Central casting: Division produces great races

In both leagues, groupings have created dramatic finishes since their creation in 1994

Central casting: Division produces great races

It's September, meaning it's officially pennant-race season, and have we got some drama in the Central divisions this year.

In the National League, the Cardinals hold a one-game edge over the Brewers -- with the Pirates charging fast.

In the American League, the Kansas City Royals -- yes, the Royals -- hold the lead, with the three-time defending champion Tigers trailing by a half-game. And don't count out the suddenly hot Indians, who have closed the gap to 4 1/2.

By the time the season is over, these races could go down among the best in history. Factoring in the Wild Cards, the scenarios seem more endless than ever.

Remember, folks, the Central divisions as we know them weren't formed until 1994, when baseball went from two divisions in each league to three.

So, in 20 years of Central races, where might the upcoming September thrillers stack up? Only time will tell. And until that time, here's a look at 10 of the best Central races:

10. 2006 AL Central: Twins over Tigers by one game
Surely, this race would rank higher on the list under the current format. But because the Tigers were able to fall back on the one-team Wild Card, the race lost a bit of its luster. Still, there's no denying the improbability of the Twins' crown. Detroit appeared to have pulled away, building a 10-game lead by early August. But the Twins clawed their way into the picture, beginning with three straight victories over the Tigers in early September, which cut Detroit's deficit to two games. Ultimately, the Twins won the division on the final day, thanks to a pivotal two-run homer by Torii Hunter coupled with a Tigers loss to Kansas City.

9. 2005 AL Central: White Sox over Indians by six games
For six of seven months during the 2005 season, the White Sox were nearly flawless. But ask any South Sider about what that September was like, and they'll tell you they spent most of the month on pins and needles. After the White Sox had built an Aug. 1 lead of 15 games, they found their cushion at just 1 1/2 with 10 days to go. They had lost four of six, including two of three to the hard-charging Indians. But Jose Contreras pitched a complete-game gem to snap the skid and Chicago won eight of its last 10 before cruising to the city's first World Series title in 88 years. The Indians, meanwhile, lost six of their last seven and missed out on the Wild Card on the season's final day.

8. 2007 NL Central: Cubs over Brewers by two games
In 2007, the Brewers jumped ahead of the pack in May and built an 8 1/2-game lead by the middle of June. But it slipped away very quickly. The Cubs moved into a tie for first on Aug. 1, and from that point on, neither team owned a lead of more than 3 1/2 games. Carlos Zambrano pitched six crucial shutout innings against the Pirates with a week to go, and five days later he shut out the Reds over seven frames to win again as the Cubs clinched the first of two straight division titles.

7. 2012 AL Central: Tigers over White Sox by three games
The Tigers were a juggernaut, boasting AL Most Valuable Player Miguel Cabrera, a healthy and in-his-prime Prince Fielder, the previous season's MVP in Justin Verlander and a rotation that had finally come together behind him. But they didn't move into the lead in the division until a week remained in the season. The surprising White Sox, led by rookie manager Robin Ventura, were poised to make a run at the crown, leading by three games on Sept. 18. But they dropped 11 of their final 15, allowing the Tigers to pull away. During the second half of the season, the White Sox held sole possession of first place for 66 days, compared to the Tigers' 11. But Detroit held the edge -- a three-game margin -- when it really counted, on Oct. 3.

6. 2006 NL Central: Cardinals over Astros by 1 1/2 games
In a race that no one seemed to want to win, the Cardinals limped into the postseason, having barely staved off the Astros with just 83 wins to their name. The rest, of course, is history, as Yadier Molina and David Eckstein propelled St. Louis to a 10th World Series title. But the Cards saw a seven-game late-September lead dwindle to three after being swept in a four-game set in Houston. Eventually, that lead had decreased to a half-game entering the season's final weekend. But the Cards won two straight against Milwaukee and won the flag on the final day by virtue of an Astros loss in Atlanta.

5. 2013 NL Central: Cardinals over Pirates by three games
In what can only be described as one of the best three-team races in recent memory, the Cardinals outlasted the Reds and the Cinderella-story Pirates. The Pirates and Cards sat tied atop the division in late September before St. Louis won 10 of 12 to finish the season. This time, the thrilling division race spilled over into a thrilling postseason division battle. The Pirates beat the Reds in the Wild Card Game, an epic return of playoff baseball to the Steel City. Then, the Cardinals bested the Pirates in a tense five-game Division Series, in which Adam Wainwright tossed a complete-game gem for the clincher.

4. 2003 NL Central: Cubs over Astros by one game
Another great three-team race saw the Cubs, Astros and Cardinals wage a season-long battle, with all three teams having held a lead at some point in September. The Cardinals, however, opened the final month by losing 10 of their first 14 games and faded fast. The Cubs took the lead for good on Sept. 23 behind seven innings of one-hit ball from Kerry Wood, and they clinched the division by sweeping the Pirates in a doubleheader on the season's penultimate day. Mark Prior pitched the opener, and Matt Clement earned the win in the clincher.

3. 1999 NL Central: Astros over Reds by 1 1/2 games
By the All-Star break it was obvious that the NL Central would be a two-horse race between the Astros and Reds. It remained that way until the season's final week, when Houston ace Mike Hampton pitched eight innings of one-run ball to beat Cincinnati, evening the standings heading into the final weekend. The Astros hosted the Dodgers while the Reds visited Milwaukee -- and in the meantime, the Wild Card was up for grabs, too, with the surging Mets sitting two games back of both clubs. Working on three days' rest, Hampton tossed another gem on the final day to clinch the division for Houston. The Reds, meanwhile, lost two of three and were shut out by Mets ace Al Leiter in a 163rd game to decide the Wild Card.

2. 2008 AL Central: White Sox over Twins in Game 163
The season-long race between the White Sox and Twins wasn't decided by the final scheduled day of the regular season, so it went an extra day ... and then another. Having built a 2 1/2-game lead over Minnesota entering the final week, the White Sox were swept by the Twins, with Alexi Casilla's dramatic walk-off single highlighting the third and final game. In total, the White Sox lost six straight, but they rebounded to beat Cleveland on the scheduled final day, pulling within a half-game of Minnesota. Gavin Floyd then pitched the White Sox to a win over Detroit in a makeup game, setting the stage for a one-game playoff on the South Side. In a chillingly tense affair, the White Sox won, scoring the game's only run on a Jim Thome home run in the seventh.

1. 2009 AL Central: Twins over Tigers in Game 163
One year later, Minnesota made amends for its devastating loss to the White Sox. The Twins hadn't held sole possession of first place since April 10 but they finished the season by winning five straight to pass the Tigers, who had held a seven-game lead with four weeks to play. Detroit's collapse began with a three-game sweep at the hands of the Royals, and it ended with a 12-inning thriller at the Metrodome. The Tigers scored what appeared to be the game-winning run on a Brandon Inge double in the 10th only to see Fernando Rodney allow a run in the bottom of the inning. Then, in Rodney's fourth inning, Casilla's ground ball through the right side plated Carlos Gomez, completing the Twins' improbable comeback in winning their first of two straight division titles.

AJ Cassavell is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @ajcassavell. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.