Central Division Crown Still Not Out of Reach for the Cubs

Just two weeks ago, the Cubs looked to have only a Wild Card spot left to play for. But with plenty of baseball left, the division is still within reach for Chicago.

Last weekend, the St. Louis Cardinals swept the Chicago Cubs and pushed them to 11.5 games back in the NL Central. The Cards had the best record in baseball at the time they finished off that series, at 51-24. As for the Cubs, they have fallen far enough out of first place in the division that fighting for a Wild Card spot is all they have left this season.

Or is it? The Cardinals have now lost three straight games, two to the White Sox and the first of a four-game series with the Padres. The Cubs, on the other hand, went to New York and swept the Mets, with their pitching staff allowing only one run in three games. The Cubs now sit only 8.5 back (let’s party, right?), and there is at least a reasonable amount of doubt about whether the Cards have the division completely wrapped up.

07 MAY 2015:  St. Louis Cardinals right fielder Jason Heyward (22) is called safe at second base during the game between the Chicago Cub and St. Louis Cardinals at the Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Missouri.

The Cardinals still have three games left at home with the Padres, who currently sit at 38-43 on the season. The Padres are 9-15 in their last 26 games and their season is going into a tailspin. Considering that the Cards are so good, they shouldn’t have much trouble claiming at least two of the final three games of the series.

During that time, the Cubs will return home to play against the Miami Marlins, who just lost Giancarlo Stanton to injury and are 5-9 in their last two weeks. Assuming the Cubs stay at 8.5 games back by the time their series ends, they’ll go into a four-game set with the Cardinals at Wrigley Field with an opportunity to make up some ground.

The down side of that is that the Cubs are 2-7 against the Cardinals this year. There’s a decent chance that the Cards roll into Wrigley, beat the Cubs two or three times, and possibly push them even further out of first place. But the Cubs will likely have Jorge Soler back in the lineup by then, and the bullpen has already welcomed back Neil Ramirez. The arrow in the health category is trending upward, which is great news for them in the near and long-term future.

The Cardinals, on the other hand, are in the midst of some injury issues. Adam Wainwright and Matt Adams are done for the season, while Matt Holliday is missing from the lineup right now as well. They’ve survived the injuries as only the Cardinals can, getting better and better the more players go down. Unfortunately, eventually the luck runs out.

The Cardinals have a 2.64 ERA as a team on the season, but their team FIP is 3.21. That’s a difference of 0.57, which is reasonably large. It’s not surprising to many that watch closely that the Cards pitching has outperformed their abilities this season. With the pitching staff being led by Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez, two guys that have never thrown more than 110 innings in the Major Leagues, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if the Cardinals start to see some regression.

After their four-game set with the Cubs in Chicago, the Cardinals head to Pittsburgh for four games with the Pirates. Speaking of the Pirates, they’re only six games back in the division entering play today. But the focus here is on the experienced Cardinals the the young, inexperienced Cubs. The next two weeks are big for the Cardinals to show that they really have a control over the division.

16 May 2015: Chicago Cubs second baseman Addison Russell (22) turning a double play during a MLB game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Chicago Cubs, Wrigley Field, Chicago, Il

The Cubs, meanwhile, finish up their series with the Cardinals and then tackle 20 consecutive games against teams with losing records. To say that their future is in their hands is still accurate. But again, to overtake the Cardinals, the Cubs will actually have to beat the Cardinals. With 10 games left between the two rivals, and seven of those to be played in Chicago, it’s not out of the realm of possibility right now.

The Cubs are still in third place, at 42-35, sitting in the second Wild Card spot and 2.5 games behind the Pirates for second in the division. To win the division, they’d not only have to overtake the Cardinals but the Pirates as well. The task for the Cubs to win the division is a tall order, and the likeliness of it happening are low.

But for the Cardinals to end up losing the division, either to the Cubs or the Pirates, the chances are still very real. They’ve had a significant amount of magic involved in creating one of the best starts of any team in the history of the league. Of course, they’re also a very good team. Despite the difference in their ERA and their FIP, the pitching is still extremely good. Their hitting leaves a bit to be desired, especially with Holliday out, but so far they’ve found a way to overcome it.

So while things looked bad for the Cubs after losing all three to the Cardinals last weekend, the truth of the matter is that it’s more of a learning experience for a young team than it is an indication of how far they are away from contending in the division. If the Cubs are able to use that experience to make themselves better, they’re going to have a good chance to chase down the Cardinals in the next few months.

It’s going to be fun to watch over the next several weeks. Either the Cubs are going to creep ever closer to the two teams ahead of them, or the Cardinals are going to use their head-to-head match-ups to stiff-arm the Cubs in the division. No one knows which will happen, but one thing is for certain.

It’s not over until the fat lady sings.

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