Crowded At The Top: The NL Central is Tight

Considering the Dodgers were the reigning NL Champs and the Nationals were widely regarded as a powerhouse, to make a pre-season prediction that the 3 best records in the NL would all reside in the Central Division would have been a stretch. Considering where the Cardinals were 2 months ago, it would have seemed even more unrealistic. But here we stand on the morning of September 11th, with the Cubs, Brewers, and Cardinals topping the standing in the Senior Circuit. Okay, technically the Braves are tied with the Cardinals for the 3rd best record, but the point is still valid.

The NL Central is pretty good.

Back in 2015, the NL Central was a powerhouse division. It featured a 100-win Cardinals team, a 98-win Cubs team, and a 97-win Pirates team. It won’t be that impressive this year, but it is once again shaping up to feature the NL’s top seed as well as both Wild Card entrants.

Exactly which teams will fill those slots is still very much up in the air.

As it stands, the Cardinals are 3.5 games out of the division lead, 2.5 behind Milwaukee for the top Wild Card spot. Milwaukee is just 1 game behind the Cubs after taking the first of three at Wrigley Field last night. If the Cardinals would have just won 1 more game in Detroit, this would be even more intriguing, but what’s done is done. The Cardinals have 3 games remaining against each division foe, so remaining in the 2-3 game range is vital. That holds true whether your eyes are on the Central or home-field advantage in the Wild Card game.

It’s a given that the Cardinals need to finish the job and win the series against Pittsburgh. A series win allows them to keep pace with whomever wins the Chicago/Milwaukee series. A sweep would be huge, but Pittsburgh is no push over. They then face the Dodgers in a 4-game set this weekend. That series could clearly define the Wild Card race if the Cardinals win 3-of-4, or further muddy it if the Cardinals play flat and lose or split.

We have reached the final weeks of the season where the schedule really does make a difference. And so, that’s where we turn.

Cardinals Brewers Cubs
9/11 vs. PIT @ CHC vs. MIL
9/12 vs. Pit @ ChC vs. Mil
9/13 vs. LAD @ WAS
9/14 vs. LAD vs. PIT vs. CIN
9/15 vs. LAD vs. PIT vs. CIN
9/16 vs. LAD vs. PIT vs. CIN
9/17 @ ATL vs. CIN @ ARZ
9/18 @ ATL vs. CIN @ ARZ
9/19 @ ATL vs. CIN @ ARZ
9/21 vs. SF @ PIT @ CHW
9/22 vs. SF @ PIT @ CHW
9/23 vs. SF @ PIT @ CHW
9/24 vs. MIL @ STL vs. PIT
9/25 vs. MIL @ STL vs. PIT
9/26 vs. MIL @ STL vs. PIT
9/27 vs. PIT
9/28 @ CHC vs. DET vs. SL
9/29 @ CHC vs. DET vs. SL
9/30 @ CHC vs. DET vs. SL

The Cardinals clearly have the tougher schedule. But as we’ve seen lately, that’s not such a bad thing. The Cardinals have won 9 out of 10 series against teams above or within a game of .500 (Washington) since the All-Star break, but have won just 2 of 5 against teams that were at least 10 games under .500 at the series open. Winning games is all that matters. As it stands, my minimum expectation for the remaining schedule would feature: splitting the final two against PIT, splitting with LAD, losing 2/3 in Atlanta, winning 2/3 vs. SF, winning 2/3 vs. MIL, and losing 2/3 at Chicago. That puts their final record at 89-73, which should be enough for one of the Wild Card spots. As it turns out, that is a 9-9 finish to the year, which is a pretty solid baseline. If they can swing that to 10-8 or 11-7, they are in incredible shape.

My baseline for Milwaukee is: split remaining games in Chicago, win 2/3 vs. PIT, win 2/3 vs. CIN, lose 2/3 at PIT, lose 2/3 at STL, win 2/3 vs. DET. That puts them at 9-8, a final record of 92-70.

My baseline for Chicago is: split remaining with Milwaukee, lose at Washington, win 2/3 vs. CIN, lose 2/3 at ARZ, win 2/3 at White Sox, split with PIT, win 2/3 vs. STL. That puts them at 10-9, 93-69 overall.

Those baselines would leave the division in a nearly the same spot as it is today, with the Cardinals 4 behind the Cubs and 3 behind the Brewers.

At this point, scoreboard watching isn’t worth it. The odds point towards the 2nd Wild Card, but if they just go out and win their games, anything can happen. But the focus needs to be on continuing to win series and stay ahead of the Dodgers. Luckily, they have a great deal of say in how far the Dodgers are behind them with the upcoming 4-game set.

I can hope for the Cardinals to pick up a few more wins than what I pegged them for, but chances are that one of Chicago or Milwaukee will do that as well and hold ground.

However, if the Cardinals can get hot and reel off series wins against LA and in Atlanta, then they are probably within 2 games of Milwaukee when they come to town. That’s striking distance.

If things stay tight that final week could be really fun, or really heartbreaking.

Keep your expectations in check, but this thing is far from over.

Thanks for reading!

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NL Central Standings

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Last updated: 10/06/2022