MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

Cards' capper key in tight race for NL Central

Surging Cubs have become team to beat despite St. Louis' consistency

Cards' capper key in tight race for NL Central

They have won the World Series twice in the past decade and the National League pennant four times since 2004. They're the only ballclub in the Major Leagues that has gone to the postseason the past five years.

You better believe the Cardinals haven't lost their fastball.

Following the lead of Carlos Martinez, Trevor Rosenthal made that point loudly by striking out all three Cubs he faced early Wednesday evening, preserving a 5-3 victory.

This was a win the Cards badly needed, however.

They got it after the umpiring crew waited out a three-hour, 21-minute rain delay so the game could go nine innings rather than being stopped midway through the seventh. This counts as an extraordinary effort to complete an April game, and it could be viewed as a tip of the cap to the highly competitive NL Central.

What a great division this has become in the past year, with the Cubs doing more than just join the party. Since last August, when Chicago installed Addison Russell as its shortstop and elevated its game, the Cubs have become the team to beat in the division.

It figures to be as highly competitive in 2016 as it was last season, when three wins separated the top three teams, who also happened to be the winningest teams in the Majors. But if one of the three teams seems in danger of falling behind, the early evidence suggests that it's the Cardinals.

They held off the Pirates and Cubs last season even though they were playing without their ace, Adam Wainwright. But before the win that was highlighted by Randal Grichuk's robbery of an Anthony Rizzo homer, they had gone 0-5 against their two division rivals. Good thing then they're 7-2 against everybody else (they've played the Braves, Brewers and Reds).

Statcast: Grichuk's jumping grab

It's a long, long season. Everyone gets that. But things that happen in April don't always stay in April.

They can carry over into the summer, so better for the Cards to have at least a little bit of success facing one of the teams they'll be measured against.

For the Cardinals to defend the NL Central title they've won every year since 2013, they'll have to be just as special as they were last season, when they won 100 games. Is it even fair to ask that from a team that saw two of its most productive players, John Lackey and Jason Heyward, jump to the Cubs?

Probably not.

But say this for all three of the beasts of the NL Central: They are capable of doing amazing things.

Since Russell moved from second base to shortstop on Aug. 7, the Cubs are 49-21. That's the best record in the Majors over this stretch.

Russell stands a chance to become the Derek Jeter of his generation.

I don't say this because I think he'll get 3,465 hits and go to the All-Star Game 14 times. He is capable of doing both of those things, however.

But the real reason for the Jeter projection is that the 22-year-old Russell is a rock-solid player at the most important position on the field for a club that has shown itself capable of becoming a perennial postseason team.

By taking two of three at Busch Stadium, the Cubs have reaffirmed their place as the team to beat in the division. But you better believe they know that they know they can't afford to take anything for granted.

Since that game last August, when Russell switched places with Starlin Castro, the Cubs, Cards and Bucs are a combined 131-78 in regular-season games. That's a .627 winning percentage.

But you get a better read on their high level of play when you throw out the 22 head-to-head games that the three teams have played against each other in this stretch. Do that and the three teams fighting for superiority in the NL Central are a combined 109-56 over this time period.

That's a .661 winning percentage -- nearly two wins for every loss. At some point, the Cubs have to slow down. Don't they?

Kyle Schwarber had a lot to do with the Cubs' resurgence in 2015, but he was lost for the year in the third game of the '16 season. But the signing of Heyward and re-signing of Dexter Fowler is keeping the Cubs from feeling Schwarber's absence on a daily basis.

Manager Joe Maddon moves around his pieces with glee -- everything but a cackle, really -- and he loves the confidence that is building with his team. He also loves the competition.

The Cubs play the Cardinals 16 more times, and they haven't touched their 19-game allotment with the Pirates. The fun is just getting started.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.