With nine games to go in the regular season, the NL Central is turning out to be the best division race in baseball.
The Cardinals, Pirates and Reds are all within two games of each other, with only one able to win the division title. The other two are set up to play in the NL Wild Card game, with the winner continuing on and the loser going home.
So, how do the last nine games shape up for all three teams?
There are several factors that will determine the success of each.
So, let's dig a little deeper and see who has the advantage out of the three teams.
The Pirates and Reds will be playing each other in six of the last nine games. So far this year, the Pirates have won seven of 13 games. But the last time the two teams met was in the first series after the All-Star break when Cincinnati took two of three.
Needless to say, the teams haven't seen each other in a while.
Here's a look at the projected pitching matchups:
|Sept. 20||Francisco Liriano (16-7, 2.92 ERA)||Mat Latos (14-6, 3.14 ERA)|
|Sept. 21||A.J. Burnett (8-11, 3.43 ERA)||Homer Bailey (11-10, 3.40 ERA)|
|Sept. 22||Jeff Locke (10-6, 3.27 ERA)||Bronson Arroyo (13-11, 3.56 ERA)|
|Sept. 27||A.J. Burnett||Mat Latos|
|Sept. 28||Jeff Locke||Homer Bailey|
|Sept. 29||Charlie Morton (7-4, 3.35 ERA)||Bronson Arroyo|
In a way, this is a smart move by the Pirates as they'll have Liriano available in the one-game playoff, which could be against the Reds as well.
As far as at the plate, the Pirates are batting .239 against the Reds, with 13 home runs and 44 RBI. Cincinnati, on the other hand, is batting .232 with 13 home runs and 42 RBI.
For the other series each team will play, Pittsburgh will face the Cubs, while Cincinnati will face the Mets.
In the end, the final series might not make a difference, considering what the Cardinals have left. The Brewers, Nationals and Cubs are all that's left on St. Louis's schedule. Up by one game over Pittsburgh and two games over Cincinnati, St. Louis is sitting in the driver's seat concerning the division.
In total, the Cardinals are 24-11 against those three teams this year. The scoring gap—48 runs.
Shelby Miller (14-9, 3.01 ERA) and Lance Lynn (13-10, 4.18 ERA) will likely go two more games the rest of the way, while Adam Wainwright (17-9, 2.98 ERA) will have one final tune-up before the playoffs.
There's always talk about the SEC always beating up on each other in college football. But the same holds true for these three teams in the NL Central. The only difference is the Cardinals did all of their work earlier in the year against the other two, while the Reds and Pirates still have a little more beating on to do.
We can talk all we want about starting pitching, but the bullpens could be the ones that decide who wins the division.
Here's a look at where each team's bullpen ranks in major categories:
|ERA||3.58 (16th)||2.89 (3rd)||3.47 (12th)|
|BAA||.248 (21st)||.227 (5th)||.220 (3rd)|
|BLSV||17 (12th)||13 (3rd)||16 (9th)|
|HR||34 (3rd)||35 (7th)||53 (24th)|
|BB||143 (3rd)||164 (11th)||172 (17th)|
If you look at the Pirates' numbers, they're all very tight and you can see they have one of the better bullpens in baseball. While good in not blowing saves and allowing hits to opponents, Cincinnati's relievers tend to give up a lot of home runs and walk a lot of people. St. Louis doesn't walk batters or give up home runs, but they do give up a lot of hits.
In the end, the Pirates have the advantage here and have proven it over the course of the year.
Each team has a player who is going to make a big difference in the last nine games and in the playoffs.
For me, the biggest difference-maker for any of the three teams is Cincinnati's Billy Hamilton. He simply changes the game in a way no other person in baseball can.
He has the ability to steal on pitchouts (proved that twice Wednesday) and can score from second on a single to one of the best arms in the league (proved that against Yasiel Puig). Hamilton's speed makes him a big factor late in games, even if he didn't start that particular game.
If the game is close and there is a leadoff walk in the eighth or ninth inning, expect Hamilton to get the call to come on and run. And once he does, he's going to swipe a bag or two, and there's nothing the other team can do about it, short of trying to pick him off.
For St. Louis, the biggest factor has to be Matt Carpenter at the top of the lineup. He has a line of .324/.395/.486 this year with 10 home runs and 76 RBI.
The Cardinals do more manufacturing runs than hitting long bombs. To do that, Carpenter is going to have to get on base for guys like Jon Jay to move over, and Allen Craig, Yadier Molina, Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday to bring in.
If he can set up the Cardinals to be able to manufacture runs, then not only is the NL Central theirs, but maybe even the NL as a whole.
For Pittsburgh, we know all about what the starting rotation and bullpen can do. It's time for Andrew McCutchen to live up to the MVP chants he hears in his home park.
McCutchen is 12-for-33 in his last 10 games with one home run and six RBI. While it's good, the Pirates need him to be even better and lead the team over the last nine games.
At the very least, the Pirates need to earn the first wild card where they'll host the game at PNC Park, a place where they are 48-29 at this year.
Who will win the NL Central?
Despite all of the factors listed, and going against my prediction that the Reds would win the division, I have to say the Cardinals are the favorites to win this division.
With the schedule they have over the last nine games, I just don't see any way the Pirates or Reds will catch them, especially since they have six games left against each other.
If the schedules were different, then my opinion would be very different. But Cincinnati and Pittsburgh are going to be beating each other up over the next week-and-a-half while the Cardinals sit back and play against three non-playoff teams.
So, there you have it. I admit it, I was wrong. Cincinnati will not win the NL Central. St. Louis will come out on top.
Like what I have to say, or think I'm full of it? Respond in the comments below or hit me up on Twitter @chris_stephens6.