10 Keys to Winning the NL Central Wild Card Race

Kyle Stanzel@@DmndPrspctsCorrespondent IIISeptember 21, 2012

10 Keys to Winning the NL Central Wild Card Race

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    With a little under two weeks remaining in the 2012 baseball season, the race for the final Wild Card spot in the National League is at its peak.

    For the purposes of this article, we are just going to examine the three teams in the NL Central vying for the final spot.

    The St. Louis Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Pirates have been battling right at the top of the standings all season long until the Milwaukee Brewers have made a miraculous push in the past month to join the fray.

    With the Cardinals leading Milwaukee by 2.5 games and Pittsburgh by 5.5 games, here is a look at 10 keys to winning the final Wild Card spot for the NL Central contenders.

Similar Remaining Schedules

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    Each team has four remaining series left before the 2012 regular season comes to a conclusion.

    The Cardinals, Brewers, and Pirates all have similar schedules to finish off the season, which could make for some interesting late season baseball.

    The Cardinals get to begin this final stretch against NL Central bottom-dwellers Chicago and Houston, before finishing the season against a pair of playoff teams in Washington and Cincinnati.

    On the contrary, the Brewers start off with series' against Washington and Cincinnati before coming home to the lowly Astros and San Diego Padres.

    The Pirates will have an opportunity to start this stretch off right with seven games against the Astros and New York Mets before finishing the year at home against Cincinnati and the Atlanta Braves.

    All three of the National League contenders play two series against playoff-bound teams and two against teams they should beat.

    The challenge will be to see which of the three can take advantage of the schedule and take care of business.

Which Team Can Get Hot at the Right Time

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    There isn't a hotter team in baseball right now than the Milwaukee Brewers.

    On August 15 the Brewers lost to the Colorado Rockies to fall to 12 games under .500 and a full 11.5 games behind the Pirates and Cardinals for the final wild card spot.

    Since that date, the Brewers have the best record in baseball at 24-8 and have vaulted themselves to just 2.5 games behind the Cardinals.

    Meanwhile the Pirates have been equally as terrible since that date, going 10-21 and falling under the .500 mark for the first time since May 29.

    The Cardinals have been hanging around the .500 mark since August 15 and it has left them, for now, as the unconvincing final Wild Card spot leader.

    Can the Brewers ride this hot streak all the way to the playoffs, or will St. Louis or Pittsburgh pick up the slack and take over?

    As the Cardinals showed us last season, the playoffs are often won by whatever team happens to be the hottest at the time, and the Brewers are looking like that team right now.

Does Andrew McCutchen Have One Last Push in Him?

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    2012 has been a phenomenal year for Andrew McCutchen, no matter which way you slice it.

    In March, the 25-year old signed a lengthy contract extension, making him the face of the Pittsburgh Pirates franchise.

    He has followed that up by playing like he's in a contract year and is making a serious case for the NL MVP award.

    He not only leads the National League in hits and runs, but he is also in the top five in home runs, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.

    Despite the Pirates dismal play so far in September, McCutchen has actually picked up the slack by hitting for a .299/.405/.597 line with six home runs and four stolen bases in 18 games.

    The Pittsburgh Pirates go as Andrew McCutchen goes, and for them to make it to the playoffs for the first time in two decades. he will have to continue his outstanding play.

Starting Pitching

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    Effective starting pitching can single-handedly win World Series and it will play a key role in deciding the final NL Wild Card spot.

    Chris Carpenter is set to make his 2012 debut against the Chicago Cubs and he could be a huge addition to the Cardinals staff for the postseason.

    With Carpenter, All-Star Lance Lynn, Kyle Lohse, Adam Wainwright and Jaime Garcia, St. Louis has as talented and consistent a rotation as there is among the Wild Card contenders.

    The Brewers have been led by the trio of Yovani Gallardo, Mike Fiers and Marco Estrada with righty Wily Peralta turning it on of late as well.

    The once mighty Pirates rotation has been absolutely terrible over the past two months and it has seen veteran starters like James McDonald, Jeff Karstens and Erik Bedard bumped from the rotation in favor of young, live arms like Jeff Locke and Kyle McPherson.

    The Cardinals are currently in the lead for the final Wild Card spot and they have to be confident in their ability to hold that lead with their steady rotation.

Can Anyone Stop Ryan Braun?

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    The Brewers have been unstoppable over the last month and opposing pitchers know exactly who is pushing the team to this success.

    Ryan Braun could be looking at his second consecutive MVP award and it looks like he is determined to achieve more than that.

    With a .311/.388/.596 line, 40 home runs, 105 runs batted in and 28 stolen bases Braun is actually on pace to eclipse his numbers from 2011's MVP performance.

    As if that wasn't enough, he has even stepped his game up during the Brewers hot streak, which has inspired big efforts from his teammates.

    If opposing pitchers don't start figuring out how to get Ryan Braun out soon, the 28-year-old might just carry the Brewers to a miraculous postseason berth. 

Success of September Call-Ups

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    The expansion of rosters in September is often more conducive to bad teams getting a look at young prospects in the Majors, but it can also be a good way for a playoff contender to get a boost.

    The Cardinals couldn't contain themselves any longer and called up top prospect Shelby Miller to help secure the back-end of the bullpen.

    Miller notched his first career victory on September 16 and has been outstanding for manager Mike Matheny in three games so far.

    23-year-old right-hander Wily Peralta has been nothing short of phenomenal for Milwaukee as he has gone 2-0 in three September starts with a 1.80 ERA.

    Even the Pirates have gotten significant contributions from guys like starting pitcher Kyle McPherson, second baseman Brock Holt and reliever Chris Leroux.

    These exciting young September call-ups have done a great job of pushing their teams to the finish line and they might just play themselves onto the postseason roster.

Bullpen Consistency

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    A healthy, consistent bullpen is an essential part of any playoff contender.

    The Cardinals have had a shaky bullpen all season long and it is a big reason why manager Mike Matheny decided to call up top prospect Shelby Miller.

    The Brewers have also struggled for much of 2012. However Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford have started to right the ship of late.

    All-Star Joel Hanrahan continues to be lights out in the ninth inning for the Pirates, however, the rest of the bullpen has had trouble giving him a lead to work with and it has resulted in limited appearances for the closer.

    While the bullpen may not play as big a role once the playoffs begin, they are a key factor in the hunt for the postseason.

The Managers

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    The playoff race is the most critical time for any manager as every decision has a significant impact on how the season could turn out.

    The Pirates have seen trusted manager Clint Hurdle make one questionable call after another and it has shown in their collapse over the past month.

    Rookie St. Louis manager Mike Matheny has done a spectacular job of putting the defending World Series Champions in a position to repeat.

    The Milwaukee manager has been pushing all the right buttons this month and it is reflected in the Brewers being just 2.5 games out of the playoffs.

Battling Late-Season Injuries

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    The last thing a playoff contender needs is an injury to one of its key players, but it is something managers should be prepared to deal with.

    Pittsburgh second baseman Neil Walker was putting together a sensational year at the plate before he was sidelined with finger and back injuries.

    He is just now getting back to regular playing time, but the Pirates struggled to score runs in his absence.

    The Brewers' Corey Hart is having a great season at the plate and he is returning to the lineup despite being hampered by a plantar fascia injury.

    The Cardinals' Jake Westbrook will be out for a while with an oblique injury, although the deep Cardinals staff will send All-Star Lance Lynn in his place.

Who Wants It More

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    When it comes down to the last two weeks of the season with everything on the line, sometimes it is not about which team is more talented or better coached.

    Often times during a playoff race it is about who wants it more, which team is going to leave it all out on the field and do everything in their power to see the light of the postseason.

    One would think that a young, energetic team like the Pirates, who haven't seen a winning season since 1992, would be the team to set the bar and push the other teams.

    However, it is the upstart Milwaukee Brewers, led by superstar Ryan Braun and his team of misfits, who are playing like this is their final game despite being big sellers at the trade deadline.

    With two weeks left for playoff contenders to make a push, the final National League Wild Card spot is going to come down to which team wants it more.