The tale of the National League Central, as told through selected excerpts of the Associated Press and other daily filings:
A win at home over Houston on Tuesday night would give the Reds their first 4-0 start since 1990, when they led their division wire-to-wire and won their last World Series championship. It would also continue their domination of NL Central rivals.
"Whoever we play against, it's very important," second baseman Brandon Phillips said. "We've got to try to get as many wins as possible because we're not trying to wait until the last minute to try to clinch something. Of course, it's important to beat teams in our division."
Phillips isn't the only one thinking about clinching so soon.
Twenty innings after they started their day, the Cubs were right back where they started, at least in one way—.500 after a doubleheader split Wednesday with the San Diego Padres at Wrigley Field.
They were also in one other, less familiar place—first place in the National League Central Division, tied with the Reds, Brewers, and Cardinals at 9-9.
[Mike Quade:] "We’ve got to work on cleaning up some things so we can win some of these close games, but we’re doing a lot of good things. We’re doing enough good things I’m optimistic."
Johnny Cueto took a shutout into the eighth inning on Saturday, and the Cincinnati Reds beat the Cardinals 7-3, taking over first place with strong showings by the two players who were at the epicenter of their bloody brawl last season.
The win represented a breakthrough for the Reds, who won the division last season despite going 6-12 against the Cardinals and dropping four of their five series. The Reds have won the first two games of the weekend series, leaving them 3-2 against St. Louis this season.
After sweeping three from the St. Louis Cardinals and two more from the Chicago Cubs to grab first place in the NL Central in the middle of the month, the Reds lost 10 of their next 12. But no fingers were pointed at Bruce, because in that span he hit .422 (27-64) with eight home runs and 22 RBI—while his team lost 6-1/2 games in the standings, falling five games behind St. Louis.
With his 3-for-4 Monday and a Reds win coupled with a St. Louis loss, the Reds are four games behind the first-place Cardinals and 1-1/2 behind the second-place Brewers.
Prince Fielder’s go-ahead homer in the sixth rallied Milwaukee to a 4-3 victory over St. Louis on Sunday, as the Brewers knocked the Cardinals out of first place in the NL Central with a three-game sweep.
“I don’t want to be melodramatic. This is June and we have to be ready for Washington on Tuesday,” Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa said. “We came in here to win a series and they outmanaged us and outplayed us.”
The loss dropped the Cardinals out of first place in the NL Central for the first time since mid-May as St. Louis lost for the fourth time in the last five games.
The Brewers promptly went to Chicago and dropped three of four to the Cubs. They then traveled to Boston, where they lost two of three to the Red Sox. The Red Sox are going to take two out of three at Fenway Park from a lot of people, so there can be disappointment in that result, but no shame. However, losing three of four to the Cubs, who at that moment were even more bedraggled than usual, constituted a genuine embarrassment. Within a few days this club had covered the spectrum of baseball experience. The Brewers were on Mt. Everest at Miller Park, and then in Death Valley at Wrigley Field.
The Brewers have been good enough to intermittently find first place, as they did once more on Tuesday night. But they have been aided by external factors.
Berkman hit two home runs, his 19th and 20th of the season, to continue his season-long power surge and help the Cardinals sweep the Orioles with a 9-6 win Thursday night in Baltimore.
Three games out of first place on Tuesday, the Cardinals moved back into a tie for first; the Brewers were swept by the New York Yankees, and the Cardinals never trailed in their three-game set in Baltimore.
The competitive and compelling (but not commanding) NL Central began the second half of the season Thursday with four teams within four games of the lead. Milwaukee and the Cardinals were tied at 49-43, the surprising Pittsburgh Pirates were a game back at 47-43, and defending champ Cincinnati was submerged below .500 at 45-47. Each contender has stumbled or struggled at least once already this season, but because of the gravitational pull of parity no team has been able to pull away.
The most compelling divisional race in the second half of the 2011 season could be the one found in the National League Central. This race could also qualify as the strangest.
Entering the first weekend of the second half, we find four NL Central teams within four games of first place. No other division in baseball has this kind of traffic jam at the top.
Each of the four contenders has a combination of talent and drawbacks that could make this a race that goes all the way to the end of September. And in all honestly, the lack of competence demonstrated by the Astros and the Cubs indicates that there could be room for four clubs in this division to finish above .500.
At this point, none of the four contending clubs has shown the kind of consistent play that would allow it to run away from the other three. Then again, each of the clubs has shown enough ability to stay in the race.
In short, the National League Central division has been a bit of an up-and-down affair this season. After a hot start from Joey Votto and his compatriots, the defending champion Reds seemed to be the division's early favorites. Three weeks into the season, the Cardinals' own hot bat—a scalding Lance Berkman—helped lead St. Louis into the power position and hold onto it tightly. It wasn't until mid-June that the Brewers were able to wrest the crown away from the Cardinals for any length of time. Since then, the Cards and Brewers have been trading off first place on a regular basis.
In fact, aside from a brief, five-day usurpation by the Reds in mid-May, either the Cardinals or the Brewers has been atop the division since April 20, when the Cards, Brewers, Cubs, and Reds all shared the lead at 9-9. Neither team has dominated its competition, though. The biggest single lead any first-place team has held thus far this season is 3.5 games, which happened last on June 12. Today, that 3.5-game lead extends only to the fourth-place team; the Brewers also hold a half-game lead over the Pirates and Cardinals.
The Cubs and Astros, both sitting under .400, are the only two teams out of this race. The Pirates, who are barely managing 3.9 runs per game, feel like they should have been left behind weeks ago, but their pitching and defense continues to hold. Meanwhile, the Reds need only to get on a hot streak to jump back above the .500 mark, and the Brewers and Cardinals look to move beyond a mere flirtation with first place and take control of the division. Until one of those outcomes occurs, though, we can expect more of the same, as the National League Central goes for the title of "most interesting division in baseball."