A funny thing happened last week in the National League Central, where as many as four teams can say that they have a chance to win the division with fewer than 50 games to go.
Andrew McCutchen, the reigning MVP, was injured and placed on the disabled list, which isn’t funny at all. But his Pittsburgh Pirates won three of the first four games without him and found themselves alone in second place Saturday morning, only 1 1/2 games behind Milwaukee.
Maybe that’s not funny either, but it is peculiar. So is a division that featured three playoff teams last season and actually has upped its number of contenders this season, with only one of its five teams completely out of contention.
Maybe next year, Chicago Cubs. Then again, maybe not.
In 2013, the Brewers were mostly out of it by August, too. But they have been in first place for all but three games in early April. It’s seems hard to believe, and many still find it inconceivable that St. Louis won’t overtake them, but it’s time to believe.
“No one ever does,” Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy said. “Being the smallest market in baseball, that’s what happens. We don’t get a lot of credit, but that’s OK. I like flying under the radar.”
Something is going to have to give, and maybe fourth-place Cincinnati will be the first to buckle. But even after St. Louis remade itself at the trade deadline, the team that wins the division could be the one that gets healthy first.
“We’ve got not just four teams, but four teams that we all think cannot only win the division but do a good job in the playoffs,” said Cardinals second baseman Matt Carpenter, the former TCU star. “It’s going to be tough.”
McCutchen is down for at least three weeks with a rib injury similar to the one that cost Ian Kinsler 25 games in 2013. Another past MVP, Cincinnati first baseman Joey Votto, needs at least another three weeks for an injured quadriceps, and the Reds are also without second baseman Brandon Phillips.
“Hopefully our guys get healthier quicker than the other team,” Reds third baseman Todd Frazier said.
The Cardinals are banking on their team MVP, catcher Yadier Molina, to return in September from thumb surgery and should also see another late-season push from Michael Wacha, their young mound hero last September and October who has been out since June with a shoulder injury.
“Who knows?” Carpenter said. “It could be youth, and it could be who gets healthy.”
Though Lucroy likes being in St. Louis’ shadow, the potential to have to fend off the Cardinals down the stretch could be daunting. St. Louis added John Lackey and Justin Masterson to its rotation at the July 31 trade deadline and will likely receive a stretch boost from Molina and Wacha.
Despite their injuries and lack of offense, the Cardinals have been no more than three games back in the past month. They entered play Saturday in third place, but only two games behind the Brewers.
Milwaukee hasn’t been injury-free either. Matt Garza hit the disabled list Tuesday with a strained oblique, and he was replaced by Mike Fiers. No matter what Rangers fans think of what Garza didn’t do down the stretch last season, he’s better than Fiers.
But Milwaukee has already survived a short stretch earlier in the season without yet another past MVP, the Biogenesis-stained Ryan Braun. The Brewers have the best run differential in the division and enough offense — second in the league in runs and homers — to go with a pitching staff that has posted the fifth-best ERA since the All-Star break.
They also have Lucroy, a pitch-framing, doubles-happy All-Star who has emerged as an unlikely MVP candidate who satisfies potential voters in WAR (4.9) and playing for a winner.
Milwaukee has proved that it isn’t going anywhere in the crowded Central race. It’s past time to believe that. But it seems hard to believe that the Brewers can hold off the Cardinals.
Lucroy knows it won’t be easy, and the Pirates and Reds are going to hang around, too.
“We’re the top four teams in the division right now, and we’re just going to beat up on each other,” Lucroy said. “Hopefully we can overcome them all, but I’ll tell you what, those teams can put together streaks as good as anybody else.”