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July 26, 2011
Divide and Conquer, NL Central
Over the weekend, the Chicago Cubs swept the Houston Astros at Wrigley Field. In the three-game series, Chicago outscored Houston 14-7, as each of the Cubs’ starters went six innings or more. That small stretch of performance was notable because it was the first three-game winning streak the Cubs had had, over 100 games into the season.
Those wins were a nice sign of life from a team some predicted to be the division's dark horse before the season began, but the Cubs are 42-60 even after the series sweep, and no one expects them to roll on to first place or even respectability. They just don't have it in them, and the Astros aren't exactly a team whose defeat inspires celebration. With a .327 winning percentage as the trade deadline approaches, Houston is far-and-away the worst team in baseball.
The Astros could still play an interesting role in the NL Central playoff race. Currently, three teams sit atop the division in a virtual tie for first place. With the Braves four games ahead of the Diamondbacks for the Wild Card and 5.5 games in front of the three Central teams, the only way the Pirates, Brewers, or Cardinals are going to the postseason this year is by winning the division. If the Astros continue to play the patsy that they've played all season, then the division leader with the most games still remaining against Houston has an advantage against its competitors. If, however, the players in Houston can pick it up and put up a fight, that same divisional leader may find things a bit tougher than expected.
Table: Intradivision schedule, National League Central. Includes current record against each team and remaining games (including home and away).
Looking at the schedule, the Astros will face the Brewers more than any other Central team over the rest of the season. With nine games against Houston, the Brewers have a two-game edge over the Cardinals (who face the Astros seven more times) and a three-game edge over Pittsburgh and Cincinnati (six games apiece). Of course, six of those nine games will be in Houston. The Brewers have a .524 winning percentage on the season, but that would be much higher if it weren't for the Brew Crew's .375 win percentage on the road, which could come back to bite Milwaukee in its late-season battles with Houston.
The biggest Houston-borne advantage in the division has already been cashed in, though. Due to the six-team nature of the NL Central—an unfair system to begin with, seeing as how its members have to best five other teams for first place rather than three or four—the intra-division schedule is always out of whack. Teams do not face their division-mates an equal number of times.
In 2011, the unbalanced schedule means that each Central team will face each of its division-mates 15 times—except for one, whom they will face 18 times. The Pirates were the club who came away with the most favorable intra-division schedule, facing the Astros 18 times this year. In the twelve games the two teams have already played, Pittsburgh is a whopping 9-3. It's too simplistic to say that Pittsburgh's five-games-over-.500 record is strictly due to their plus-six record versus the Astros, but it certainly helps.
The Pirates have also benefited from their early schedule against the division's other bottom-dweller, the Cubs. With a .412 winning percentage, Chicago owns the second-worst record in the league (and third-worst in the majors). In their nine games against the Cubs so far this year, the Pirates are 6-3, making them 15-6 against the division's two worst teams. The Cardinals, who have led the division more than anyone else this year, have been even better in fewer games against the weaklings: 11-3 in their fourteen games against Chicago and Houston.
Even the Reds, who are three games behind the trio of division leaders, have a strong 12-5 record against the fifth- and sixth-place teams. Only the Brewers, whom many consider the co-favorites for the division alongside St. Louis, have a subpar record against the Cubs and Astros. But with only a 6-7 record, there's still room for the Brewers to distinguish themselves versus Chicago and Houston.
As much power as these remaining games versus the division's bottom dwellers have to affect the Central's final standings, the single biggest contributor may very well be the remaining head-to-head games between the three division leaders. The Brewers, for example, have 18 games remaining against Chicago and Houston (two more than St. Louis and five more than Pittsburgh), but they also have 21 games still to play against the Pirates and Cardinals. Milwaukee will face Pittsburgh nine more times this season, and St. Louis twelve more times. The Cardinals, with the twelve versus Milwaukee and ten more versus Pittsburgh, have 22 head-to-head matches to decide their fate (if you're counting, that leaves Pittsburgh with 19 games against Milwaukee and St. Louis).
Going by the season-to-date performances, this is good news for the Brewers, who at 9-2 so far against the Pirates and Cardinals are the only one of the three with a winning record against the others. St. Louis is 5-7 against their co-leaders; the Pirates are a sad 3-8.
With sixty games left in the season, it's coming up on crunch time for the three teams tied atop the NL Central. Health will play a key part in these last two months of the season, as will any potential trades made at the upcoming trade deadline. But for three teams who have played each other so evenly over 100 games, the most important aspect of the rest of the season may be the remaining schedule. The unbalanced nature of the NL Central can be a boon to clubs presented with so many games against the league's two worst teams, but it can also be an obstacle to determining the division’s true best team when the contenders have such different opponents.
The Cardinals, Brewers, and Pirates know that all too well. The division title may come down to how each team manages its remaining schedule—and how much of a fight the bottom-dwelling Astros and Cubs put up.