The NL Central will have three of its five teams in the MLB playoffs — the St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates. With the Cardinals most likely winning the division, the Cubs and Pirates will face each other in the dramatic one-game Wild Card playoff.
The Cardinals have been a World Series favorite since April, but the Pirates and Cubs have proved they are worthy of discussion with fine play all season long.
Judging from probability alone, any division with three teams in the playoffs has a great chance of winning the World Series. But all three NL Central teams have the pitching and depth to contend for a World Series championship.
Who has the best chance? Let’s examine.
St. Louis Cardinals, 93-56
The NL Central leaders are the first team to clinch a postseason berth with a fifth consecutive division title. Just seven wins shy of an impressive 100 win season, the Cardinals have portrayed consistency in the marathon regular season. Unfortunately, they have been cooling off as of late, which is not an ideal way to enter the postseason.
Losing two of three to the Cubs this past weekend in a series that proved playoff-worthy, the Cardinals might have lost leader and catcher Yadier Molina, who suffered a sprained left thumb in Sunday’s game. The teams is still waiting on more tests, but apparently Molina struggled picking up a bat.
“It hurts a little bit,” Molina said, via ESPN.com. “I just couldn’t grip it.”
The seven-time All-Star is is hitting .270 this season with four home runs and 61 RBI. If Molina is done for the year, then the Cardinals are in serious trouble. Not only has he been producing in clutch times, but he is also the undisputed leader of the clubhouse. Former 26th-round draft pick Tony Cruz, with a .173 batting average, would have to assume catching duties if Molina is toast — a clear drop-off in talent.
Back to the team’s late-season slide: To date, the Cards have lost 10 of 17 games, and their three best starting pitchers have been allowing way too many runs to survive a playoff series. Since the beginning of September, Lance Lynn has posted a 9.26 ERA, Michael Wacha a 7.20 ERA, and Jamie Garcia a 5.25 ERA.
If Molina is out for the remainder of the season, and if the starting pitchers don’t keep the runs to a minimum, look for the Cardinals to lose to a division foe in the NLDS series.
Chicago Cubs, 87-62
If the Chicago Cubs were to win the one-game playoff, let alone make a solid playoff run, there is a very good chance the city of Chicago would burn to the ground — for a second time. The North Siders are competing with the Pirates to host the play-in wild card game. Coming off a chippy series with the Cardinals, baseball fans everywhere would love to see another series between the Midwest rivals, but the Cubs will have to focus on the game — not the antics — to win the Worlds Series.
This squad was hyped up from the start of the season because of the addition of ace Jon Lester. But Lester has underperformed this season posting a 10-11 record and a 3.46 ERA. What Cubs fans weren’t expecting was the stellar play from Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber. Bryant has been delivering offensively all year, smacking 25 home runs and 95 RBI in his rookie season. Russell has steadily progressed, and he made a potentially season-saving play on Saturday against the Cardinals on a hard-hit ball up the middle.
“That was one of the best,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said, via MLB.com. “That was a base hit the moment it left the bat. Russell just willed his glove on that ball at the end of it. He was in the moment, and that’s what permitted him to make that play.”
If Lester can step it up in the playoffs and if the bullpen can continue to shut teams down, then the Cubs have a great chance at a World Series run. They will also have a great advantage playing at Wrigley Field considering the temperatures will be near freezing come October, which they are very familiar with.
Look for the Cubs to make history and break the Billy Goat curse by winning the 2015 World Series if they manage to knock off the Pirates in the play-in game.
Pittsburgh Pirates, 89-60
Despite a payroll of just $99 million, the Pirates are in a phenomenal position to make a World Series run. The Western Pennsylvania team possesses the second-best record in all of baseball, which can be attributed to manager Clint Hurdle.
“We’re a tight team,” center fielder Andrew McCutchen said, via the Denver Post. “Clint has our back, and we have his. He loves us and we love him right back. That’s pretty special.”
After making the playoffs the past two years, for the first time since 1992, the Pirates are ready to make the next move and contend for a World Series championship. The organization’s last World Series championship was in 1979, so it would be pretty special to make it happen again, finally.
The Pirates have been hot as of late, even to the point of delivering Clayton Kershaw’s first loss in three months on Saturday. Behind Gerrit Cole’s 17 wins and Francisco Liriano’s 191 strikeouts, Pittsburgh has been on cruise mode. Key trade deadline acquisition Aramis Ramirez has also helped the young Pirates team by filling in for injured third baseman Jung Ho Kang with 28 RBIs in just 40 started games.
With a two-game lead over the Cubs for the first wild card spot, home field advantage will prove critical for the Bucs. They are 50-25 at PNC Park this season and are just four games over .500 on the road. As long as the Pirates can defeat the Cubs in the play-in game, look for Pittsburgh’s third consecutive playoff season to be the one where it wins the World Series.