Just three games separate the first place St. Louis Cardinals from the third place Cincinnati Reds in the tightest division race this season has seen. The Cardinals, Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates, just one game out of first, are all very capable of winning the NL Central, and as the season winds down this race is going to offer can’t miss baseball.
But while all of the teams are still very much in the hunt, the Cardinals are in control of their own destiny. Obviously being in first, the formula is simple: Win and get in. There is more to it for the Cardinals, however.
St. Louis is done facing the Pirates and the Reds, and 15 of their remaining 18 games are against teams in fourth or fifth place in their respective divisions. In fact, with the exception of the Washington Nationals who are 75-69, the Cardinals get to finish their season playing against teams that are collectively 66 games under .500.
Meanwhile, the Pirates and Reds will still do battle an incredible six more times before the end of the season. Luckily the Pirates also have seven games left against the dismal Chicago Cubs, but it is these games against the Reds that could determine Pittsburgh’s fate. These games are undoubtedly going to be the difference maker.
On the season, the series is tied at six games a piece and the individual game results have told much of that story. Cincinnati is outscoring Pittsburgh by just one run, 46-45, in the 12 games the teams have played, and both teams have pitched well in the season series.
Led by Joey Votto‘s .306 average, 22 home runs and absolutely ridiculous league-leading .431 OBP (he leads the league in walks with 116), the Reds surged in the second half and have put themselves right back in the conversation. In addition, Votto has played the Pirates well this year, hitting six of his 66 RBI off of them, scoring seven of his 92 runs and walking 16 times.
The Pirates, meanwhile, finally assured a victorious season, would be nowhere without front-running MVP candidate, Andrew McCutchen. The 26-year-old outfielder is hitting .326 this season with 19 home runs, 79 RBI and 88 runs. He has been the offensive catalyst all season long but has not fared that well against the Reds or Cardinals. The Pirates will need him to come up big, however, if their hopes to win the NL Central for the first time since 1992 can be kept alive.
But the Pirates and Reds still have to deal with catching the Cardinals, something neither can do themselves. They will be reliant on those sub-.500 teams and the Nationals to play spoiler, which is certainly not an enviable situation to be in.
Ultimately, this division has once again become the Cardinals to lose, and with how they have been playing coupled with the ease of their remaining schedule, it doesn’t seem like they plan on surrendering the lead any time soon.
Marilee Gallagher is a baseball writer for RantSports.com. You can follow her on Twitter @MGallagher17 like her page on Facebook, or join her network on Google.