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National League Central roundup - 7/2

End of the week division roundup!

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Pittsburgh Pirates Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

The Reds and Brewers enter Sunday in a stalemate atop the division; a string of wins helped to put the Pirates in third; the Cubs continue to confound, dropping to fourth; and the Cardinals match the farthest they’ve been behind in the division since April.

1: Milwaukee Brewers (44-39, - GB)

The Brewers took three-out-of-four from a pretty inept Mets team before hitting the road to Pittsburgh. It was there that the Pirates displaced a seemingly sure-bet win in one of the more improbable comebacks this season. Milwaukee continues to float in a competitive ether, not quite good, not quite bad. Terribly, terribly average.

Brewers finish their first half at American Family Field, with a four game set against the Cubs then a three-game dalliance with Cincinnati.

What to watch: Not quite the opposite of the Reds, but Milwaukee’s pitching staff has more or less kept them afloat to this point. Their 3.87 ERA was 12th in baseball in June. Meanwhile, the offense’s 80 wRC+ was 20th in the league, where 100 is considered average. Keeping things simple with those two metrics: If you bring them together, you get what the Brewers truly are — an average to below-average club.

2: Cincinnati Reds (44-39, - GB)

A comeback caper capped off June for the Reds, knocking off San Diego on Friday, 7-5. Prior to that, the Reds had taken two-of-three from the Baltimore Orioles. After a riveting series against the Braves last weekend, the Reds continue to delight and surprise those with ties to the Queen City. If the club can get some modicum of pitching together, they could prove to be a real threat into August and September.

Reds finish the first half on the road for four in Washington and three in Milwaukee.

What to watch: Reds need pitching to keep the division in their sights. Despite going 18-9 in June, Cincinnati’s staff posted the fourth-worst ERA in baseball over that time at 5.03. The club’s FIP was second-worst at 5.40. They don’t quite do anything right on the mound, coming in the bottom-sixth of the league in relevant metrics such as K/9 (7.54), HR/9 (1.53), and WHIP (1.46). Pick a metric out of a hat and the odds are the Reds struggle with it.

3: Pittsburgh Pirates (39-43, 4.5 GB)

It was a good week in Pittsburgh, all told. After dropping three of four close contests in Miami, the Pirates picked up a sweep against the San Diego Padres before beginning their three-game set with the Brewers at PNC Park. Game one saw an electric comeback capped by a Carlos Santana walk-off home run that many people missed because of Apple TV.

Pirates end the first half on a west coast swing, playing four at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles before three in Arizona.

What to watch: It’s beginning to feel like the Pirates improve on whatever I lament in each edition of this article. Last week I wrote about whether or not the bats could scratch and claw out of the most boring bit of offense I’d seen in what felt like ages. Since the series with the Padres started, Pittsburgh’s offense is fifth in wRC+ (144); fourth in wOBA (.387); and fourth in slugging (.522). So there you go, maybe they’ll keep it up.

4: Chicago Cubs (38-43, 5.0 GB)

The Cubs give glimpses of competition before falling off the wagon. Swept by the Phillies this week, Chicago looked to move into better standing with a set against the Cleveland Guardians. Winners of game one by a 10-1 count, the Cubs got off to the start the envisioned but were blanked in game two.

Still, even with all the rumblings in the central, the Curious Case of the Cubs continues to be one of the most interesting storylines in the division through the first half of the season.

Cubs get Milwaukee for three in Wisconsin before heading to the Bronx for three against the Yankees.

What to watch: In June, Nico Hoerner hit .326 on balls in play, and hit .301 over that same timeframe. Both those numbers are top-21 in the National League. Hoerner, who’s become a bit of a favorite in Chicago, carried a wRC+ that hovered around 110.

All in all, Hoerner’s been an above average hitter at a middle-infielder position. He is also responsible for seven DRS, which is tied for fifth in the National League.

Hoerner, 26, is preparing to come into his prime. As it stands, we should be looking at his pre-prime numbers. The young Hoerner might be a staple in Chicago for some time to come. At the very least, he seems as though he might become a very solid presence in the Cubs’ lineup.

5: St. Louis Cardinals (34-48, 9.5 GB)

After winning the finale in London, the Cardinals dropped two-of-three to the Houston Astros. Heading into a weekend series with the Yankees, St. Louis had dropped two straight and their 15-24 home record was worse than their 18-23 road mark.

Prior to winning one of two in their doubleheader against the Yankees, the Cards had dropped 10 games back of the division leaders, their largest deficit since late April.

Cardinals get the Marlins in Miami and the Chicago White Sox on the south side to limp into the All-Star Break.

What to watch: Jordan Montgomery contributed 31 innings over June for an otherwise desperate pitching staff. He carried a 1.71 ERA over that time with a 2.77 FIP. For a team with a 5.27 ERA, he’s been consistent throughout the last month in giving his team good starts. And let’s be honest: They could definitely use them.