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Lou Piniella had grown a beard, which makes him look more suited for the Stanley Cup Playoffs than the National League Central pennant crawl/race/chase. Yet while the fiery Piniella was expected to bring a more aggressive, hockey-like mentality to a Cubs franchise that hasn’t won a World Series in 99 years, he is serving as a study in calmness in a division race in which none of three teams seems to have the desire to control. In fact, Piniella couldn’t seem more relaxed when he cracked, “the only way to gain ground in our division is by getting rained out.”

On a more serious note, however, Piniella realizes now is now the time to be riding his team hard. “Walking into the middle of the clubhouse and giving a pep talk at this stage of the season would be meaningless,” Piniella said. “We have a pretty veteran team with smart guys. They know what’s at stake now. They know what we’re playing for. If I have to walk into the clubhouse and remind them then we shouldn’t even being worry about the playoffs in that case.”

No one is suggesting that the Cubs, Brewers, or Cardinals are lacking motivation. All know what is at stake: a chance for the Cubs to make another run at that elusive world title, an end to a 25-year playoff drought for the Brewers, and an opportunity for the Cardinals to repeat last year’s improbable October run to a World Series win. Yet, none of the three is charging down the stretch, as Milwaukee (74-70) holds a one-game lead on Chicago (74-70), and a four-game edge over St. Louis (69-73).

“I really believe a five-game winning streak is probably going to win this thing, I really do,” Piniella said. “At the very least, it’s going to put you in the driver’s seat. I still think we have one good hot streak in us but I know it has to come pretty soon. I keep going to church every day in the hope that our five-game winning streak comes. Maybe I’m just not putting enough money in the collection box.”

All three NL Central contenders are looking to take control in the season’s final 2 ½ weeks, but none have been hot lately. The Brewers have split their last 18 games, while the Cubs are only 5-7 since taking two of three against the Brewers in what seemed like an important series at the end of August; the Cardinals are on a five-game losing streak.

A cynic would say that perhaps Major League Baseball should take away the automatic playoff spot reserved for the NL Central champion and just go with two Wild Card teams. Piniella, though, doesn’t buy the logic that whoever wins the division won’t be a worthy playoff team. “I’m not saying that any of us have great teams. Our records show that,” Piniella said. “But we’re all very competitive ballclubs and this race is certainly the most competitive of (the six) division races in the major leagues. What makes it even tougher is the bottom teams in the division are playing better now than earlier in the year. Whoever wins this division is going to have earned their way into the postseason.”

Indeed, all it takes to make the baseball playoffs is the best record in your division. With that in mind, here’s a look at each of the three NL Central contenders’ schedules for the remainder of the season:

  • The Brewers finish a three-game series in Pittsburgh today, then host Cincinnati for three games, play three at Houston, then head to Atlanta for four games before finishing at home with a three-game series against St. Louis and a four-game series against San Diego.
  • The Cubs are currently playing a three-game series in Houston ,then play four games in St. Louis, then three at home against both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh before finishing on the road with three-game series at Florida and Cincinnati
  • The Cardinals are in the midst of a three-game series at Cincinnati, and then have the benefit of an 11-game homestand that includes four with Chicago, three with Philadelphia, and four with Houston before wrapping up on the road with three games at Milwaukee, a make-up game against the Mets, and a three-game series in Pittsburgh.
  • As far as home field advantage, the Brewers play 10 of their last 18 at Miller Park, the Cubs have only six of 18 at Wrigley Field, and the Cardinals play 11 of 20 at Busch Stadium.

The Brewers should be helped by playing at home more than anyone, as their 45-26 record at Miller Park this season is best in the NL; less happily, they’re 29-44 on the road. The Cubs are relatively even regardless of environment, going 39-36 at home and 34-34 on the road. The Cardinals have a slightly less extreme home/road split than the Brewers, 39-31 at home, and 30-42 on the road.

A quick and dirty way to determine strength of schedule, a term you are sure to read much more about when Basketball Prospectus launches next month, is taking the record of each opponent, multiplying it by the number games against that opponent, adding them up and dividing them by the total number of games remaining to get an average winning percentage. By that method, the Brewers have the toughest schedule with an opponents’ winning percentage of .488. The Cardinals are effectively tied with them, however (.485), while the Cubs seem to have the easiest road (.452).

In many respects, though, the most pressure is on the Cubs. Despite finishing last in the division with a 66-96 record last season, the expectation was that they had bought themselves back into contention after General Manager Jim Hendry spent $296 million on nine free agents last winter while also luring Piniella out of the Fox broadcasting booth.

The most significant free agent acquisitions were left fielder Alfonso Soriano for eight years and $136 million, left-hander Ted Lilly for four years and $40 million, right-hander Jason Marquis for three years and $21 million, and utilityman Mark DeRosa for three years and $13 million. The Cubs also re-signed third baseman Aramis Ramirez for five years and $75 million after he voided the final two years on his four-year, $42 million contract. Hendry’s free agent signings or re-signings have worked well enough to put the Cubs at the front of the division with the other two teams.

In contrast, despite a core of talented youngsters, the Brewers were not picked as a mainstream division favorite coming into this season, as many felt 2008 would be their year. And though they were the defending world champs, few felt the Cardinals were a lock to win the division after ownership severely limited how much GM Walt Jocketty could spend last winter, while prioritizing big-ticket re-signings like Chris Carpenter.

Then, of course, there are the failures of so many other years that hang over the Cubs. Since the Red Sox ended their 86-year title drought by winning the World Series in 2004, and the White Sox their 88-year championship-free stretch in 2005, the Cubs stand alone in the “cursed franchise” department. However, Ramirez does not see the 99-year wait for a title on the North Side as a negative.

“There is nothing like being in a pennant race at Wrigley Field,” said Ramirez, who was part of the Cubs’ last NL Central champion and playoff team in 2003 when he was acquired from Pittsburgh in a late-July trade. “The electricity is unbelievable. There is so much excitement in the air. Our fans have been waiting so long for a championship and they are into every game. We all would like to be part of the Cubs team that finally wins the World Series. It would be just like was in Boston a couple of years ago, maybe even better because we’ve been waiting even longer than they waited.”

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