The thing about September that makes finishing a book hard — one reason why my original deadline was September 1, to be honest — is that there are so many storylines in play that you can write all week and not get to all of them. In just the last six days I've written a Sports Illustrated piece on Carlos Gonzalez, an SI.com piece about home-field advantage, a book blog entry about the Yankees/Rays series and newsletters about key games in the NL West race, the Twins' second-half surge, similarities among some AL teams, a wrap of Tuesday night's games, and, if you can believe it, Wilson Betemit. I'm working on an AL Cy Young piece for tomorrow, while also plowing through copy on Bud Selig for the book.
I know this sounds funny coming from the guy who just wrote about the struggles of dealing with volume, and I won't pretend it's like this for everyone, but sometimes I can get into a rhythm and everything just comes easily. This week has been like that. It's a great feeling, especially on the heels of the recent struggles. I am well aware that one reason I write is because I want to be liked, and I need that approval, that e-mail, that comment, that Retweet. When I'm cranking out the bylines, I get that. Make no mistake about it: I'm addicted to that rush, that ego boost.
One thing I haven't written up and will do here is the weirdness in the NL Central. The Cardinals won last night to cut the Reds' lead to seven games, which isn't insurmountable but will be a big hill to climb. The Cards beat the Padres, which isn't unusual for them at all. The Cardinals have had the strangest run over the last two months that I can ever remember seeing. Cleave the NL into the teams chasing postseason berths — seven teams — and the ones playing out the string, the other nine. Since the All-Star break, the Cards are 13-5 against the first group and 15-24 against the other. The Cardinals haven't won a series against one of the NL's non-contenders since just before the break, when they took two of three at Houston. In that same time, they've owned the few good teams that they've played, including a 5-1 mark against the Reds, which is the only thing keeping them close in the division.
Do that same calculus for the entire season, and you find that the Cardinals are 26-20 against the six best teams on their schedule, the ones stil in some kin of contention: the Braves, Reds, Rockies, Phillies, Padres and Giants. (As an aside, that seems like a very low number of "good teams" for any team to have played.) Against what you might call the middle ground, the Jays, A's, Angels, Marlins, Mets and Dodgers, all around .500, the Cardinals are 15-11. Against everyone else, which includes heaping doses of a lousy NL Central, the Cards are 34-39. The Cardinals are 9-18 against the Cubs and Astros, which doesn't seem possible.
The Reds, on the other hand, are in first place the way that Virginia Tech tries to get to the NCAAs each year: by winning a lot of games against unimpressive competition. Against the contenders on its schedule, the Reds are 16-31. The Reds have lost the season series to all six of the teams still in races that they have played. Against the middle of the pack, the teams around .500, the Reds are 17-8. Against the dregs of the league? 50-24.
The Cardinals have played .565 ball against playoff-caliber teams, but sub.-500 against bad teams. The Reds have lost nearly two of every three games against playoff-caliber competition, while crushing everyone else to the tune of 67-32.
All the games count. I'm not passing judgment on the Reds. You win more games than all the other guys, they call you division champs and send you to the tournament. If we're trying to objectively determine which team is better, though, should we take into consideration that one of these teams has held its own against good competition, while the other one has gotten crushed? Does parsing a season into these categories add information that looking just at record, or runs scored and allowed, or third-order record, doesn't? Is it at least possible that a team whose overall performance is seven games worse overall has a claim to some kind of superiority because it's dramatically better in games against postseason-caliber competition?
Tonight, I have questions but no answers. I'm fascinated by the contrast, though, and I'm certain it's factoring into my overall opinion of the Reds. I can't help but think that their stay in October may be short, because they have shown absolutely no ability — none, not over even one team — to beat playoff-caliber competition.