NL Central Roundup: Cubs Cruising While Cards and Bucs Eye Wildcard
The Chicago Cubs continue rolling through August, as they have improved on their MLB-best 73-43 record. Winners of 14 of their last 17 games, the Cubs have distanced themselves from the rest of the division and relegated the Cardinals and Pirates to wildcard contention. Here’s a look at where every team stands midway through August.
Prior to back-to-back losses on Saturday and Sunday to wrap up the weekend home series at Wrigley with the Cardinals, the Cubs had won 11 straight games; and despite the losses, the team still sits at 14-3 over their last 17. Solid pitching and timely hitting have helped push division rivals, the Cardinals and Pirates, far in the backseat as far as the NL Central goes.
The Cubs’ offense has been in high gear during this month, scoring 5 runs per game over the 12 game stretch. In addition, Jake Arrieta looks to be returning to Cy Young form — in his last 3 starts, the Chicago ace has averaged 6 2/3 IP, giving up a grand total of 3 runs and 9 hits.
As the winning continues and Chicago appears to be pacing itself for the postseason, an area of potential concern is late inning relief pitching. Trade deadline addition Joe Smith has struggled to get batters out, Pedro Strop suffered a torn meniscus last Wednesday forcing him out of action for 4-6 weeks, and Hector Rondon is still not 100% from his triceps injury.
The concerns about the bullpen became that much more apparent on Saturday when reliever Carl Edwards melted down in the eighth, allowing 5 runs with the game tied at 2, in an eventual 8-4 loss to the Cardinals. Rumors have abounded that Theo Epstein may have an interest in closer Jonathan Papelbon, who was released by the Nationals. Epstein has a history with Papelbon in Boston and the periodically hot-headed reliever would fill a need that the Cubs currently have at the back end of that bullpen.
Just when it looks like the Cardinals are getting healthy and all their pieces seem ready to return and make a run at one of the two wildcard spots, something like this goes ahead and happens: Matt Holiday fractured his thumb after being hit by a pitch Thursday night. His return is in question and no timetable has been given. This is just another punch to the ribs that the Cards have been recipients of all season long. Injuries to key players have marred the 2016 season and never really allowed St. Louis to get on a roll.
That said, St. Louis still occupies the second wildcard spot, behind the Dodgers and a half game ahead of the Marlins, 1.5 ahead of the Pirates. What may help the Cardinals is that the Marlins suffered perhaps an even bigger blow, as Giancarlo Stanton’s season ended — for the second straight year his season ends early. A severely strained groin will have the All-Star sidelined for about 6 weeks. Some have reported a possible Miami interest in Alex Rodriguez. This remains to be seen and, at this point, is purely speculation.
Surprising to many (me included) is that the Pittsburgh Pirates remain relevant in the wildcard race. After what we will call “confusing” deals at the trade deadline, the Pirates remain only 1.5 games behind the Cardinals for the second wildcard spot. One reason for the Pirates staying power could be the emergence of their future ace, Jameson Taillon. Through 10 starts, the right-hander has a 2.85 ERA and has 6 straight quality starts.
In addition to the timely pitching from Taillon, the Bucs have relied on solid output from their very budget-friendly, affordable bench. Players like Sean Rodriguez, Matt Joyce, and David Freese — who Pittsburgh signed this past offseason — have played key roles in keeping the Pirates afloat when it appeared they may fall from contention. And with the injuries, mentioned above, to fellow wildcard contenders St. Louis and Miami, the Pirates appear to have renewed life as they pursue a fourth consecutive playoff appearance.
Losers of 6 of their last 10 has cemented Milwaukee’s place in this division — as if it wasn’t already. To further the disappointment, sad news came last week that former Brewer Prince Fielder was being forced to retire by doctors, who have deemed his recurring neck injuries too unsafe for the major leaguer to continue playing. The lefty slugger finishes his career batting .283 with 319 home runs and over 1,000 RBI in 12 seasons.
The Reds rode outfielder Adam Duvall’s first half power numbers and now they can look to another outfielder, the speedy Billy Hamilton, to provide their team and fan base with some excitement as the Reds record continues to fall and the season enters the final 6 weeks. The young centerfielder leads MLB in steals with 51, and with slugger Duvall mired in a second half slump — only 4 home runs since the All Star Break — the Reds don’t have much to look forward to from game to game. At least Hamilton is showing Reds fans some signs of hope for the future.
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