7 Keys to the Final Week of Crowded NL Central Race

Joe Giglio@@JoeGiglioSportsContributor ISeptember 23, 2013

PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 22:  Billy Hamilton #6 of the Cincinnati Reds safely steals second base in front of Neil Walker #18 of the Pittsburgh Pirates during the second inning on September 22, 2013 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
Joe Sargent/Getty Images

The final week of the 2013 Major League Baseball regular season has arrived, bringing with it a bevy of excitement, close races and postseason berths up for grabs over the next seven nights. Outside of the captivating American League wild card race, the crowded National League Central tilt will have the attention of baseball fans around the country.

Although it's almost a lock at St. Louis, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh will all make the postseason, their respective seeding in the National League playoff picture is still murky.

Here's what we know: St. Louis has punched a ticket to October. With a two game lead on both the Reds and Pirates, the Cardinals will be playing baseball, for at least a game, next week. If they hold onto their lead, they will be division champions and be granted a best-of-five Division Series.

As for Cincinnati and Pittsburgh? They're deadlocked after a head-to-head weekend series in Pittsburgh. While both will attempt to overtake St. Louis for the division lead, they'll do battle again during the last weekend of the season, likely with home field advantage on the line for another battle early next week in a one-game playoff.

Confused? Don't fret. It will all work itself out.

As you watch the madness unfold, here are seven keys to the week ahead in the NL Central race.

1. Terry Collins and the future of the New York Mets

Hear me out, folks.

As the New York Mets head to Cincinnati for a three-game series beginning on Monday night, the future of their organization is teetering in the New York air.

Due to shoulder soreness, along with the fear of injury in the aftermath of Matt Harvey's shutdown, the Mets have ended Zack Wheeler's season a start early. If he was active, the Reds would be facing a potential future ace to start the series. Instead, they'll get the privilege of crushing Aaron Harang fastballs into the night.

NEW YORK - AUGUST 06:  New York Mets Chief Executive Officer Fred Wilpon , Manager Terry Collins, prospective Mets owner David Einhorn and General Manager Sandy Alderson (L-R) talk during batting practice before a Major League Baseball game against the At
Paul Bereswill/Getty Images

Furthermore, Mets general manager Sandy Alderson is expected to sit down with manager Terry Collins this week in Cincinnati to discuss a contract extension. Here's why that matters for the Reds: If, or when, Collins knows he's back, the impetus to win each and every game this week diminishes greatly for New York's manager.

With the franchise teetering on the edge of falling out of the bottom ten in the league standings, thus having to forfeit a draft pick this winter if they sign a top free agent, there's a chance the Mets literally aren't playing to win by the middle of this week.

2. Home field vs. rest

Picture this: After a big week against the Washington Nationals and Chicago Cubs, the St. Louis Cardinals clinch the National League Central on Friday evening. Meanwhile in Cincinnati, the Red and Pirates take the field on Saturday and Sunday with nothing to play for except home field in a game against each other on October 1.

PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 21:  Homer Bailey #34 of the Cincinnati Reds pitches against the Pittsburgh Pirates during the second inning of their game on September 21, 2013 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania.  (Photo by David Maxwell/Getty Images)
David Maxwell/Getty Images

Currently, the Reds are slated to have Mat Latos, Homer Bailey and Bronson Arroyo start the three-game set. If the Central isn't attainable, would Dusty Baker scratch Homer Bailey on Saturday to rest and save him for a playoff game on Tuesday or does home field force the hand of the respective managers?

The moves and decisions by Clint Hurdle and Dusty Baker on Saturday and Sunday may change the outcome of the eventual one-game playoff more than any decision during the actual postseason game.

3. Washington's glimmer of hope

Despite sleepwalking through the first four months of the season, the Washington Nationals enter the last week of the regular season mathematically alive. Five games out with six to go isn't a great place to be, but it's enough to garner their top effort on Monday night in St. Louis.

If they can win just one game, coupled with losses by both Pittsburgh and Cincinnati on Monday, the deficit will be four. Again, not a good position. Yet, there's a catch.

By knocking off St. Louis early in the week, it will give incentive for Pittsburgh and Cincinnati to play hard against each other during the weekend, in a series that likely won't matter if the Nats don't give a big effort over the next few days.

In other words, the Nationals can be eliminated quickly and swiftly on Monday. Or they can extend their hope by a day at a time. Every win over St. Louis, coupled with some gifts from the Mets and Cubs, will give Washington a shot.

4. Shin-Soo Choo's sore thumb

Cincinnati was without the services of their center fielder and on-base machine, Shin-Soo Choo, on Sunday against Pittsburgh. Although x-rays were negative over the weekend, any setback or lingering issues could derail plans the Reds have for a sustained run into and through October.

As Mark Sheldon of MLB.com pointed out, this is same thumb that needed surgery in 2011 to insert a plate and screws.

For the season, Choo has racked up a .423 on-base percentage and scored 105 runs while serving as Dusty Baker's primary lead off hitter.

5. Matt Holliday's balky back

On a similar note to Choo in Cincy, the Cardinals scratched Matt Holliday from their lineup on Sunday due to back spasms.

As Cardinals manager Mike Matheny told Jennifer Langosch of MLB.com, the team wasn't going to take a risk with one of their impact bats.

"We're just not going to take a chance," manager Mike Matheny said. "It's one of those days where we're just not going to push him."

Although Holliday has posted his lowest OPS, HR and 2B total in year, his .382 OBP and 20 home run bat is needed for St. Louis to score enough to win in October.

6. Jason Grilli's return to closing duties

Pirates All-Star closer Jason Grilli had been serving as a set-up man to Mark Melancon since returning from an elbow injury in early September, but finally received his chance (via MLB.com) to retake 9th inning duties in a win over the Reds on Saturday evening.

Moving forward, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle will have a major decision to make that could effect the outcome of the NL Central race or wild card hierarchy: Stick with Grilli in an attempt to rev him back up for October or switch back to Melancon if Grilli has a tough outing this week?

When Grilli went down, he had an NL leading 30 saves. In his absence, Melancon shut down the opponent in 16 of 18 tries until blowing back-to-back opportunities heading into Grilli's re-emergence.

In a perfect world, Hurdle would take the week to tinker with his bullpen. But when a division title is on the line, it's not a time for tinkering.

7. Edward Mujica's fatigue

As Jack Etkin brilliantly chronicled here for Sports on Earth, the Cardinals may have an issue in the 9th inning as the calender flips to autumn. Edward Mujica, the reliever that solidified their bullpen by becoming an outstanding closer earlier in the season, is tiring.

On the path to 37 saves, Mujica has seen his ERA go from microscopic to inflated in just a month. Here is a look at the the month-by-month ERA figures for St. Louis' ninth inning man.

While the team looks to lock down an NL Central crown, they'll need to see Mujica pitch a scoreless frame or two this week. If not, manager Mike Matheny might be forced to change closers heading into October.

For the Reds and Pirates, any poor outings by Mujica don't just complicate matters for St. Louis, they open the door to climb into a division title.

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