If Monday night was a preview of the excitement that the NL Central is bringing to the postseason, then baseball fans are in for a treat next week.
The Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates each clinched their postseason spots with dramatic wins plus a little help from the division rival St. Louis Cardinals, who had already clinched a playoff spot. All three wins were by one run, two of them saw the winning run cross the plate in the last inning and all three went final in the same 15-minute window.
But with five games each left in the regular season, these three teams still have a lot to figure out: Which one will win the NL Central crown, which two will meet in the single-elimination Wild Card game and which will have home-field advantage in that game. The Cardinals have a two-game lead in the division and the Reds and Pirates are knotted in the Wild Card spot.
Who goes where will be answered another day, Monday was about clinching, and it all happened within a wild 15 minutes.
• First, the Pirates beat the Chicago Cubs 2-1. A Starling Marte ninth-inning homer broke a 1-1 tie to put the Buccos ahead. Even more dramatic: The Pirates threw out the tying run at the plate for the final out of the game. Nate Schierholtz was attempting to score from first base on a bloop single to right field. Marlon Byrd bobbled the ball, Andrew McCutchen picked it up, threw it to first baseman Justin Morneau and he whipped it home, where Russell Martin withstood a collision for the final out. If the Pirates were going to earn their first postseason berth since 1992, this was a heck of a way to do it.
• The Pirates and the Reds both required help to clinch their playoff spots. They needed the Cardinals to beat the surging Washington Nationals and knock out them out of postseason contention. Patience.
• A couple minutes after the Pirates' victory, the Reds earned a walk-off win against the New York Mets in the 10th inning. The Reds had blown a chance to break a 2-2 tie it in the bottom of the ninth after Shin-Soo Choo doubled and stole third, putting the winning run on third base with nobody out. The Reds, somehow, failed to bring him home. So Choo handled things in the 10th. With two on and one out, he knocked in the winning run with a single to the left-field wall.
• With the Pirates and Reds both watching, the Cardinals then held off the Nationals for a 4-3 win a few minutes later. The Nats had scored a run in the eighth inning to climb within one, hoping to keep their late-season charge on life support. Alas, the Cards bullpen set the Nats down in order in the ninth.
And with that, the NL playoff field was set. The three NL Central teams join the division-winning Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers. At this point, it's a pretty fair assumption that whatever happens next between these five, it won't be boring.