Brewers And Cardinals Square Off For N.L. Central Lead

MILWAUKEE, WI: Zack Greinke #13 of the Milwaukee Brewers pitches to the Tampa Bay Rays in the first inning of a Major League Baseball game at Miller Park Stadium in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Darren Hauck/Getty Images)

The National League Central is one strange place.

Exhibit 1: the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Exhibit 2: W-L and Run Differentials.

            W-L   Diff
Brewers    60-49  + 5
Cardinals  57-51  +51
Pirates    54-52  - 4
Reds       53-55  +40

For the most part, our perception of teams is tied almost exclusively to their wins and losses. Which is understandable, but the notion that the Pirates have fundamentally outplayed the Reds this season just isn't supported by most of the facts at hand.

Despite Clint Hurdle's very best efforts, the Pirates actually have a winning record (15-13) in one-run games. Meanwhile, Dusty Baker's Reds have been terrible (16-23) in those games. That's why the Pirates are ahead of the Reds, but don't count on this to last much longer.

Because the Reds are so far behind in the standings and the Pirates are so (relatively) untalented, the numbers suggest that the National League Central is essentially a two-team race: Brewers vs. Cardinals.

It's been suggested that the pennant races don't begin until after the trade deadline. Well, it helps when the contenders face off on the 1st of August, and that's exactly what's happening tonight in Milwaukee, where the Brewers host the Cardinals in the first game of a three-game series. Even better, tonight's contest features former Cy Young Award winners Chris Carpenter and Zack Greinke.

Both of those guys are having weird and interesting seasons. Despite pitching just as well as he did last year, Carpenter is just 6-7. And Greinke's got a 4.50 ERA despite striking out nearly five times as many batters as he's walked. But both do rank among the National League's best starting pitchers, which makes tonight's Cardinals-Brewers game the game to watch.

And this is, of course, the series to watch because these teams are both loaded with talent and should spend the next two months battling for the one available postseason berth. And it's good to see that both clubs are finally healthy, able to deploy the lineups and pitching rotations they want to.

Handicapping the race? I like the Brewers, because they've got a better rotation and because they've got that lead. Sure, it's only 2-1/2 games and could be wiped out within 72 hours. But it could also be 5-1/2 games within 72 hours, especially considering the Brewer's (apparently) massive home-field advantage. That's why even small leads at this point in the season show up in the odds.

I also like the Brewers' lineup, which can match the Cardinals' even with David Freese at third base and Albert Pujols being Pujolsian. Casey McGehee's gotta start hitting eventually, right?

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