The Cardinals are as efficient as a Swiss watch. They lost their ace in April but never missed a beat. Adam Wainwright had helped the Cards get off to a 12-4 start, and they have kept ticking on a pace to win 100-plus games as well as stay in range to chase the franchise record of 106 wins.
The Cardinals needed to set such a high standard. The Pirates have been almost as strong as they attempt to go to the postseason for a third consecutive year, this time as division champ. They were 18-22 on May 20 before reeling off a 21-5 stretch to drop the surprising Cubs into third place. No team has been more interesting than the one managed by Joe Maddon, which is contending for a Wild Card spot with four rookies, including All-Star Kris Bryant, in the lineup.
A 5-17 April buried the Brewers. The Reds joined them at the bottom of the division with a nine-game losing during an 11-16 May.
The Cubs, who added pitchers Dan Haren and Tommy Hunter, get 15 cracks at the depleted division rivals. The Pirates play them 13 times. Pittsburgh is battling a run of injuries, but it made the most changes in July. The Bucs added closer Joakim Soria and swing man Joe Blanton to an already strong bullpen, J.A. Happ to a rotation that has lost A.J. Burnett to a strained right elbow and Aramis Ramirez and Michael Morse to a versatile collection of position players.
Who might still make a move?
Starlin Castro has hit .212 since the end of April, ranks 22nd among 25 qualified shortstops with a minus-5 Defensive Runs Saved and is on pace to commit 28 errors after muffing a potential game-ending grounder on Sunday. It's unclear if he'll remain the Cubs' shortstop into September as there are internal options available in Addison Russell and Javier Baez, who is hitting .311 with a .940 OPS for Triple-A Iowa. Moving Castro's contract is a challenge, however. Stephen Piscotty has hit .400 in his first 12 games in the Cards' outfield, which could preclude the need for them to replace Matt Holliday, sidelined with a Grade 2 quadriceps strain.
Player to watch
Only 25 and in his third full season, the Cubs' Anthony Rizzo is the key piece for a team trying to reach the playoffs with the second-youngest group of hitters in the NL. He hasn't backed off the plate an inch after already being hit by a pitch club-record 21 times, and he has addressed two areas that have limited him in the past. Rizzo is batting .330 against left-handers (up from .189 in 2013) and .325 with a 1.074 OPS with runners in scoring position (up from .241 and .748 last season). He's on pace for 31 homers and a career-high 95 RBIs, and he will be in the Most Valuable Player discussion if the Cubs reach the postseason.
There's a chance that the Central could produce both Wild Card teams. The Pirates set their sights on overtaking the Cardinals and aren't abandoning that goal with two months to go. But they are positioned solidly for the postseason either way, and should be able to position Cy Young Award candidate Gerrit Cole to work the Wild Card Game. The Cubs, with a shot at a 90-win season, are in a three-team fight (against the Giants and the Mets or Nationals, depending on who wins the East) for the second Wild Card spot. Their four-game sweep in Milwaukee over the weekend shows how they will be helped by the downsizing of the Brewers and Reds.
Series to watch
Giants @ Cubs, Thursday-Sunday
The first of two remaining series between the teams that were tied for the second Wild Card spot after Sunday. They'll play at AT&T Park from Aug. 25-27.
Pirates @ Cubs, Sept. 25-27
The last 10 days of the season should be intense for both teams and especially so if the Cubs are able to cut into their deficit behind Pittsburgh.
Cardinals @ Pirates, Sept. 28-30
After the weekend series at Wrigley Field, the Pirates will host Mike Matheny's Cards in a series that could go a long way toward deciding the division race.
Where does it go from here?
The Cardinals haven't had a losing month in more than three years, and they're not going to start now, not with the Pirates and Cubs lurking behind them and Wainwright working to get back from his Achilles surgery in time for the postseason. The Cards will win the Central for the third straight year and play in October for the fifth year in a row. The Bucs, headed for the postseason, would love nothing more than a series against St. Louis. Maddon's record in Tampa Bay suggests a strong finish, but there's no way to know how young players like Bryant, Russell, Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber will play under the stretch-run spotlight.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.