Well, folks. At least last week is finally over. That being said, it’s unclear if the week ahead will prove to be any more kind to the struggling Chicago Cubs.
The Division on the Diamond feature will be a regular weekly segment here on Cubbies Crib, coming out at the beginning of each week and breaking down the past seven days for the five NL Central Clubs while taking a look back at the week prior.
National League Central Standings (as of 8/26/2013)
Pittsburgh Pirates: 76-54 —
St. Louis Cardinals: 76-54 —
Cincinnati Reds: 74-57 2.5 GB
Milwaukee Brewers: 55-73 19.0 GB
Chicago Cubs: 55-75 21.0 GB
The past seven days has seen St. Louis and Pittsburgh do battle, swapping first place in the division several times while the still-overlooked Cincinnati ball club continues to nip at their heels, ending the week just 2 1/2 games out of the division race and with a commanding Wild Card lead over Arizona.
St. Louis Cardinals — 76-54 — 7-3 in last ten games
The Cardinals continue to rely on their proven formula of pitching, pitching and more pitching. The plethora of young arms GM Jon Mozeliak and manager Mike Matheny have at their disposal is unrivaled, and when rosters expand in September, this advantage will only be magnified down the stretch. St. Louis continues to rake with runners in scoring position, hitting a robust .333 in such situations as of ten days ago.
Matt Carpenter continues to prove he is more valuable than anyone believed entering the season, showing the capability to play several positions while putting together one of his best offensive seasons to-date. He, along with Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday and now-healthy catcher Yadier Molina, is one of the reasons this club ranks third in baseball with 631 runs, a .272 average and a .334 OBP.
The injury to Jake Westbrook would have been a blow to most teams, but St. Louis has the depth to off-set the loss for the time being. That being said, there is always a chance that Mozeliak seeks a pitcher on the waiver wire before the deadline hits within the next two days.
Pittsburgh Pirates — 76-54 — 5-5 in last ten games
Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
At least, that’s what Bucs’ fans are sure hoping entering the season’s final month. This club has proven to be a legitimate contender all season long, but now faces their starkest challenge of the season: hold of a veteran St. Louis club and a hungry Reds team that are both neck-and-neck with the Pirates.
Francisco Liriano. I mean, what else can you say about the guy. In my mind, he’s the leading candidate for National League Comeback Player of the Year, as he’s reverted to the form that made him so dominant earlier in his career with Minnesota. The southpaw is 14-6 with a 2.74 ERA on the season, but did struggle in the month of August, notching an earned run average nearly two runs higher, coming in at 4.60. In the last seven days, he’s made two starts, lasting a combined 11 innings, allowing 4 earned runs on 13 hits while striking out 16.
In other words, even his bad weeks aren’t that bad.
Pedro Alvarez and Andrew McCutchen continue to do everything in their power to keep the offense afloat, given the team ranks 23rd in Major League Baseball in terms of batting average, at .244. The team suffered a major loss this past week, placing Starling Marte on the disabled list, retroactive to August 19. Marte has been a spark plug for the Pirates all season long, batting .282 with 11 home runs and 33 RBIs. He’s also added 35 stolen bases to go along with ten triples and 25 doubles. His return is something that manager Clint Hurdle no doubt has his eye set on.
Cincinnati Reds — 74-57 — 2.5 games back — 5-5 in last ten games
To this day, when you think of contender, Cincinnati probably isn’t one of the teams that rises to the top of your mind quickly. Be that as it may, the Reds are hot. They only managed .500 ball over their last ten contests, but this team refuses to back down and continues to be a thorn in the side of NL Central clubs. The Reds are 32-25 against NL Central Clubs this season, and have posted a winning record against the league, as a whole.
Injuries plagued this club in the last two weeks, losing Jonathan Broxton for the season, in addition to Tony Cingrani and Johnny Cueto, as well. Broxton and Cueto were both placed on the 60-day DL, while Cingrani finds himself on the 15-day DL. These injuries leave tremendous holes in the roster of the Reds, as the team gets ready to begin a crucial series against St. Louis on Monday night at Busch Stadium.
Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips continue to plug away at things on the offensive end, with Phillips nearing the century mark in runs batted in already. Votto is a perennial MVP candidate, and Bruce continues to improve his approach at the plate, which has paid major dividends this season.
This week is make-or-break in my book for the Reds. After losing two of three to the lowly Brewers, they take on the Cardinals for three games before taking on Colorado for three games. This club must win at least four of those six games, because another series with St. Louis waits following that, as well as a matchup with the red-hot Dodgers.
Milwaukee Brewers — 57-73 — 19.0 games back — 5-5 in last ten games
This is a team that struggled mightily out of the gate this season, and only saw matters get worse when star outfielder and franchise icon Ryan Braun was suspended for the duration of the 2013 season due to involvement with the Biogenesis clinic and PEDs.
Despite these distractions, this club has rebounded to at least give itself some degree of respectability in the season’s second half. After a disastrous first half, the club has notched a .500 record in their last 30 games, going 15-15. Jean Segura continues to show he is a building block for years to come, after he came over in the trade that sent Zack Grienke to Los Angeles for an Angels’ playoff push.
The Brewers begin a series with the Pirates on Monday, and will look to play spoiler in Pittsburgh’s playoff plans, much the same as they did against the Reds last weekend. The club will then take on the Angels before matching up with the Pirates once again. Both Kyle Lohse and Yovanni Gallardo continue to put up solid numbers for the Brew Crew after both were retained at this year’s Trade Deadline, to the surprise of many.
Chicago Cubs — 55-75 — 21.0 games back — 3-7 in last ten games
Where to even begin with the past week in Cubs’ baseball? The club squandered several leads, lost a 15-inning marathon game in San Diego on Sunday and saw Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo fill the one and two spots in the lineup for the better portion of the week.
The team is 10-20 in the last month, including a disappointing 3-7 mark in the last ten games. Chicago has fallen to a full 20 games below .500, becoming one of just four teams in the league to do so, joining their crosstown rival White Sox, the Miami Marlins and the Houston Astros.
Offensively, this team continues to lack any resemblance of consistency, with a team batting average of .239 and an on-base percentage of .302, both of which rank 28th amongst MLB teams. Anthony Rizzo had one solid game early last week, but still continues to struggle in terms of contact. Castro continues to draw the ire of Cubs fans everywhere, and it remains to be seen who will step up as the clubhouse veteran now that David DeJesus and Alfonso Soriano have both departed.
A bright spot in an otherwise dreary week was the work of left-hander Chris Rusin, who continued his string of strong outings with six-plus scoreless innings against the Padres Sunday. Overall, the lefty is 2-3 with a very respectable 2.64 ERA in eight starts this season. In August, Rusin has pitched 12 innings, allowing 13 hits and just two earned runs – all of which comes out to a 1.50 ERA.