by Christian S. Kohl
With two months of the season behind us, disparity in the NL Central has already set in: several teams sit well below .500, as the Reds sit atop the division. Perhaps the most curious occurrence so far in the Central is that of the teams you would obviously assume had begun so poorly they have begun to fade from contention; the Pittsburgh Pirates are not one of them.
In fact, the Pirates currently sit in second place with a record of 27-26, winning seven of their last ten ballgames. Starter James McDonald is leading the way, with a 5-2 record, 71 IP, and a phenomenal 2.14 ERA to accompany his 71 strikeouts. He has won his last three decisions, and K’ed 5 or more hitters in his last eight outings. Reliever Joel Hanrahan is helping shorten ballgames by registering 14 saves and a 2.70 ERA. He strikes out more than 1 per inning with 24 strikeouts in 20 innings pitched. Along with other strong performers like reliever Juan Cruz, Pittsburgh is fighting for contention this year almost solely on the backs of their pitching staff. They combine for a 3.24 team ERA, which ranks second best in the National League.
Their stagnant offense, however, simply must improve. As a team they hit just .221, worst in the league, and have also driven in and scored the fewest runs in the NL. Andrew McCutchen continues to produce another standout year, but for Pittsburgh to contend for all 162 games this year, they are going to need to add a bat or two to relieve the pressure on their pitching staff.
Defending champion St. Louis also remains firmly in the hunt at one game above .500. They currently enjoy the luxury of having the offense led by their catcher, Yadier Molina. Molina has belted 8 Home Runs while posting an eye-popping .328 batting average, all the while remaining perhaps the most fearsome arm currently behind the plate in the big leagues. Unlike Pittsburgh, the Cardinals offense is in no way a one-man show. They lead the league in team home run totals and sit second in batting average. Add in Lance Lynn to the mix at 8-2, with a fantastic 2.63 ERA, and the Cardinals feature enough balance to absolutely make a run at revisiting the playoffs. Their depth and experience exceeds the abilities of the Pirates; look for them to emerge past Pittsburgh and fight hard for the division title; come September.
They will in all likelihood be contending with the first place Reds, currently sitting 7 games above .500 in first place. Their starting rotation features a balance of youth and experience, leaving their team pitching totals among the best in the NL across the board. However, the most electric arm on their team remains closer Aroldis Chapman. While he curiously filled roles as neither starter nor closer this season, he has locked down the ninth inning since late May this year and his numbers remain nothing shy of remarkable. The 24 year-old lefty routinely throws in the high nineties or low hundreds, to the tune of a 0.00 ERA and 50 strikeouts in 28 innings. He sports 5 saves so far in addition to 4 wins. Start him, close him, just make sure he features predominantly in your attack and you have a chance to contend, period. Using him as a setup man was beyond strange, but for now, Cincinnati is using him to full effect.
Milwaukee and Houston sit well below .500 currently, but perhaps have enough fire left to make a run. The struggling Cubs sit dead last at 18-36 and are all but dead in the water. Again, the Pirates will need a boost in offensive production to continue battling; otherwise, this race will boil down to the Cardinals and Reds. And for the Cardinals to have a chance in head to head matchups, for all intents and purposes they simply cannot let the Reds lead after eight innings. This one could be a dead heat come September.
Christian S. Kohl is a writer and filmmaker based in New York City. Find out more about him at DailySpew.com.