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Thanks, Cubs! Despite Their Losing Record the Cardinals Remain Oddly Undead

Activities in the NL Central stopped making sense a long time ago. There’s inconsistency, confusion, disorder, and broken expectations.

– The Chicago Cubs were supposed to have the division sealed away in Joe Maddon’s wine cellar by now. Only one problem: 2017 is still often a slog and a struggle for the best team baseball team in the history of Western Civilization.

— After racing out of the All-Star break to win 14 of their first 17 games, the Cubs were ready to run away and leave frustrated division rivals gnawing on the Wrigley Field ivy. Um, well, maybe not. The Cubs closed their week by losing four of six at home to Arizona and Washington. And the Cubs’ bullpen is ablaze, having been lit up for a 5.59 ERA over the six games at Wrigley, with their relievers walking 12 batters in 19.1 innings. With the Cubs losing four of their last five, the bullpen was smoked for a 7.41 ERA and six home runs in 17 innings in the four defeats. Key setup man Carl Edwards Jr. has a 9.64 ERA since the All-Star break. Closer Wade Davis hasn’t blown a save this season, but’s his ERA is 4.50 since the break.

— The Milwaukee Brewers could out-slug just about any team … actually, no. That isn’t happening. Milwaukee led the division by 5.5 games at the turn, but a 9-13 record out of the break has put the crew into second place, a half-game in back of the Cubs. Since the All-Star break the Brewers are averaging only 3.23 runs per game — worst in the league. Their post-break OPS (.659) is last in the league.

— The Brewers’ rotation would slowly whirl into a decline and inevitable collapse after No. 1 starter Chase Anderson went on the DL in late June. Right? Nope. Wrong. Starting pitching is the Brewers’ strength — a surprisingly sturdy foundation that’s prevented a free fall. Since the All-Star break the Brewers have the NL’s fourth-best ERA at 3.34. And since Anderson went on the DL with a torn oblique back on June 29, Brewers’ starters have gone 14-7 with an excellent 3.20 ERA. During this stretch Jimmy Nelson, Zach Davies, Brent Suter, Matt Garza and recent rookie call-up Brandon Woodford have combined to go 14-4 with a 2.48 ERA.

— That’s some seriously good starting pitching … so good, in fact that the Brewers won two of three at Tampa Bay over the weekend despite scoring only six runs in the three games. The Brewers had a solid comeback week, going 4-2 against the Cardinals and Rays despite scoring only 15 runs in the six games while hitting .211, slugging .347, striking out 32 percent of the time, and coming up with only six hits in 37 at-bats (.162) with runners in scoring position. That’s nuts … but so is the NL Central. Here are on Aug. 7, and the Brewers haven’t had their best starter available for 40 days, and they rank sixth in the MLB with a 3.93 rotation ERA. Don’t even try to figure this out.

— Your St. Louis Cardinals haven’t been at .500 since June 2, and have had a losing record for 81 days this season, and their weekend series win at Cincinnati was their first road-series victory in the division since late April. Despite Sunday’s 13-run attack on a largely defenseless Reds’ pitching staff, the Cardinals’ average of 4.09 runs per game ranks 13th among the 15 NL teams since the All-Star break. And for the entire the season the Cardinals’ offense ranks 11th in runs pet game, 11th in homers per game, 10th in slugging, and have grounded into the third-highest number of double plays. The boys also have one of MLB’s worst records (17-22) in one-run games.

— With all of this in mind, surely the 2017 Cardinals would be flickering to a faint pulse by now in the division battle. Instead, the Cardinals have actually gained ground since the All-Star breaking, lurking at only 3.5 games out of first place despite a mediocre 11-10 record in the second half.

— How wacky is the NL Central? The Cardinals, just doing OK (3-3) on their current road trip, tripped and fell to 5.5 games out of first place after losing at Milwaukee last Tuesday. But just by going 3-2 in the five days that followed, the Cardinals picked up TWO games in the standings.

— Of course, pitching is saving the Cardinals. The rotation is keeping the team the season — and hope — afloat. Not only do the Cardinals rank fourth in the majors (and the NL) in rotation ERA this season at 3.73 , not only are they third in the bigs and second in the NL with 61 quality starts … but the starting pitching has improved since the All-Star break,with a 3.27 ERA that’s third in the NL over that time.

– And here’s a little nugget: guess who has the NL’s best bullpen ERA since the All-Star break? Yeah, you guessed right: the Cardinals at 2.53. STL relievers have struck out an average of 10 per nine innings since the break, with a stout 4.69 K-BB ratio. Opponents have managed a weak .227 average against the Cardinals’ pen in the second half.

—  I don’t think any team should be touted as an authentic postseason contender as long as it’s paddling under .500. That would apply to your Cardinals. Monday night in Kansas City, the 55-56 Cardinals will take their latest swing at leveling their record. For everything that’s gone wrong, and considering this team’s massive hole in the middle of the lineup, the Cardinals are like the zombies in a George Romero film — you can’t put them away. And they continue to stagger around, within reach of the Cubs. As play-by-play voice Len Kasper said on the Cubs broadcast Sunday: “I can’t figure the Cardinals out.”

We can’t either, Len.

— As for the Pittsburgh Pirates? I don’t know. Do you? No one knows. They’re out of it … They’re back in it … They’re done … They’re alive… go ahead, count them out , because the Bucs just traded one of their best relievers, lefty Tony Watson, to the Dodgers … Wait, hold up; they’re creeping into the picture again, parked only 4.5 games out of first on Monday morning. And over the weekend the Pirates added super-utility man Sean Rodriguez, a part of winning teams in Pittsburgh until signing with Miami as a free agent last offseason. Rodriguez made an immediate contribution, hitting the winning, walk-off homer in the 12th inning to beat the Padres. The Pirates also acquired RH relieve George Kontos, a work horse who had a 3.83 ERA for the Giants. Like the Cardinals, the Pirates have been granted multiple reprieves by the Cubs and Brewers this season.

— Three of the top four teams in the Central have been slapped around by strong opponents, at least to this point. Here are their records against opponents that currently have a winning record:

Cubs, 17-26

Brewers,  17-21

Cardinals, 24-33

Pirates, 27-24

— And yet: the Pirates, who have that good record vs. winners,  somehow have a bad mark (27-33) against opponents with losing  records. Doesn’t make sense. Very little does in the NL Central.

What about the remaining schedules? Here are some  pertinent details.

Not that this will mean anything given the erratic, swerving nature of NLC teams:

— Beginning Monday, 40 of the Cubs’ final 52 games will come against opponents currently under .500 right now. And they have a bunch of games — nearly one-third of their remaining sked — against the league’s three worst teams:  Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Cincinnati. The Cubs’ remaining strength of schedule is the second easiest in MLB. As of now, Chicago has one series remaining against a team (Arizona) that currently has a better record than the Cubs.

— Contrast that to the Brewers, who have 17 games left against the NL’s  top five teams (at the moment): seven vs. the Cubs, four vs. Washington, three against the Dodgers, three against Colorado. (And the Brewers’ sets against Colorado and LA will be on the road.)

— The Cardinals have 21 games vs. teams that have winning records right now, and 30 contests against losing teams: 10 with the Pirates, seven with the Padres,  six against the Reds, four with the Giants and three vs. Atlanta. With both teams aiming to get over .500 and close the standings gap, the 10 games between the Cardinals and Pirates loom large, eh?

— The Pirates will have a major say in the fate of the Cardinals, Brewers and Cubs. With 51 games remaining, the Pirates will play their three rivals a total of 28 times. The Pirates also face four games against the Dodgers, and four at Washington to end the regular season.

— We haven’t talked about the Reds and they’re a potentially significant factor. Yes, even with their abysmal 45-66 record and the worst rotation ERA (6.05) in MLB. But the Reds have been a nuisance to a couple of teams in the NL Central this season, winning eight of 10 games from the Pirates and eight of 13 from the Cardinals. And Cincinnati’s remaining schedule is heavy on NL Central games; 34 of the Reds’ final 51 will be played within the division. Ten against the Cubs; nine each against the Pirates and Brewers; six vs. St. Louis.

— According to Baseball Prospectus the Cubs have the easiest remaining schedule in the majors. The Cardinals have the third easiest. The Brewers have more of a test,  only three MLB teams have a tougher schedule than the Pirates the rest of the way. Here’s the schedule strength for the Cubs, Brewers, Cardinals and Pirates in terms of remaining opponents’ winning percentage:

Cubs,  .474

Cardinals,  .475

Brewers,   .505

Pirates,  .516

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

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