MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

NL Central casting dramatic final act

NL Central casting dramatic final act

The National League Central race suddenly has gotten insane. We love insane. We can't get enough of it. In a perfect world, we'd have insane right through the final hour of the final day of the regular season.

Here's what we've got: four teams -- the Cubs, Cardinals, Brewers and Pirates -- separated by three games as we open a weekend when none of the contenders is playing each other.

The Cubs have been atop the division for the past 17 days. When they finally climbed past the Brewers on July 26, some of us figured that things finally were playing out the way we thought they would.

Meet the old boss -- same as the new boss. But they've been unable to stretch their lead past 2 1/2 games, and after losing six of eight, it's back down to one game.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals and Pirates have done themselves proud, both refusing to give in even though both were in a deep hole at one point. That they've continued to fight is a nice tribute to the two managers: Mike Matheny of the Cards and Clint Hurdle of the Bucs.

None of the four Central contenders will be in the same ballpark this weekend, which could mean there'll be even less clarity than before. Again, that's a good thing. So what do the next three days hold for these four?

MLB Tonight: Contreras' injury

1. Cubs (59-54), +1 game
At D-backs on Friday, Saturday and Sunday

Nothing has come easy in the season after the magical season. First, it was the starting rotation showing the wear and tear of three seasons of heavy work, and then it was the young guys struggling to find their way.

Just when one area gets fixed, another leak springs. At the moment, the injury to catcher Willson Contreras is a big, big blow. The backstop was carrying a 1.080 second-half OPS when he went down with a right hamstring injury in Wednesday's loss to the Giants.

If you want to see the glass as half full, it's that none of the other NL Central teams has established themselves either, and the Cubs have a group that has confronted just about every possible challenge the last two seasons.

2. Cardinals (59-56), -1 game
Home to play Braves on Friday, Saturday and Sunday

Is there a better team in baseball at the moment? A more complete team? A team with virtually no weakness? OK, well other than the Dodgers!

Hats off to you, Mike Matheny. This has been your most challenging season, and you've done yourself proud. The Cardinals are 26-16 since a 33-40 start. During their current six-game winning streak, the Redbirds have scored 17 more runs (54) than any other Major League team.

Here's to the kids: Kolten Wong (.444) and Paul DeJong (.333) have gotten hot. Here's to the veterans: Yadier Molina, Matt Carpenter and Dexter Fowler are all hot. Lance Lynn and Carlos Martinez could be a dynamic playoff presence, and Matheny's bullpen has been outstanding.

Broxton on team confidence

3. Brewers (59-58), -2 games
Home to play Reds on Friday, Saturday and Sunday

They knew there'd be a stretch like this when everything became difficult. That's what has happened during a 7-17 struggle. One day, it's the bullpen. Another, the bats go silent.

Every team goes through something like this, but it's magnified when it happens in August and September. At the moment, the bats -- 11 runs during this six-game losing streak -- are the biggest worry. The Crew has a weekend series against the last-place Reds to try to regain its mojo.

4. Pirates (57-58), -3 games
At Blue Jays on Friday, Saturday and Sunday

The Pirates have quietly crept back into contention -- nice job, Clint Hurdle -- with a long stretch of really good baseball: 20-12 since July 4. Only the Dodgers have been better in that time. The Bucs' bullpen has done nice work (3.05 ERA) in that time, and Andrew McCutchen has morphed into, well, Andrew McCutchen, with nine home runs, 23 RBIs and a .975 OPS over his last 32 games.

With Trevor Williams, Chad Kuhl and Jameson Taillon lined up behind ace Gerrit Cole, Pittsburgh has a chance to make this a four-team race deep into September.

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.