The NL Central is the most exciting division in baseball as the 2013 season winds down.
Just three and a half games separate the first-place Pittsburgh Pirates, the second-place St. Louis Cardinals and the third-place Cincinnati Reds. The Pirates lead the Cardinals by one game and the Reds trail the Cardinals by two and a half games.
The Reds are seven games ahead of the Arizona Diamondbacks and seven and a half games ahead of the Washington Nationals for the second wild card spot.
Unless the Pirates, Cardinals or Reds completely collapse down the stretch, and the D-Backs or Nats catch fire, the NL Central will have three representatives in this year’s postseason.
Based on each team’s remaining schedule, who’s going to win the NL Central? Which team will host the wild card play-in game? And which team could suffer a September collapse, or have a late surge?
It’s time to look ahead and make predictions.
Pittsburgh is currently on its final tough road trip. After two more games against the Milwaukee Brewers, the Pirates play the Cardinals and Texas Rangers on the road. Newly acquired slugger Justin Morneau will help the Pirates against the Rangers because he has experience against them and as a DH, plus he brings depth to the lineup.
The Pirates then get back-to-back four game series at home versus the Chicago Cubs and San Diego Padres, followed by an important three-game home series versus the Reds.
Pittsburgh then ends its season on the road against the Cubs and Reds.
Prediction: Eight straight home games against the Cubs and Padres will propel the Pirates to a first-place finish in the NL Central.
St. Louis Cardinals:
The Cardinals have three more big games at Cincinnati (they lost the first one). If the Red Birds can win just one game in the series, they’ll hold onto their lead over the Reds.
After the Reds series, the Cardinals have a long home stand against the Pirates, Milwaukee Brewers and Seattle Mariners.
St. Louis’ final road trip will be at the Colorado Rockies for four and at the Brewers for three. The Cardinals then finish the season at home versus the Nationals and Cubs.
Prediction: The Cardinals have just two difficult series’ remaining (Reds and Pirates). Look for them to narrowly miss winning the NL Central to the superior Pirates team. Instead, they’ll host the play-in wild card game.
Three more big games at home versus the Cardinals are pivotal (Cincinnati won the first game). If the Reds want to overtake the Cardinals down the stretch, they need at least three out of four in this series.
After the Cardinals series, the Reds play the Los Angeles Dodgers (look out) and Cubs (that’s better) at home.
Next, they play Milwaukee, the Houston Astros and the Pirates on the road.
The Reds finish the season with the New York Mets and Pirates at home.
Prediction: A relatively tough remaining schedule means the Reds will finish third in the NL Central, but their big lead over the D-Backs and Nats for the second wild card spot will hold up. They’ll battle the Cardinals in St. Louis for a spot in the NLDS.
The Nats are in the middle of a long road trip. They play two more against the Philadelphia Phillies, then at Miami Marlins for three and at the Mets for four.
Washington is then home versus the Phillies, Atlanta Braves and Marlins for four.
They finish the season at St. Louis and at Arizona.
Prediction: Their late surge won’t be enough. The Nats overtake the D-Backs in the wild card hunt but come up short for the final spot.
Two more games at home versus the Toronto Blue Jays, and the D-Backs need to win them both. Then Arizona goes on the road to play the San Francisco Giants for four then the Dodgers for three.
Arizona then gets the Rockies at home, but then the Dodgers for four.
They get a nice road trip against the Rockies for three and Padres for four to end the season.
Prediction: A tough September schedule will force Arizona out of playoff contention before their final road trip.