is a huge boost to this already excellent starting staff. The bullpen is duplicating its performance from last year, too, led by Sam LeCure’s miniscule 1.16 ERA and Aroldis Chapman’s 14 saves, so the ingredients are here to overtake St. Louis and repeat as Central champs – and that’s still my prediction for the rest of the season.

Pittsburgh Pirates (35-22)
But that doesn’t mean I’m rooting for my prediction. I’m actually rooting for… and excuse me while I try to stifle my gag reflex while typing this… a team from Pittsburgh.

(Give me a second.)

(Ok. We’re good.)

It’s not the Penguins and it’s not the Steelers, so I feel like it’s acceptable to root for a team that holds the record for most consecutive losing seasons – a streak that’s still current, mind you. This isn’t about the city, though, it’s about the team. The Pirates are led by a manager that continually rates as one of the most underrated skippers in the history of the game, Clint Hurdle, who preaches playing the game of baseball the right way, and young, talented troops charged to his tutelage have responded in a big way. Three years running, now, the Pirates have roared out of the gate with the goal of finally breaking the string of losing that has permeated the franchise. Two years ago that dream died on a July night in Atlanta, while last year this group made it into the month of September still with an outside shot at the postseason before finishing the year with a 7-21 mark and another sub-.500 record. So is this the year Pittsburgh finally puts together six months of good baseball and at least breaks the losing streak and maybe even earns a playoff berth?

Offensively, the answer should probably be no. This group ranks 22nd in runs, 25th in average, and 23rd in OPS. They don’t have a .300 hitter on the roster, and their leading power threat, Pedro Alvarez and his 11 homers, is hitting a whopping .199. Sure, their top quartet of hitters – Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, Garret Jones, and Starling Marte – are all hitting at least .260 with an OPS over .750, so it’s not as if there isn’t at least some offensive production, but they need more from Alvarez, Gaby Sanchez, and Clint Barmes, just to name a few, if they want to continue to produce enough to stay in the race.

The reason they’re in the race, though, is because of their pitching staff – just like St. Louis and Cincinnati. Pittsburgh’s team ERA of 3.16 is second in baseball behind the Cardinals, while their .233 batting average against is tops in the game and 1.19 WHIP is third. The rotation, like Cincinnati, has been solid – A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, and Jeff Locke have all been very good, Francisco Liriano’s return has been a boost, and they have James McDonald not too far away after his rehab start in AA over the weekend. But this season is all about the bullpen for the Pirates. The top five arms in that pen have been lights out this season. Jason Grilli already has 22 saves as is pitching to a 0.66 WHIP through 25.2 innings, and his 1.05 ERA doesn’t even lead the team. That honor belongs to set up master Mark Melancon, who has three walks compared to 31 strikeouts to go along with his 0.90 ERA and 18 holds in 30 innings of work. Add in the stellar performances of Justin Wilson (35 innings, 16 hits, 1.29 ERA), Vin Mazzaro (25.2 innings 1.75 ERA), and Bryan Morris (21 innings, 0.90 WHIP) and this group has clearly kept the Pirates close in a ton of games. They showed their resiliency Sunday with their 11 inning win over the Reds, and if the relief corps can keep this up for a full season, the Pirates will win a lot of close games decided in the late innings – typically a mark of a playoff team.

It might only be June, but the excitement in this division isn’t one you’ll want to miss at any point.

Playoff “Dead” List
June 3 – Houston Astros
Just in case you weren’t completely convinced when I said last week that Houston would be the second team eliminate, let’s make it official. Yes, they have now won five in a row, but there’s no way this team in catching Texas or earning a wild card, and they really weren’t expected to do either of those things this season anyway. But come back here in two years – June, 2015 – and if the Astros aren’t a .500 ballclub at the very minimum, then I’ll give you a complete refund for this column – and really, what better deal is there than that?
May 27 – Miami Marlins

Three series to watch this week…
1) ARZ @ STL (6/3-6/6) – Anyone that saw this four-game series as one that would pit the two best teams in the NL head-to-head back in March is a flat-out liar. But that’s where we sit, so keep your eyes glued to this one for some clues as to how the NL may shake out this season.
2) TAM @ DET (6/4-6/6) – The Tigers are back in first place and the Rays are back in the hunt in the AL East. Both teams still need better starting pitching, though, so maybe as the weather begins to warm, so too will the arms for both clubs.
3) PIT @ ATL (6/3-6/5) – It was two years ago in this very ballpark that the Pirates lost an 18-inning game on a blown call at home plate and their season took a sudden and swift downturn. Anyone up for exorcising some demons?

Three series to watch this weekend…
1) SFG @ ARZ (6/7-6/9) – First place in the NL West will likely be on the line in the desert. Can the Diamondbacks stay ahead of the defending champions? Winning head-to-head games at home will certainly help, but I’m still leaning towards the Giants here in the long run.
2) CLE @ DET (6/7-6/9) – And then there’s this series for first place in the AL Central. Anyone that doesn’t like the unbalanced schedule clearly doesn’t appreciate the fact that rivals within the same division get six series opportunities each season to beat each other for a division crown. If a playoff berth goes to the division winner, I’m glad they have to earn it head-to-head.
3) STL @ CIN (6/7-6/9) – Finishing off a trifecta of great inter-divisional matchups that feature the top two teams in their respective divisions. Sure, they’re competing with the NBA Finals and NHL Stanley Cup playoffs, but what better way for baseball to usher in summer than these terrific series.

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