It wasn’t long ago that the NL Central was one of the weakest divisions in baseball.
It quite often was referred to as “Comedy Central,” with teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago Cubs and former division foe Houston all struggling to come close to .500. The Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers occasionally were lumped in with the others.
The tables have been turned this year, as the St. Louis Cardinals, the annual division power, Pirates and Cubs own three of the top four records in the game. If the playoffs began Wednesday, all three teams would be participants.
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said he could do without the division competition.
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“No, I’m not that excited that there’s that many other good teams in there,” Matheny said. “I would be great with (having one).”
The Cardinals have played like a contender since April, rolling to a 71-40 record through Monday. Pittsburgh, which has finished runner-up to the Cardinals and qualified for the postseason in each of the last two years, began Tuesday at 65-44. The youthful Cubs, meanwhile, have been sizzling since July 29, with 10 wins in 11 games to reach 62-48.
Kansas City (66-44) is the only other team with a better record than the Pirates and Cubs.
“We’re not surprised,” Matheny said of the NL Central’s strength. “Early on, we talked about (how) we knew Chicago was for real and they’re getting better. We knew this (Pittsburgh) team wasn’t going anywhere, and we were hoping we weren’t going anywhere. We anticipated Milwaukee (would be good), a team that led most of the season last year.
“It’s a good division right now, and I think everybody in baseball realizes there’s a few teams over here that bring all those necessary components into play. Any night, there’s an opportunity for one of these teams to win.”
Pittsburgh opened a three-game series against the Cardinals on Tuesday at Busch Stadium. The Cardinals swept the Pirates in May in St. Louis, winning all three games in their last at-bat. The Pirates are 5-2 against the Cardinals at PNC Park, taking the last two games in their final at-bat. There have been six games in the series decided by one run.
“It’s great to face a good team,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “The head-to-head competition has been fierce, spirited and fun. A lot of drama. Every pitch counts, every pitch matters. You’ve got to meet the demands of the game, and both teams have some fun along the way. We’re looking forward to it.”
Hurdle joked about how frequently he is reminded that the Pirates are playing a “big series.”
“I actually had it brought to my attention that it was a big series,” he said. “The same thing was said to me against the (Los Angeles) Dodgers over the weekend, that it was a big series. And I had it brought to my attention (Tuesday) that when we go to New York City this weekend, it’s going to be a big series. And I said, ‘You know what? That’s why they call it the big leagues.’”
Matheny enjoys the competition with the Pirates.
“We do like the excitement that everybody builds up,” he said. “It makes for a great atmosphere, especially when you get to this point of the season and you’ve got yourself in a position where people are talking about the impact ... of what might happen here.
“With that being said, we feed off of it, but it can’t affect what we’re going to do. If we’re going to prepare differently now, in the second week of August, compared to what we did early on, then we were doing something wrong early on. We’ve just got to play the game. It gives us our best chance, I think.”
Matheny said resiliency is the biggest similarity between the Cardinals and Pirates.
“We noticed that right before the All-Star break,” Matheny said of the July 9-12 series in Pittsburgh. “It felt like two teams that wouldn’t quit. That’s something that we took on early and really are proud of with our guys. They just keep playing, keep playing, keep playing.
“That’s something (the Pirates) are probably pretty proud about their club as well. They’ve got a lot of talent, a lot of things going the right way. We feel we do, too. The best way to settle this is get in the middle of the right and let it fly.”