Entering Sunday, the Pittsburgh Pirates were 5 1/2 games out of first place in the NL Central. That was the same number of games the Phillies trailed the Braves in the NL East and the Rays trailed the Yankees in the AL East. The deficits for the second-place teams in the AL Central and both Wests were greater.
The oddity here is that the Pirates were in last place. Yes, the fifth-place Pirates were as close to first place as two second-place teams and closer than the other three second-place teams. How amazing is that?
Now, the Cubs won Sunday to keep the number at 5 1/2 while the Yankees lost and Rays won, meaning the Rays were down to 4 1/2 out, but the point stands. The NL Central is top-to-bottom the most exciting division to watch on a daily basis, at least in terms of the standings. The last place teams -- it's now both the Reds are Pirates tied -- are closer to first than four second-place teams.
This has happened thanks to the top teams scuffling a bit while the Reds got, um, red hot. The Pirates had been terrible for a bit, but have won six of eight through Sunday.
There's a lot of head-to-head action remaining here, too, so we're likely to see lots of shuffling.
Of the five, the least confidence I have is in the Pirates. Not only are they just over a week removed from a terrible stretch, but their upcoming schedule is brutal. They don't play a team with a current losing record -- or even .500 -- until they visit the Mets on July 26. For real. There are 26 games before that. I expect a fade, but you never know.
Of the top four, obviously the Reds are the worst bet to win the division, but I'm intrigued. They just swept the Astros and then split in Milwaukee. After two games in Anaheim, they return to Cincinnati for a homestand that could define the rest of the season. They'll play the Cubs three times and Brewers four before a two-game series with the Indians. Then it's the All-Star break. If they win the series against the Cubs and Brewers, they have a real chance to be a player in the division.
The Cardinals actually had an argument for being the best team in baseball when they were 20-10. They would lose 22 of their next 33 games, though. Since then, they've been playing much better baseball and remain right within a stone's throw of first place. There's enough talent here to pick them to win the division with confidence.
As with the Reds, the Cardinals have been able to hang around because neither the Cubs nor the Brewers seem to want to put separation between themselves and the rest of the division.
The Brewers started the season 7-1. They've been exactly .500 since. They go through hills and valleys, such as losing seven of eight before these last two wins. The rotation remains a problem and the lineup isn't really that deep behind Terminator Christian Yelich and great versions of Yasmani Grandal and Mike Moustakas. Still, there's enough here to justify confidence in picking them to win the division.
The Cubs started the season terribly and then were world-beaters for a stretch (winning 23 of 30). Then they sucked for a second (losing eight of 10) before a 6-1 homestand and have gone 5-8 since. After a tough four-game series against the Braves, the Cubs don't play a team with a winning record again until July 26. That sounds good, but they just went 3-3 against the White Sox and Mets at home. This is probably the most talented team on paper, but something has just seemed off for a good portion of the year.
The smart money is still on the Cubs with the Brewers and Cardinals right there, but the Reds and Pirates are close enough that they cannot be ignored. We're just about to the halfway point of the season and the NL Central is a five-team race. That's pretty damn cool.
|They just went 6-1 against the Rays and Astros. There's a scary level of talent here.||3||92-70|
|The Dodgers got walk-offs from three different rookies to sweep the Rockies. Ridiculous. No argument if you want them at the top. There's no wrong answer here.||1||106-56|
|The Bomba Squad now has 147 homers. The club record for a season is 225 (1963). The season isn't even halfway over.||1||73-89|
|George Springer is coming back. They'll be fine. They built up such a lead that the losing streak didn't really matter much in the grand scheme of things.||3||95-67|
|The Braves are 16-5 this month and appear, clearly, to be the second-best team in the National League.||1||88-73|
|The Rays had lost nine of 12 before salvaging the split in Oakland on Sunday.||1||100-62|
|I mentioned the soft schedule last week, but 3-3 against the White Sox and Mets at home isn't gonna cut it. Maybe the Javier Baez three-run shot to win it Sunday knocks something loose.||1||71-91|
|After a three-game series in Detroit, the Rangers face a pretty tough several weeks (3 at TB, 4 vs. LAA, 3 at MIN, 4 vs. HOU, 2 vs. ARI, 3 at HOU). Get fat with a sweep before the gauntlet.||2||60-102|
|Well look at these guys. They are still very far back in the division, but the Indians have won eight of 10 and sit in playoff position (second AL wild card).||5||80-82|
|Travis Shaw homered on Sunday, so I suppose that buys him another several weeks in the lineup while Keston Hiura sits in Triple-A. Sigh.||1||95-67|
|I talked last week about how every time it feels like they have some momentum, the Red Sox lose games they shouldn't. They went out and beat the Twins in a series this week and then lost to the Blue Jays. Yep. That's about right.||--||92-70|
|The Frankie Montas PED suspension is pretty depressing. He was having an incredibly fun breakout season.||3||86-76|
|Charlie Blackmon came off the injured list on June 8. In his 14 starts since, he's hit .426/.443/.882 with five doubles, a triple, eighth homers, 18 RBI and 19 runs. That'll play.||--||74-87|
|The Cards have a quick two-gamer against the A's before embarking on a nine-game road trip out West to close out the first half. It sounds rough, but they face a mediocre team (Padres) and two bad teams (Mariners, Giants).||2||90-72|
|The Phillies were tied for first place on June 11. Going to June 24, they are 6 1/2 games out. That's pretty tough to do.||8||82-80|
|They needed extra innings, but the much-needed win Sunday snapped a six-game losing streak.||4||52-110|
|The Nats have won five of seven and get the Marlins and Tigers this week before the Marlins (again) and Royals the following week leading to the All-Star break. They have a real chance to hit the break with momentum and playoff aspirations.||4||65-97|
|The two losses to close down the week had to be deflating, but going 5-2 against the Astros and Brewers (in Milwaukee) is a pretty amazing week. Don't sleep on these guys.||4||83-79|
|That Albert Pujols homer in St. Louis was one of the feel-good stories of the season. A road curtain call! So good.||2||77-85|
|Pete Alonso already has broken the club's rookie record for home runs. He's at 27 entering Monday and the franchise record is 41 (Todd Hundley and Carlos Beltran).||1||77-85|
|Is it really necessary to continue to employ Jung Ho Kang? I'll give you a hint: No, it's not.||4||61-101|
|HERE HE COMES. Manny Machado's last 11 games: .469/.500/.939, 6 doubles, 6 homers, 14 RBI.||2||79-83|
|The Eloy Jimenez homer to beat the Cubs in Wrigley had to be one of the best moments for White Sox fans in years. Also, this drop has less to do with the White Sox and more to do with teams like the Nationals and Reds deserving big bumps.||5||93-69|
|I really miss being able to call Kyle Seager underrated. Those were the days.||1||90-72|
|Trade candidate Madison Bumgarner has given up 15 hits and 11 runs in 9 2/3 innings in his last two starts.||1||107-55|
|I know not too many people pay attention to the Marlins, but take a look at Garrett Cooper. He's getting regular playing time for the first time in his career and he's slashing .324/.395/.518.||1||67-95|
|No, I don't care that Vladdito only has seven home runs. Him being in the Home Run Derby is absolutely the right call.||1||91-71|
|The Tigers are last in the AL in runs, hits, home runs, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, OPS+, total bases and we'll just stop there.||2||77-85|
|You know what is really sneaky? Jorge Soler having 21 homers. He hit 11 in the past month and his previous career high for a season was 12.||--||74-88|
|After losing on opening day, the Orioles won four straight. Since then, they have only won two in a row twice and have zero three-game winning streaks.||--||52-110|