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Circling the bases: NL Central edition

The All-Star break is upon us, and perhaps the best race of any division is in the National League Central. Yes, the American League East is more closely bunched and the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Angels are only separated by a half-game in the AL West, but the best, and most compelling baseball, belongs elsewhere.

The St. Louis Cardinals are the undisputed best team in the game thus far. Despite losing ace starting pitcher Adam Wainwright to a torn Achilles tendon in April during a game against the Milwaukee Brewers, St. Louis has somehow posted a 56-33 record, putting it on pace for an 100-win season. In most divisions, this would mean a massive lead and the thought of staying sharp for the postseason would be creeping in.

However, the Pittsburgh Pirates are also in the NL Central and are hot on the Cardinals’ tails. Pittsburgh won the last two games before the All-Star break against the Cardinals in walk-off fashion, winning on Sunday after trailing by two runs in the 10th inning. Pittsburgh has the second-best record in baseball with a 53-35 mark, leaving it only 2.5 games behind St. Louis.

Both teams have plenty of experience making runs down the stretch. The Cardinals are in the postseason almost every year, and have been to the National League Championship Series in each of the past four seasons, twice advancing to the World Series with one ring to show for their troubles.

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh was one of the worst franchises in all of professional sports for much of the 1990’s and all of the 2000’s. Then, Andrew McCutcheon and a new cast of characters showed up, led by manager Clint Hurdle, who had guided the Colorado Rockies to a World Series appearance in 2007. The Pirates have been a Wild Card team in each of the last two seasons, once advancing to the NLDS before losing to the Cardinals in five games.

The Chicago Cubs are likely not a threat to win the NL Central, but a wild card spot could be in play. Chicago won their final game before the break at Wrigley Field, beating the Chicago White Sox in a cross-town series. The Cubs are buoyed by a ton of young talent, led by the monstrous rookie debut of Kris Bryant and the other kids named Addison Russell and Jorge Soler.

At 47-40, the Cubs are eight games back of the Cardinals in the Central but are leading the way for the second wild card with the San Francisco Giants and New York Mets struggling to keep up. Both of those teams have the pitching to stay in the race, but the lineups mught come back to cost them.

Keep an eye on the NL Central throughout the dog days of summer. It’s where the best action is.

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