Preseason forecasters took a look at the wealth of talent atop the National League Central and predicted another tight three-horse race in 2016.
But an historic start by the Chicago Cubs has turned that race into a runaway -- so far, at least.
The Cubs currently enjoy a nine-game division lead, and with limited seating available for the NL playoffs, the season series between the Cardinals and Pirates carries even more significance. One of baseball's best rivalries in 2015 reprises its role this weekend in Pittsburgh, but that's not all there is to look forward to Saturday. A pair of marquee arms are riding a pair of hot streaks into their showdown in the Bronx.
That's just a few of the storylines worth keeping an eye on amidst a full 15-game slate across the Major Leagues on Saturday. Better yet, all of it is available in one place: MLB.TV.
MLB.TV Premium returns with the same features as last year, but at $109.99, it is a full 20 bucks cheaper than the 2015 cost. This package has the best value and provides access to more than 400 devices and a free subscription to the MLB.com At Bat Premium app (a $19.99 value). It offers the best picture quality ever -- a new 60 frames per second -- for supported devices. Monthly signups for MLB.TV Premium are now underway as well for $24.99.
The new MLB.TV Single Team package is also now available as an $84.99 yearly subscription. You can watch a single team's live out-of-market games in full HD.
Here is a look at what to watch for today in the Majors (all times ET):
St. Louis just barely won the season series, 10-9, between these two clubs on the way to 100 wins and the NL Central crown last year. The Cardinals clawed their way to a 9-3 win in 12 innings Friday night, but Pittsburgh has won five of the first seven contests in 2016.
That's the good news for Pittsburgh; the bad news is that Saturday starter Francisco Liriano has lost his way recently. The stats for Liriano over his last five starts are not kind, as he's given up an average of 11 hits, six walks and two home runs per nine innings since May 13. That's translated to an opponents' batting average of .324 and a 7.10 FIP in that span.
"Just going through a tough time right now," Liriano admitted after his last start June 3 against the Angels, in which he gave up 10 hits and seven runs in 3 1/3 innings. "I'm not making pitches, not executing pitches, and getting behind in the count too much."
Meanwhile, Cardinals starter Carlos Martinez is trending back up toward the pitcher his team needs him to be. Martinez is riding a two-game win streak while giving up three runs over his last 14 innings. Since he allowed six runs to the Cubs in the second inning of his start on May 25, Martinez has struck out 19 batters and walked four.
Stat that matters: Liriano has enjoyed his matchups with the Cardinals, going 7-2 with a 2.41 ERA in 14 career starts against the Redbirds -- including 2-0 in his first two starts against them this year. Liriano is 13-14 with a 3.85 ERA lifetime against the rest of the Pirates' NL Central rivals. Martinez, on the other hand, is 2-4 with a 4.57 ERA lifetime against Pittsburgh, and 9-3 with a 2.88 ERA against the rest of the division.
Verlander, Tanaka streak into Saturday: DET@NYY, 7:15 p.m.
After posting an ugly 5.46 ERA in April, Justin Verlander has turned his season around. In his last six starts in particular, Verlander's opponents are hitting .161 and have 10 runs over 44 2/3 innings. He's seen his four-seam fastball velocity rise from 92 mph in April to about 95 mph in his last start against Chicago, and he's traded in his slider for a tighter cut fastball that has elevated his swing-and-miss totals.
Verlander's opponent, Masahiro Tanaka, has submitted four consecutive quality starts and has not allowed more than two runs in an inning since May 10. His 1.01 WHIP ranks third in the AL.
Stat that matters: Tigers outfielder Cameron Maybin has been one of baseball's toughest outs over the last 30 days. Maybin entered Friday night carrying a .394 average in two-strike counts during that span.
MLB.TV Premium subscribers get the Mosaic View -- split screen or quad, available on PC or Mac only. That always comes in handy, especially when scoreboard-watching looms. MLB.TV Premium and MLB.TV Single Team subscribers both enjoy HD and both will get real-time highlights and player stats automatically loaded moments after they occur (only for the game you are watching with MLB.TV Single Team, and for all games with MLB.TV Premium).
Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.