Darren Richardson

If someone had told me on Opening Day that the National League Central would have three teams playing better than .600 baseball on Memorial Day, I would have been tempted to reply with “I’ll take that bet.”

It’s a good thing that conversation never occurred, because I would have lost.

The three top teams in the NL Central – the St. Louis Cardinals (.653), the Cincinnati Reds (.620) and the Pittsburgh Pirates (.620) enter Memorial Day action with the three best records in the National League. The Redbirds own the best record overall at 32-17, and only the Texas Rangers (.640) of the American League West stand in the way of the NL Central having the three best records in all of baseball.

The first thing that strikes me about Cardinals, Reds and Pirates is that they are all playing the kind of baseball it takes to reach the postseason. The Cardinals, of course, won the World Series in 2011 and fell one game short of returning to the Fall Classic in 2012. The Reds have made the playoffs two of the last three years, losing last year in the division round to the San Francisco Giants. The Pirates, on the other hand, haven’t finished above .500 since coming oh-so-close in 1992, when they gave up three runs to the Atlanta Braves in the bottom of the ninth in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series, losing 3-2.

Recent history would indicate that the Cardinals and Reds have what it takes to challenge for a postseason spot, and the Pirates are showing they have the arms to win games. If the Pittsburgh offense comes around, there is a very real possibility that both NL wild card teams could come from the same division.

The 2012 season was the first time baseball had a total of four wild card teams, two from each league facing off in a one-game playoff. The Cardinals topped the Braves in the NL and Baltimore Orioles topped the Rangers in the American League. It would be a fitting end to a tight three-team race to see the second- and third-place teams battle it out in a one-game playoff.

Looking ahead, both the Cardinals and Reds seem to have the personnel to sustain their winning ways, and with the season a little less than a third of the way over, it’s not a stretch to suggest we’ll be watching both teams in October. The Pirates are a little trickier to assess, although at this phase, their team Earned Run Average of 3.20 is second only to the 3.12 posted by the pitching staff in St. Louis. The Reds are right there in the pitching department as well, with a team E.R.A of 3.29, tied with the Atlanta Braves for third best in baseball.

The old baseball dictum that good pitching beats good hitting is still true, but the Pirates hitting could use a lift. The Pirates are 12th in the NL with a .242 team average, eighth in runs scored with 192 and 10th in on-base percentage with .309.

The Cards (.265, 228 and .330) are third, third and second in those respective categories, with the Reds (.255, 237 and .336) ranking seventh, second and first. Clearly the Cardinals and the Reds have shown offensive capabilities that the Pirates have not.

With five other NL teams – Atlanta, Washington, San Francisco, Arizona and Colorado – playing above .500, it may be difficult for the Pirates to keep pace as the season wears on. Strong young arms are one thing, but those arms need run support to keep them happy. Regardless of what happens from here on out, however, the trio of winning NL Central teams deserve recognition for the way they’ve dominated the league thus far.

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