With Sweep of Pirates, Cardinals Take Control of NL Central

As August has turned into September and October gets closer, Major League Baseball is filled with tight playoff race.  Oakland and Los Angeles are locked in a tight battle out west, as are the Tigers and Royals in the AL Central.  However, the most exciting race in the National League, in my opinion, is the NL Central.

The Cardinals came into the season as the favorite, as their deep starting rotation and terrific bullpen was supposed to take them straight to the playoffs. Unfortunately for them, their offense has been so bad that the pitching hasn't mattered.

The St. Louis offense has struggled mightily all season.  They currently rank 26th out of the 30 MLB teams in runs scored, which is one of the main reasons why they have trailed the Brewers for most of the season.

They trailed the Brewers by two games on the July 31st Trade Deadline, and general manager John Mozeliak targeted pitching help.  He went against popular opinion then, trading for John Lackey and Justin Masterson when every sign pointed to him acquiring hitters.

He sent one of his best hitters, outfielder Allen Craig, as well as talented young pitcher Joe Kelly, to the Red Sox for Lackey.  Also, they got Masterson from the Indians in exchange for minor league outfielder James Ramsey, the team's first-round selection in the 2012 draft and one of their most promising prospects.

The trade didn't pay dividends right away, they went 5-6 in their first eleven games after the trade, but they have started to play better baseball of late.  Just recently, they swept one of their other NL Central rivals.  The Cards beat the Pirates in three straight close games, at the same time seizing control of the division.

It was a very tight series, every game was decided by two runs or fewer, but the Cards came out on top.  They got a solid start from Lance Lynn in the first game, an uncharacteristically outing from Adam Wainwright where he gave up four runs, and then a sterling performance by Shelby Miller in Game 3 in which the Cardinals won the game 1-0 thanks to Peter Bourjous' walk-off RBI single in the bottom of the ninth.

Manager Mike Matheny leaned heavily on the bullpen over the course of the series, and they were up to the challenge.  St. Louis relievers allowed only one run over 14 innings of work, bringing back memories of their tremendous effort that took the Cards all the way to the World Series in 2013.

The hitting is coming along too.  Matt Holiday's recent surge has boosted the lineup, as has Yadier Molina's return from the disabled list.  The emergence of Matt Adams as a legitimate power threat has been invaluable, but the other players in the lineup need to step up as well.  Matt Carpenter is not hitting as well as he did last year, but he is an ultra-consistent leadoff hitter.  He a very patient hitter and possesses one of the best batting eyes in the league.  

Rookie Oscar Taveras is one of the elite prospects in all of baseball, but he has not yet lived up to his massive potential.  He has hit a little better now that he is the primary right fielder after Craig was dealt, but he needs to continue to improve for the Cardinals to make another run deep into the playoffs.

The pitching, on the other hand, is loaded.  Wainwright is one of the best starters in the league, Lackey is having a fine season, Lynn eats up innings and always finds a way to win, and Shelby Miller is a talented but inconsistent youngster.  Masterson is having a down season, but the Cardinals are hoping that he can turn it around after it was just recently announced that he will move to the bullpen for the foreseeable future.

The bullpen, once again, is one of the team's main strenghts.  Trevor Rosenthal has struggled at times in his inagural season as the closer, but overall, he has been effective and his 41 saves are tied for the league lead.

Pat Neshek has been one of the best relievers in the league.  He is 7-1 and sports a magnificent 1.37 ERA.  Seth Maness has been a very reliable, logging seventy innings out of the 'pen, and they have a host of other young, live arms who have the ability to get outs in the late innings.  

Such a deep relieving core is a terrific luxury for a manager to have.  Also, the Cardinal roster has great depth off the bench.  Speedy outfielders Jon Jay and Peter Bourjos give Matheny the option of opting for a double switch late in games to maximize the offensive output.

Expect the Cardinals to hold off the Brewers for the division championship, and also make a run similar to last season.  However, any run to the World Series is going to have to go through the Dodgers.  That is a tall order for any team to accomplish, but a deep pitching staff and an opportunistic lineup gives the Cardinals a fighting chance.