The National League Central Division race is getting a bit close for comfort with just a couple of weeks remaining in the regular season. Between the defending champion Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers, and St. Louis Cardinals, there's no telling who will win the race.
Chicago leads the pack, but the Cardinals trail by just two games and the Brewers by a mere 2.5. The division champion may not be decided until the last day of the season, at this rate, but that just means that the NL Central will provide some playoff-caliber baseball to close out the regular slate.
Needless to say, these three teams should be followed closely as the hunt for October continues.
Can Chicago find its stride?
The Chicago Cubs are the defending World Series champions and, for what it's worth, have been suffering from a World Series hangover for much of 2017. More than a few key players have underperformed, with reigning NL MVP Kris Bryant currently having just 59 RBI on the year after posting 102 in 2016. Kyle Schwarber has also had a 2017 to forget in that he struggled so badly to the point where he was actually sent down to the minors. Schwarber has since been recalled and has 25 home runs, but is still batting a lowly .201.
Throw in Ben Zobrist batting .236 on the year and a banged up pitching staff that was only slightly boosted by trading for Jose Quintana, and it's no wonder that the Cubs have lost three games in a row and are 4-6 in their last ten.
And it's not going to get any easier for the Cubs either. The team has 19 games remaining, seven of which are against the same St. Louis Cardinals they are trying to fight off as well as four against the feisty Brewers. That totals 11 games against the teams they must stay ahead of to win the division, and eight of those games are away from the friendly confines of Wrigley Field.
Long story short, though the Cubs are ahead in the race right now, their hopes of repeating as champions could be snuffed out at any moment.
Cardinals taking flight?
It doesn't help the Cubs that the Cardinals, one of the old guards of the NL Central, are right on their tail. St. Louis went from being a sub-.500 squad at the All-Star Break to one on the cusp of making the playoffs once again.
The team has won seven of its last eight and just completed a three-game sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates, basically throwing a heavy wrench into Pittsburgh's already longshot playoff hopes. St. Louis also enjoyed an eight-game winning streak last month and has gone 32-23 in the second half. If their strong play continues, moving past the Cubs and clinching the division is a possibility.
Except, the Cardinals have had a pretty light schedule since the All-Star Break. The only other playoff caliber teams they have faced other than the Cubs and Brewers are the Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks, both of whom currently own the two NL Wild Card spots. St. Louis also played the Boston Red Sox twice.
And the Cardinals' record against those teams in the second half? A mere 8-9. Yes, sweeping the Rockies was a nice touch, but keep in mind that Colorado was already a contender at that point and just ran into some bad luck. Oddly enough, they actually lead St. Louis by 3.5 games for the second NL Wild Card spot.
Simply put, with only NL Central opponents on the schedule for the rest of the season, every game counts for the Cardinals.
Miracle in Milwaukee?
And let's not forget about the Milwaukee Brewers, who would probably lead the NL Central today were it not for a pair of poorly-timed losing streaks after the All-Star Break. The Brew Crew were 50-41 entering the second half but then went on a six-game losing streak after winning their first two contests after the break. Milwaukee was 5-11 over the last two weeks of July, suffered another six-game losing stretch in August and have played sub-.500 ball in the second half.
It also doesn't help that Milwaukee was swept by the last place Cincinnati Reds earlier this month, so the only reason they're in the playoff race can be attributed to the struggles of both St. Louis and Chicago. If they can bounce back after a 7-0 loss to the Pirates last night and then make short work of the Miami Marlins this weekend, they could have some momentum heading into a key four-game series with the Cubs next week.
But even still, Fangraphs only gives Milwaukee a 7.5% chance of making the playoffs given its second half inconsistencies. The playoffs are within reach, but not without a fight.
It just goes to show that Cleveland Indians winning streak and Los Angeles Dodgers losing streak aside, the NL Central could be the best baseball to watch as the season winds down.