Following their 9-1 win Thursday in St. Louis, the Pittsburgh Pirates probably felt relieved that they avoided a four-game sweep at the hands of one of their National League Central rivals.
But maybe gratitude should be their emotion of choice as they await a weekend series in Cincinnati, as the Bucs actually gained a game on the division-leading Brewers this week. As disappointing as three consecutive losses to the Cardinals were, the Pirates (48-44) are as close to the top of the Central as they’ve been since early April.
When Milwaukee sprinted to a torrid start and the Pirates languished under .500 until June, Pittsburghers turned their eyes to the wild-card race as the only feasible option for a playoff berth. Suddenly, with the Brewers (52-41) losing nine of 10, the Bucs are a mere 3 1/2 games out of first place.
Of course, it’s not just a two-team race in MLB’s most competitive division. The Cardinals (50-43) and Reds (49-43) are in second and third place, respectively, giving an indication of how volatile the Central standings could be for the duration of the summer.
Assuming all four teams stay in it, there will be much at stake in September, with the eventual division winner getting a free pass into the best-of-five division series, while the runners-up will have to contend for the NL’s two wild-card positions.
It’s tempting to predict that both at-large berths will go to Central teams, but competitive two-way battles in the East and West mean that the wild cards are unlikely to come from the same division, as they did last year.
As far as the Pirates are concerned, depending on whether you trust Baseball Prospectus or FanGraphs, they have somewhere between a 30 and 45 percent chance to at least snag a wild card. However, it’s clear from recent developments that the Bucs should have the Central crown in their sights.
We’ve already discussed the Brewers’ slump, but the Reds and Cardinals have their own problems, too. Cincinnati has been without top hitter Joey Votto for several days, as his nagging quad strain continues to be bothersome. Almost as concerning for the Reds is the torn thumb ligament suffered by second baseman Brandon Phillips, a malady that will sideline him for about six weeks.
Coincidentally enough, the Cardinals had to swallow similar bad news when all-star catcher Yadier Molina was diagnosed with a torn thumb ligament of his own. Unlike Phillips, Molina is projected to miss at least two months, if not the rest of the regular season.
The Pirates have had injury concerns as well, with starting pitchers Francisco Liriano (oblique) and Gerrit Cole (back) working their way back from muscle strains, but the misfortune of their division brethren certainly tips the scales in their direction as the all-star break approaches.
If the Bucs can manage to win this weekend’s series at Great American Ball Park, Pittsburgh might be the team best positioned to take the Central as the season’s unofficial second half begins one week from today.