Many baseball fans don't watch win-loss records for the first half of the season, claiming that each team should end up fairly close to .500 when all is said and done after the first few months anyway.
Those fans better start watching.
This is especially true in the National League's Central Division race, where two teams just keep on winning, and a third refuses to go away.
The Chicago Cubs have led the division for quite some time now, presently sitting at 48-29, a solid 19 games above .500.
The team has benefited from both a great offense and solid pitching, but will miss slugger Alfonso Soriano and staff ace Carlos Zambrano for some time due to injuries.
The St. Louis Cardinals trail by 3.5 games with a 44-32 record to date.
Despite the losses of Chris Carpenter, Mark Mulder, and more recently, Albert Pujols and ace Adam Wainwright, manager Tony La Russa has continued to find a way to win games.
The Milwaukee Brewers' 40 wins, against 34 losses, has kept them in contention as well.
Their starting rotation has suffered a significant loss as well, with Yovani Gallardo being shut down until at least September after a severe knee injury in May. But Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder have led the Brewer offense to a successful first half.
As these three teams close out the first half of their respective seasons, each will look to gain ground in the playoff race heading into the second half of the season. However, each team faces a slightly different schedule as they approach the middle of July. Which team will have the advantage?
Mathematically speaking, it could be the Cubs. Fans should take a look at each team's future opponents' winning percentage. The numbers in parentheses examine home and away records based on where the games will be played, rather than just their overall records.
Chicago: 49.4% (48.0%)
St. Louis: 50.9% (50.2%)
Milwaukee: 48.2% (49.3%)
Based on the numbers, the St. Louis Cardinals look to have the toughest time of gaining ground on the Chicago Cubs.
However, as it turns out, their opponents' winning percentage is strongly affected by a three-game series at home with those same Cubs, who have been extremely successful this year. At the same time, the Cubs have had trouble on the road.
The Cubs' numbers, on the other hand, are positively influenced by six games with the San Francisco Giants, who have had trouble scoring runs all season. Of all three teams' remaining opponents, only the Kansas City Royals have scored fewer runs (304 to 291).
The Brewers may be able to gain ground if they can win away from Milwaukee. However, it will be easier said than done—the Brewers' road opponents are a combined 74-43 at home. In contrast, the opponents slated for their home stand are a combined 39-73 on the road.
Two key series will dictate the way these NL Central contenders approach the All-Star Break. Fans should be sure to watch when the Cardinals host the Cubs on July 4th weekend, as well as the Brewers' trip to Atlanta against the Braves, who have been outstanding at home.
In the end, the Cubs should maintain a comfortable lead headed into the second half.