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BenFred: NL Central opponents have cooled, but still hold one big edge on Cardinals

Put yourself in the Yankees’ pinstripes.

They have scratched and clawed their way from a bad start, to playing winning baseball.

They woke up Saturday morning with 22 wins. They had won seven of their last 10 games. What did they have to show for it?


They were last in their division, eight games back of the 30-win Rays.

If they called the National League Central home, their 22 wins would have been enough for sole control of first place.

So, unequivocally yes, is the answer when you have wondered at times if things could possibly get worse for a slow-to-launch Cardinals team.

A division that looked surprisingly capable of burying manager Oliver Marmol’s club early into a half-century worst start has stalled, buying the Cardinals time to recover — if they can.

As of Saturday, no NL Central club had an active winning streak of more than two games.

Fourth-place Cincinnati was the only team to not lose more games (five) than it won (five) over the past 10 tries.

Division-leading Milwaukee had not won a May series entering the Brewers’ current one against Kansas City.

The second-place Pirates, once 20-8, were on a 1-10 slide since the last day of April.

The third-place Cubs have gone from 12-7, to .500.

This suddenly looks more like the division the defending division champion Cardinals were supposed to win again. Time will tell if they can make and hold the necessary improvements in order to rebound well enough to take the invitation and run with it. It would be unwise to assume these three Cardinals challengers will be lost in the wilderness forever. They have pitched too well this season for that.

Projections now like the Brewers’ chances of winning the division best of all, with FanGraphs assigning Milwaukee a 54.3% chance compared to the Cubs’ 17.8, followed by the Cardinals’ 15.2 and the Pirates’ 11.8.

Forget the projections.

Focus on the pitching.

The Cubs as of Saturday had the National League’s lead in quality starts (20) and the second-best NL rotation ERA (3.35), trailing only the heavyweight Braves (3.29). The Cubs also owned the NL’s lowest bullpen ERA (3.42) as well. (It’s not pitching, but the Cubs are also benefitting from robust outfield production. Their in-the-grass guys are producing an NL-best combined on-base plus slugging percentage of .830. The Cardinals are getting a .704.)

The Brewers’ 17 quality starts, matched with the Dodgers, was paired with a 3.70 rotation ERA that ranked fourth in the NL. Brewers relievers also owned the NL’s third-lowest bullpen ERA (3.59). Milwaukee is doing this despite its pitching staff producing the NL’s second-lowest amount of strikeouts. Brewers arms had complied only 295 compared to the league-leading Braves’ 369, but with the combination of competitive pitching and a defense that is grading out as one of the best in baseball this season, outs are coming and runs are being held in check.

Even the Pirates have produced a surprising 19 quality starts. Pittsburgh’s rotation has an NL sixth-best 3.96 ERA. Pittsburgh relievers’ combined 3.52 ERA is third-best in the NL.

After the Cardinals’ offense carried Friday night’s 8-6 win at Fenway, the Cardinals’ rotation ERA was up to 5.44, ranking second-last in the NL, trailing only the struggling Reds. The bullpen’s 3.89 ERA is highest among NL Central opposition.

If the Cardinals do make an eventual charge, turning a three-game winning streak and series win in Chicago into a motivating romp in Boston and beyond, perhaps, the bats will need to lead the way. They must cover for a pitching staff the front office was far too optimistic about. And if it does happen, the Cardinals’ division foes will have no one to blame but themselves due to their collective pre-June swoon that handed the Cardinals time, gift-wrapped, to recover. The Pirates and Brewers and Cubs, oh my, had the Cardinals backed into the corner early, then dropped their guard, all three of them.

It’s a good way to leave yourself open to getting punched.

Just don’t ignore the best way to recover is something those teams, so far, have done quite well, and something the Cardinals are continuing to search for ways to correct on the fly, again.

It’s to pitch, and pitch well.

The Brewers' Rowdy Tellez hits a two-run double during the seventh inning against the Cardinals on Sunday, April 9, 2023, in Milwaukee.

The Brewers’ Rowdy Tellez hits a two-run double during the seventh inning against the Cardinals on Sunday, April 9, 2023, in Milwaukee.

Ben Frederickson

@Ben_Fred on Twitter

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