NL Central: Three-way battle sure to entertain

(Photo Credit: Arturo Pardavila III)

The National League is where it's at for pennant races this year. Only one AL division race is within eight games going into play on Tuesday while all three NL divisions are in play. The West and Central each have three teams within 3.5 games of each other. The Atlanta Braves have a lengthier five-game lead over the Philadelphia Phillies in the East, but with seven head-to-head matchups between the two still pending, the division is very much in play.

But the most entertaining baseball played in September may well come out of the Central, where three of the league's four best records currently reside. In a matchup between major rivals, all three may end up playing in the postseason.

What does the division look like as we head into the stretch run?  Here's a quick look at the key figures.

Cubs charge

The Chicago Cubs are rolling again. After a shaky start that dropped them close to .500 in early May, Joe Maddon's team has kicked into gear and lead the division by 1.5 games over the Milwaukee Brewers.

Starting pitcher Cole Hamels has been a major shot in the arm, rolling to a 1.42 ERA in eight starts since arriving in a trade deadline deal with Texas. He's helped stabilize a rotation that has seen marquee free-agent signing Yu Darvish miss almost the entire season and fellow arrival Tyler Chatwood suddenly become terrible at baseball. With Kris Bryant back from the DL and Daniel Murphy augmenting an already impressive lineup anchored by potential MVP candidate Javier Baez, the Cubs are likely to be in the running for a fourth consecutive trip to the NLCS.

One potential problem: a bullpen that has lost its closer and now needs to figure out who fits into each new role. With relief pitchers more important than ever in the postseason, Maddon will need to figure out how to work out the pecking order in his bullpen without a dominant stopper like he had in Aroldis Chapman when they won the title two years ago.

Brewers bash forward

The Brewers have a lot of firepower in their lineup. MVP candidate Christian Yelich has keyed the offense, with Lorenzo Cain setting the table. Trade acquisitions Mike Moustakas and Curtis Granderson added a ton of deep playoff experience. They also have a deep bullpen that manager Craig Counsell can call upon to match up with a playoff opponent's best hitters in crunch time.

They may need to do more than that. Gio Gonzalez has arrived via the trade market to fortify the rotation, but the starting five is a clear weakness for the Brew Crew. The lack of a front-line starter has been their vulnerability all year, and even though bullpenning has been a fad in the playoffs the last few years, a top starter is still the most devastating weapon a team can throw at an opponent. Without one, the Brewers will need the offense to produce consistently and the bullpen to withstand heavy usage deep into the playoffs.

The good news is that with a 2.5 game lead at the top of the NL Wild Card standings, it will take a big fall for them to fall out of playoff position entirely. But if the Brewers want to make a deep run, someone will have to step up in a big way.

Cards climb

When Mike Matheny was fired on July 15, everyone thought the Cardinals were out. They were 47-46, with the Cubs and Brewers ahead of them in the standings.

The turnaround since then has been astounding. Under Mike Shildt, who started as interim manager before receiving the job full time on August 28, the Cards have gone 33-18. They're tied with the Braves for the fourth-best record in the NL and lead the wild card by two games over the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Led by Matt Carpenter, who has put up MVP-type numbers, and the excellent second-year shortstop Paul DeJong, the Cardinals batting order is trending upward. It's helped that Marcell Ozuna has bounced back from a rough first half of the season, and that mid-season trades have freed up room for young outfielders like Harrison Bader and Tyler O'Neill.

The rotation is an enigma. Journeyman Miles Mikolas has suddenly emerged as one of the league's best performers this year after coming back from some years in Japan, while third-year man John Gant has emerged as a solid second option. Carlos Martinez has been dropped into the bullpen after a year hit by injuries, which now gives Shildt an intriguing, potentially multi-inning closer to work with during the playoffs.

They, along with their rivals, will be in a dogfight for the rest of the month, and we'll all be the better for it. This will be an entertaining race.

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