The Cubs look like they are running away with the NL Central, but if the Cardinals and Pirates are going to make a race of it this week will be critical.
The Cubs begin a six-game homestand Friday against their two closest pursuers, the Pirates and Cardinals. With 100 games to play starting today for Chicago, is it too late to call these big games? That's the way the National League Central looks today, in which the Cubs lead St. Louis by 8 1/2 games and Pittsburgh by 11 1/2, forcing those two to fight for wild card spots.
Yes, Chicago looks that good, even if something truly amazing happened last night in Washington when the Cubs actually lost a game by more than two runs. (More below on the oddity of such a loss.)
With the Marlins and Diamondbacks proving to be faux contenders, we are left with seven teams fighting for five playoff spots in the NL. Give one to Chicago, and we’re left with 100 games to decide four playoff spots among six teams: Los Angeles, New York, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, St. Louis and Washington.
The Cubs are 17–7 against the six other potential NL playoff teams. The Cardinals (11–17) and Pirates (8–10) haven’t measured up nearly as well against them.
These games coming up at Wrigley Field mean so much more to Pittsburgh and St. Louis than they do to Chicago. As the “big” homestand approaches, here’s a report card on how the NL Central contenders stack up.
It’s not too early to call this division over. Chicago is competing more against some of the greatest teams in history than the NL Central.
The Cubs have played 62 games. They are 43–19. In the World Series era (since 1903), they are the 38th team to win 43 of their first 62 games. What really separates Chicago, however, is its run differential. The Cubs have outscored their opponents by 159 runs.
Now let’s take those 38 teams that began at least 43-19 and rank them according to run differential:
|Year, Team||Through 62 Games||Run Differential||Outcome|
|1939 Yankees||48–14||+198||106–45, won World Series|
|1912 Giants||50–11||+93||103–48, lost World Series|
|1929 A's||47–15||+185||104–46, won World Series|
|1927 Yankees||44–17||+165||110–44, won World Series|
Bottom line: Chicago is off to the most dominant start in 77 years and ranks with some of the greatest teams in history.
Still don’t think the Cubs are playing historic baseball? Think about this: Almost nobody beats them going away. Chicago is in virtually every game. The Cubs have lost only six games all year by more than two runs, the latest such horror a 4–1 virtual “blowout” to the Nationals on Monday night in Washington. That projects to only 16 such losses over a full season. How does that rank in the live ball era (since 1920)? Glad you asked:
|Year, Team||Losses||Season Outcome|
|2016 Cubs||16* (projected)||?|
|1942 Yankees||16||Lost World Series|
|1929 A's||17||Won World Series|
|1942 Cardinals||17||Won World Series|
|1969 Orioles||17||Lost World Series|
|1927 Yankees||19||Won World Series|
|1965 Twins||19||Lost World Series|
So Chicago is keeping company with the likes of the Murderers’ Row Yankees, Connie Mack’s 1929 A’s team that was stocked with Hall of Famers, and the ’39 Yankees.
What can possibly go wrong? There is one trap door to Chicago’s season: the age of its starting pitchers. Jake Arrieta (30), Jon Lester (32), John Lackey (37) and Jason Hammel (33) have been great and have not missed a start. If that keeps up, we’re looking at a staff that will blow up the modern actuarial tables. Only five teams in history have featured four 30–30 starters: those who were at least 30 years old and made 30 starts. The 1985 and '87 Astros did it, and the past three teams to do so all went to the World Series: the '90 A’s, 2003 Yankees and '04 Red Sox.
So, it hasn’t been done in 12 years, and the last team to get so lucky with older starting pitchers broke an 86-year curse? Hmmm. Maybe this is the season of the century in Chicago.
Michael Wacha threw one his best games of the year last Friday in Pittsburgh. The next night, Carlos Martinez tossed a career-high 122 pitches over a career-high 8 1/3 innings, throwing wicked upper-90s sinkers; it was his third consecutive gem. Adam Wainwright has knocked off the rust we saw in April. Jaime Garcia has been consistent, and Mike Leake has been good enough as a back-end starter.
The starting pitching for St. Louis, which had been a weak link in April, has stabilized. With a deep, power-laden lineup, St. Louis is primed to run off a big month. And if outfielder Randal Grichuk ever gets hot, look out.
“I see superstar potential,” manager Mike Matheny said of the 6'1", 205-pound Grichuk, who he said “is built like a Greek god” and hits the ball harder than any other Cardinal—when he connects while seeing a heavy dose of sliders.
Quietly, 25-year-old Stephen Piscotty has emerged as a superstar in just his second major league season. His level but powerful righthanded stroke is reminiscent of Buster Posey and Magglio Ordonez, making him a tough out in tight spots. Piscotty rises to the occasion: In 122 career games, he has hit .268 with the bases empty, .355 with runners on, .452 with runners in scoring position and .453 with runners in scoring position and two outs.
The schedule helped beat up Pittsburgh: The Pirates just finished a stretch in which they played 30 games in 31 days, and the only off day was a scheduled afternoon game that wasn’t called because of rain until 5:30 p.m. Ace Gerrit Cole will miss his next start and maybe more with triceps tightness; catcher Francisco Cervelli is out at least a month with a broken bone in his hand; and what was the best bullpen in baseball last year is working on fumes—and not all that well (22nd in bullpen ERA).
Pittsburgh is going to need pitching prospects Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow to give the staff a jolt of energy and innings. The team’s unsustainable sky-high batting average on balls in play, meanwhile, is already beginning to level off (.328), so it will be even more important for Andrew McCutchen to play like his former MVP self in extended stretches. McCutchen is having his worst season: He is striking out more and hitting more fly balls, but without the home runs.
Now the really bad news: While the Pirates are vulnerable, they will be playing 19 straight games against the Cardinals, Mets, Cubs, Giants, Dodgers and Mariners—all winning teams. Among the pitchers scheduled to face the Pirates: Carlos Martinez, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto and Clayton Kershaw. Ouch. Given the strength of the other six NL contenders, it’s not a stretch to think Pittsburgh’s season hangs in the balance in this three-week run.