Leader Watch: Cards-Cubs rivalry heating up

Red-hot St. Louis making push for postseason, NL Central title

Leader Watch: Cards-Cubs rivalry heating up

For the Cardinals, the more things stay the same, the more they've changed.

The Cards are suddenly rolling -- winning their eighth straight game on Saturday to seize a share of first place in the National League Central.

St. Louis is 61-56, while the Cubs are 60-55, a virtual tie atop the standings. The longstanding rivalry has been swiftly renewed, just in time for the season's most critical juncture.

It's the complete opposite of what happened last season, when the Cubs ran away with the Central in the dog days of August. But interestingly, the Cardinals' record is actually nearly identical to what it was at this point in 2016.

On Aug. 12, 2016, St. Louis was 60-56. But the Cards weren't in contention for a division title, as they were 14 games behind the Cubs, who were 73-41 and had just blown out the Cardinals that same day, 13-2, at Wrigley Field.

That 14-game lead was, at the time, the Cubs' season high. They ended up steamrolling the division, of course, finishing 103-58, winning the NL Central by 17 1/2 games en route to their first World Series championship since 1908.

But this year, it's a whole new ballgame. The Cardinals and Cubs are neck-and-neck, thanks to St. Louis' surprisingly swift turnaround. Chicago had led the division outright since July 26. The Cardinals had been a season-high 6 1/2 games out of first place as recently as July 16, and they were 5 1/2 games back of the Cubs at the beginning of August.

Not anymore. The Cardinals' 61-56 record in 2017 means something completely different to what it did in '16. It's a marker of how the team has stayed resilient and clawed its way back into contention.

St. Louis' offense is pacing the Major Leagues in August, having produced an MLB-best 78 runs after Saturday's 6-5 win over the Braves. Even before the game, the Cardinals ranked near the top of the league in all three slash line categories in August: Their .280 batting average led the NL, their .389 on-base percentage led the Majors, and their .474 slugging was second in the NL.

It all adds up to St. Louis readying itself to make a push for the postseason. The Cardinals are in the thick of the playoff race as the season's stretch run kicks into high gear. What a difference a year makes.

David Adler is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @_dadler. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.