Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Gordon: NL Central No Longer an Easy Path for Cardinals

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Gordon: NL Central No Longer an Easy Path for Cardinals

Article excerpt

This time last year the Milwaukee Brewers decided to pack it in.

Weary of the responsibilities incumbent upon first-place clubs, they stepped aside and allowed the Cardinals to win the National League Central. The Brewers lost 22 of their last 31 games, including five of seven against the Cardinals.

This fly-over division provided the Redbirds an easy path to postseason play, as it did so many other times in recent years.

So perhaps it is only fair that their road to the playoffs this summer is fraught with danger. The Cardinals may have to win 100 games just to avoid the dreaded play-in game.

The second-place Pirates recently went 13-5 while playing three division leaders and three playoff contenders. That gave them ample momentum as they rolled into a soft spot in their schedule.

"We haven't relaxed since opening day," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle told reporters in Miami, where the Pirates split their first two games against the Marlins. "We're not going to relax. We need to be ready to play. We're definitely not going to sit back and say, 'Whew, that was a tough stretch. Let's take this series off.' Not a chance."

Meanwhile the third-place Cubs won 21 of 25 games to move 22 games over .500. They built a commanding lead over the San Francisco Giants for the second wild-card spot.

"You have to get to five, 10, 15 and 20 games over and keep moving it from there," manager Joe Maddon told the ESPN Radio affiliate in Chicago. "We just continue to play better baseball. Our young guys are really getting their feet on the ground. I don't think anyone is highly fatigued. I think our pitching is in pretty good order right now. Plus, we're playing better defense."

NL Central powers are rolling over the top of the league. One example: The Cardinals, Pirates and Cubs have combined to go 17-3 against the Mets, the first-place team in the NL Least.

Such imbalance leaves many pundits wondering if the three- division/wild-card playoff alignment has become obsolete. Thanks to Bud Selig's silly play-in game format, the No. 2 and No. 3 teams in the league probably will square off under sudden death rules.

Yes, single elimination games are exciting. But so is Greco- Roman bear wrestling, and there is no place for that in civilized society.

(The play-in game was Selig's second-worst decision as commissioner, topped only by his ridiculous decree that tied World Series home-field advantage to the outcome of the All-Star Game. One assumes that new commissioner Rob Manfred will correct both of these blunders in due time.)

Sooner or later, the odds had to even up for the Cardinals. If you believe in divine intervention, perhaps it was time for the baseball gods to frown on them and bring some sunshine to other teams.

This once-proud division drifted into slapstick midway through the previous decade. It delivered its biggest punch line in 2006 when the Cardinals won the NL (Comedy) Central with just 83 victories. …

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