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National League Central roundup - 7/16

The division haps.

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Brewers and Reds spin circles at the top of the division; the Cubs continue to play par for their season; the Pirates have dipped into yet another valley; and the Cardinals play around .500 over their last 10 to hover 14 games below .500 on the year.

1: Milwaukee Brewers (51-42, - GB)

The Brewers took two out of three from the Reds at home prior to the All-Star Break, changing gears to stay within a game of the division. To open up the second half, Milwaukee won a tight 1-0 and 3-0 contest at Great American Ballpark. The Crew is 7-3 in their last 10 and maintain pace — and presently control the lead — in the division.

Brewers travel to Philadelphia for three before coming back home to play Atlanta. Cincinnati greets them once again for three to begin the following week.

What to watch: Corbin Burnes struck out 13 Reds Friday night, nearly succumbing to the Cincinnati heat along the way. The 2021 Cy Young Award winner has a 3.73 ERA. Aside from a blow up against Arizona, Burnes has been quite serviceable as of late, striking out six or more batters in three of his last five starts.

2: Cincinnati Reds (50-43, 1.0 GB)

The Reds became darlings of the baseball world for the final month before All-Star festivities in Seattle. Cincinnati is in the middle of its Brewer barrage in the month of July — and not handling it particularly well — playing their sixth of nine total games against Milwaukee in the seventh month of the year.

Entering a small skid against the Brewers over their last six games, the Reds ceded ground in the division, and then lost it entirely, but will try to play keep away without having direct conflict over the final two months. With a recent inability to directly confront Milwaukee, one wonders whether Cincinnati’s foray into division-seeking baseball is coming to a close.

A long homestand for the Reds continues into the upcoming week with four against San Francisco and three against Arizona.

What to watch: Cincinnati signed its first selection from this year’s amateur draft in former Wake Forest pitcher Rhett Lowder. Lowder won’t make an appearance this season, but with the Reds in contention this year — and ostensibly into the future, given the youthful makeup of the team — it’ll be interesting to follow Lowder’s progression to the major leagues.

3: Chicago Cubs (43-48, 7.0 GB)

The differential darlings of the central, the Cubs are six games under .500 and seven back of the division lead, while holding a +27 run differential. We see these types of aberrations from a few teams per season in terms of the disparity between their actual and expected records. But it can be tough from a Chicagoan’s perspective watching this club — somehow good and somehow not.

Cubs get Washington for three then St. Louis for four.

What to watch: The Cubs had lost seven of their previous eight contests at Wrigley Field before Saturday. The friendly confines has seemed to haunt its possessor in recent years. The Cubs haven’t finished a legitimate season over .500 since 2019, a mark that’s starting to seem more distant. Slowly, they’ve seemed to settle back in the pack of NL Central teams after the departure of Theo Epstein.

But Bleacher Report does list the Cubs as having the fifth best farm in baseball, although depending on who you believe, that number might be somewhat inflated. Prior to the start of the ‘23 campaign, Major League Baseball’s official site ranked Chicago’s system as 12th.

4: Pittsburgh Pirates (41-51, 9.5 GB)

Alright, I’m going to give you a series of numbers, each in a set. Guess what they are. 1-0. 19-9. 8-18. 11-15. 2-9. That’s right, it’s the Pirates’ record by month. Sure, 41-51 could be worse, but that record, coupled with the team’s great start, mixed in with the idea that we aren’t totally sure where this ship is headed, and you’ve got a disgruntled fanbase on your hands.

I guess being unhappy, angry, or even resentful is better than apathy, which is where I think many folks were prior to this season. I find myself questioning the process, blocking any of Ben Cherington’s hollow quotes from entering my consciousness, and sticking around for games only in passing.

A once promising season for a team that Andrew McCutchen earlier likened to the 2012 Pirates is continually dissolving into mush, and in the end they will reach 90 losses, a mark that’s been achieved or surpassed 26 times in franchise history.

Pirates get Cleveland for three at PNC Park before meeting Shohei Ohtani’s Angels for three in Anaheim.

What to watch: According to Tankathon — the leader in all things tanking — the Pirates have a roughly league average strength of schedule remaining. With a .505 SOS, the 13th ranked Pirates will still face tests from Atlanta (7), Milwaukee (7), Cincinnati (6), and Philadelphia (6). But they will also routinely get teams like Kansas City, Washington, St. Louis, and Detroit.

5: St. Louis Cardinals (39-53, 11.5 GB)

This team is perhaps one of the few items that can bring levity to a Pirates’ fan’s life in the year 2023. Skidding, stumbling, and falling down into the depths of the division — although now Pittsburgh isn’t far ahead — the Cardinals have sunk lower than I’ve seen in my baseball-watching lifetime.

Barring a historical charge up the standings, St. Louis is pretty solidly out of contention for a playoff spot.

Cardinals get Miami for three at home before embarking on a jaunt up to Chicago to face the Cubs for four.

What to watch: The Cardinals current .424 winning percentage is 20th worst in the team’s 141 year history. They’ve lost eight games in a row during a stretch, haven’t been more than one game over .500 this season, and haven’t been ahead in the division for a single day. Fangraphs thinks the team will lose 86 games, so I’m watching for them to lose 90.