MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

NL Central contenders hit crucial stretch of schedule

NL Central contenders hit crucial stretch of schedule

Maybe you're waiting for those six September games between the Pirates and Cardinals to settle the National League Central. As a wise man once said, "You never know."

These next 10 days might just be critical to the race when the Marlins, Rockies and Brewers could have a hand in deciding how important those September games are. At least there's that chance. This is always the interesting sidebar of a pennant race.

These games ought to inject energy into teams playing out a disappointing season. Baseball people say teams and players reveal a lot about themselves by how they approach such things. And they don't forget who responded and who didn't.

The Bucs trail the Cards by 3 1/2 games, while the Cubs are 6 1/2 back.

McCutchen's two-run double

The Cardinals, Pirates and Cubs all play one another six times apiece in September, and there's a chance this division will produce three postseason teams. At the moment, though, Pittsburgh is the club with a reasonable shot at catching St Louis.

To erase that 3 1/2-game deficit, the Pirates probably need to make up some ground over these next 10 days. They have that opportunity. While the Bucs are playing nine games against clubs a combined 69 games below .500, the Cardinals play three teams that are nine games over .500.

First, the Marlins. The Pirates won the first game of a four-game series on Monday night. Miami is 9-20 since July 24. Pittsburgh is 20-8 in this stretch. And since the middle of the 2013 season, the Bucs are 11-2 against the Marlins. They have to keep that momentum going.

And then the Rockies come to PNC Park for three games. There are similar numbers. Colorado is 6-19 since July 29. The Rockies lost four of six against the Pirates last season.

Finally, the Pirates have three games at Milwaukee. The Brewers are 19 games below .500, but they've won five of their past six games against the Bucs.

Polanco's four-hit night

Regardless, the Pirates know how important these games are. Since starting 18-22, they're 57-26. That's the best record in the Majors over that stretch. The Cardinals are second at 52-31.

The Cards have had baseball's best record virtually this entire season. They're the only team on pace to win 100 games -- 103, to be precise. The Royals are an eyelash behind, on a 99-win pace.

St. Louis has been been alone atop the NL Central since April 17. The Cardinals' lead has been as big as nine games, but over the past 12 days, the Pirates have closed the gap from seven games to 3 1/2.

The Cardinals continued a 10-game road trip with a 5-3 victory over the D-backs on Monday. They've got three more in Phoenix, then three in San Francisco and three at home against the Nationals before the Pirates arrive on Sept. 4.

All three of St. Louis' opponents are in contention, so there's a different kind of urgency. Certainly, the Giants and Nationals believe they're good enough to win a championship. And the D-backs have defied all the conventional wisdom by creeping back into contention.

Rosenthal seals the victory

The Cardinals and Pirates both have a core of players that have been to the postseason and understand the ebb and flow of a race. They also understand that playing the most important game of a season one week only means that next week's games are even more important.

From the first day of Spring Training, the Pirates said their goal was to avoid a third straight appearance in the NL Wild Card Game. Which meant winning the division. Their margin for error is slim, but the Bucs still have that chance.

Meanwhile, the Cubs have an equally interesting dynamic with all that youth and energy and a manager, Joe Maddon, who has a knack for saying and doing the right thing.

But the Cubs have a tough week, playing two teams -- the Dodgers and Giants -- who are a combined 19 games over .500. And there are those 12 September games with the teams in front of them.

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The Cubs finish the season with six games on the road against the Reds and Brewers. If they end up in the playoffs for the first time since 2008, they will have done it the hard way.

Regardless, there's still 25 percent of the schedule remaining, so nothing will be decided this week or even next. But these next 10 days could offer a clearer picture of what the final weeks will look like. Stay tuned.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.