COMMENTARY | The National League Central is heating up just in time for a memorable push for the postseason.
In St. Louis, the Cardinals are breaking out their cold-weather gear for another season of October baseball, and fans in Pittsburgh are ecstatic over dreams of their first playoff appearance in more than 20 years.
But don't forget about last year's division champs, the Cincinnati Reds. After winning seven of their last 10, the Reds have knotted up the top of a division that's carrying three elite teams separated by a total of less than three games. If the season ended today, all three would make the playoffs, but only one can wear the division crown and earn the right to skip a one-game, win-or-go-home showdown.
So who has the edge?
Let's take a quick look at six categories that may determine the NL Central race over the last 30-plus games:
Competition Edge: Pirates
A quick assessment of each team's schedule between August 21 and September 29 would argue in the Pirates' favor. Not only do they get the fewest number of games against teams with winning records (15) and the most games against teams with losing records (22), but being a division leader also means they get the fewest number of games against other division leaders (just three against the Texas Rangers). It also means any strength-of-schedule edge at all makes it an uphill battle for trailing teams in St. Louis and Cincinnati.
Still, the Cardinals and Reds -- 10 games and nine games against division leaders, respectively -- don't have too much to worry about. The Cardinals' 21 games and Reds' 18 games against losing teams should provide enough fodder to keep pace. Rank it Pirates No. 1, Cardinals No. 2 and Reds No. 3.
Days Off Edge: Reds
At the end of the season, days off become treasured commodities, and all three NL Central teams have just enough to carry them through September -- but the Reds' off-days are positioned perfectly for a stretch run.
While both Pittsburgh and St. Louis each have three off days between August 21 and September 29, the Reds look to cruise into October refreshed from four scheduled off days in the same timeframe. Even better, three of those days off are spaced exactly a week apart in mid-September -- a perfect layout to accommodate any needed starting rotation rest and/or adjustments.
By comparison, the Pirates are scheduled to play 20 straight days without a break -- a stretch that includes the Cardinals, Rangers and Reds -- while the Redbirds face a 16-day run against losing teams. Rank it Reds No. 1, Cardinals No. 2 and Pirates No. 3.
Home vs. Away Edge: Even
Most would compare the Pirates' home winning percentage (.656) to the Reds' (.655) and Cardinals' (.610) percentages and conclude the Bucs have the automatic edge.
Not so fast.
Despite such an impressive home record, the Pirates have four fewer home games scheduled (17) than the Reds (21) and five fewer than the Cardinals (22). If each team's home and away winning percentages are blindly applied to their remaining games, the effect is essentially a wash (Cardinals 21-16, Reds 21-15 and Pirates 21-16). Rank it dead even.
Head-to-Head Edge: Pirates
One of the most exciting aspects of the NL Central race is the way it finishes. Between August 21 and the end of the season, the Cardinals, Reds and Pirates play 12 or 13 games each against each other. The Cardinals have six against the Pirates and seven against the Reds. The Reds get seven against the Cardinals and six against the Bucs. And the Pirates catch both the Cardinals and Reds for six games apiece.
Pittsburgh has a definite edge to this point in the season against both teams with a .615 winning percentage against the Cardinals and a .538 mark against the Reds. The Cardinals' dismal .385 winning percentage against the Pirates and the Reds' sub-.500 mark against both teams puts Pittsburgh's rivals in a hole that may prove too deep to escape. Rank it Pirates No. 1, Cardinals No. 2 and Reds No. 3.
Momentum Edge: Reds
Talking heads can debate the existence and impact of momentum on the game, but for the purpose of this discussion, let's simply define momentum as a quick evaluation of a team's current trend. And in that case, the Cincinnati Reds are easily the favorite. Their 7-3 record in the past 10 games tops the Cardinals' 6-4 record and all but mocks the Pirates' 3-7 performance. While the Cardinals' recent wins suggest things are heading in the right direction, the surge in Cincinnati may be too much to resist. Rank it Reds No. 1, Cardinals No. 2 and Pirates No. 3.
Last Nine Games Edge: Cardinals
After all of that, the season could come down to the last nine scheduled games for each team, a stretch of games that heavily favors the St. Louis Cardinals and their six games in Busch Stadium. While the Pirates and Reds are busy duking it out in six of their last nine contests, the Redbirds enjoy nine straight games against teams with losing records (six of which are against the Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago Cubs). And with just three of nine games in PNC Park, even the Pirates' home record won't save them. Rank it Cardinals No. 1, Reds No. 2 and Pirates No. 3.
One Final Note
Over the last two seasons, the Pittsburgh Pirates have fought their way to relevancy only to suddenly collapse near the end. In 2011, their impressive run came to a sudden halt when they lost three straight games against the Cardinals and Reds from July 20 to July 23. They would follow that streak with a winning percentage of just .267 in August and .385 in September.
In 2012, they lasted a bit longer -- about a week, actually -- and finished July with four straight wins against the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs. But then the August and September doldrums took hold and they finished with winning percentages of .393 and .250, respectively.
It's now 2013, and many expect the Pirates to finally overcome their late-season woes, but their recent stretch is not encouraging. Again finishing July with four straight wins against St. Louis and starting August with five straight wins between August 3 and August 8, the Pirates looked to be ready to run away with the division crown.
But then they lost five of their next six games between August 9 and August 15 -- once again, about a week after last season's collapse began -- and their .471 winning percentage in August is already their only sub-.500 mark of the season. After losing seven of their last 10 games, the Pirates now cling to a one-game lead in the NL Central.
While it's not yet clear whether the Reds or Cardinals will catch the Pirates, it's becoming more and more likely that one of them will overtake the Battlin' Bucs of Pittsburgh.
Kevin Reynolds is the author of Stl Cards 'N Stuff and host of The State of the Nation Address podcast at Cards 'N Stuff. He's been writing and podcasting about the St. Louis Cardinals since 2007 and can be found chatting about baseball on Twitter (@deckacards).
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