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Yelich hits 31st homer; Reds beat Brewers 5-4 in 11 innings

Milwaukee Brewers' Christian Yelich (22) is greeted at home plate by Mike Moustakas (11) following a solo home run off Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Tanner Roark during the fourth inning of a baseball game, Tuesday, July 2, 2019, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Gary Landers)

Abject mediocrity? Or almost unprecedented balance?

You could look at the National League Central Division in each of those two ways for the first 90 or so games. But, as in any race, there will be a winner.

As the post-All-Star break schedule begins Friday for teams in the division, those five clubs have won 223 games and lost 222. The difference between first (Chicago) and last (Cincinnati) is 4½ games — and fourth-place Pittsburgh is only 2½ games behind.

The Cubs have the best home record in the division, 29-16. They have the worst road record in the division, 18-27. The Cubs have the most games remaining inside the division, 46 — including 13 with Milwaukee. So perhaps they have the advantage if you think the Central is middling rather than balanced.

Milwaukee has the fewest in-division games remaining, 32, which might be a bad thing because the Brewers have the best record inside the division — 26-18.

The Cardinals, the only team at exactly .500, have 13 left with Pittsburgh, 12 with Cincinnati, 10 with Chicago and nine with Milwaukee. Will the division champion even win 90 games?

We ask again: Underachieving teams? Or great parity?

“I think it’s both,” Milwaukee All-Star infielder Mike Moustakas said. “Obviously, in Milwaukee, we haven’t been playing great baseball. But we’ve been staying up at the top.

“It’s a really tough division. Pittsburgh’s great. St. Louis is great. Chicago is great. Cincinnati’s got a great team as well. Their pitching staff is phenomenal. Their offense is great. They do a lot of great things over there.”

Moustakas certainly has taken the high road in his estimation of Central Divison teams. But his main point can’t be argued much.

“Everybody’s got a chance,” he said. “And I think that makes it fun.”

Chicago All-Star Kris Bryant is counting on the Cubs being a strong second-half club, as they often have been under manager Joe Maddon.

“His message is always clear. With Joe, he never changes good or bad, and I appreciate that from him,” Bryant said. “I’m looking forward to his message for the second half.”

Asked his take on mediocre vs. dangerous in the Central, Bryant said, “Both. If you ask me about my team, yeah, super-underachieving. If you look at the other teams . . . I think the Reds are way better. The Reds are one of the most underrated team in the league. They’ve got a solid lineup and they had two pitchers at the All-Star Game (Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray).

“The Cardinals are always going to be there and the Brewers obviously are great. When you’re playing against your division, you’ve got to find a way to beat up on your division. That’s the easiest way to separate yourselves.”

Milwaukee outfielder Christian Yelich, the league’s most valuable player last year who is in the running again this season, said the race should be good the rest of the way.

“Before the season even started, we anticipated the division being close,” he said. “It’s great to have all those fan bases engaged until the end. We’re all beating up on each other. Everybody can probably say they haven’t played their best baseball this year but, at the end of the day, we’ve all put ourselves (in position) to have something to play for in the second half.”

The consensus seems to be that the Central doesn’t have the best first-place team but it certainly has the best last-place team in the league. Make of that what you will.

Following is a capsule dive into each division as the long stretch drive begins:

NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL

Biggest surprise: The Reds. They used to be a high-scoring team on both sides of the ball. But their offense ranks 14th out of 15 in batting average (.235) and runs scored. Their pitching, often suspect — especially when playing in the bandbox of Great American Ball Park — ranks second in ERA, to Los Angeles at 3.77, and second in batting average against, .233.

Biggest disappointment: Every team in the division has one. Chicago’s Yu Darvish has two wins in 18 starts and a 5.01 ERA. Milwaukee’s Travis Shaw is hitting .164 and has been sent to the minors. The Cardinals’ Matt Carpenter probably is the most underachieving player here, at .216 with a .325 OBP. Pittsburgh righthander Chris Archer is at 3-6 and 5.49. Perennial All-Star Joey Votto almost unbelievably has only 22 RBIs for the Reds.

What to watch for: The Brewers and Cardinals will trade for pitching. The Cubs might trade for pitching and offense. Cincinnati won’t be giving away anybody. There will be home runs. But there will be home runs everywhere.

“I don’t think it’s bad for baseball,” said Yelich, whose 31 homer top the leaderboard. “I think people want to see home runs. When I was going to games as a kid, I wanted to see home runs. I think it’s great for the game.”

X-factor: Division play. So, so many head-to-head matchups are left. But Cardinals All-Star shortstop Paul DeJong said you need to take care of yourself first. “We’ve got to play the ball — and not the opponent,” he said.

NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST

Biggest surprise: Washington Nationals (twice). With the best pitcher in the league, Max Scherzer, and two other top-drawer starters in Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, the Nationals managed to lose 31 of their first 50 games. Then, when everyone counted them out, they went 28-11 and seized control of a potential wild-card playoff spot. That is one team you don’t want to play in a one-game postseason series.

Biggest disappointment: Philadelphia Phillies. After signing Bryce Harper, trading for J.T. Realmuto and Jean Segura and later Jay Bruce, the Phillies were dubbed favorites to win the division. Now they’re in third place, albeit only a half game behind Washington.

What to watch for: Which bullpen among Atlanta, Washington and Philadelphia becomes the best. None really is all that good, although the Nationals have the No. 1 closer in the division in Sean Doolittle.

X-factor: Atlanta lefthander Dallas Keuchel, a free agent who had to wait until after the June draft to sign without compensation needed, is starting to find form. The Braves can use that veteran pitching presence to go with young guns Mike Soroka and Max Fried.

NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST

Biggest surprise: That Los Angeles’ Clayton Kershaw is having a good, injury-free year but he’s been surpassed by All-Star Game starter Hyun-Jin Ryu and perhaps Walker Buehler, too, as the Dodgers’ best. The two-time NL champions were good but few figured they would have the division wrapped up by the All-Star break.

Biggest disappointment: Colorado’s young rotation, so strong last year, was the worst in the league in the first half, posting a 5.57 ERA. Seventeen-game winner Kyle Freeland, who also had a 2.85 ERA, is 2-6 with a 7.13 ERA — then 0-4, 8.40 in six starts after being demoted to Albuquerque.

What to watch for: A scramble for a wild-card spot. Arizona and Colorado won’t run down the Dodgers, but they’e capable of beating out the several other contenders. Arizona particularly has played well lately, sweeping the Rockies in a three-game set before the break.

X-factor: The San Francisco Giants have plenty of veteran players they could move, notably lefthander Madison Bumgarner — who, if acquired by somebody else, could turn that team into a postseason contender

AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST

Biggest surprise: Tampa Bay wins this category almost every year, but the Rays have survived the poor first half (5-7, 4.70 ERA) of 2019 Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell to maintain a wild-card lead. It was a surprise (not!) that former Cardinals outfielder Tommy Pham would be critical of fans, media, etc., that didn’t give the Rays the respect he thought they deserve.

Biggest disappointment: The Boston Red Sox are experiencing that World Series hangover, just as three-time World Series champion Tony La Russa, a Red Sox executive, had feared. The Sox aren’t going to catch the Yankees, and now they’re lumped in a wild-card race with Tampa Bay, Cleveland and Oakland, among others, who all have strong clubs.

What to watch for: The Yankees and Red Sox will seek pitching depth through trade. What’s new? The Red Sox won that battle last year, acquiring postseason hero Nathan Eovaldi — who often has been hurt in his career. He is hurt again and will be of no help this year.

X-factor: The Yankees don’t necessarily need him now, but they will get outfielder Giancarlo Stanton back. They’ve compiled the league’s best record with him hitting one home run. Retiring lefthander CC Sabathia said he hadn’t been “in this good of a position with this good of a team in a long time. Let’s finish it off.”

AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL

Biggest surprise: The Minnesota Twins, who missed the playoffs last year, were 56-33 before the All-Star break, slugging a record-pace 166 homers in 89 games. The Twins knew they had home-run punch. They might not have known they had depth in starting pitching with Highland, Ill., product, Jake Odorizzi, Mizzou product Kyle Gibson, All-Star Jose Berrios and Michael Pineda.

Biggest disappointment: Cleveland third baseman Jose Ramirez. He might have had as big a drop as anybody in the game, going from 81 extra-base hits last year to just 24 so far this year — and with a .218 batting average at that.

What to watch for: Kansas City’s Whit Merrifield, a versatile defender who can hit .300 and lead a league in steals, will be highly sought after. “It will be a win-win situation, either in Kansas City, which is a great town, or I’ll be traded to a contending team,” he said.

X-factor: If Cleveland gets anything out of ace righthanders Corey Kluber (broken arm) or Carlos Carrasco (leukemia), the Indians might run down the Twins or, at least, make a wild-card slot.

AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST

Biggest surprise: The Seattle Mariners, who started out 13-2, went south after that and have lost their way in what might be baseball’s toughest division. The low-budget Oakland A’s no longer are surprises as they again contend for a wild-card spot. Their game of home runs and strong defense played just fine in St. Louis a couple of weeks ago in interleague play.

Biggest disappointment: That Albert Pujols might never play again here. What fun it was for everyone a few weeks ago, even for the Cardinals’ pitchers. But then much greater disappointment ensued for the Los Angeles Angels and all of baseball when starter Tyler Skaggs, who beat the Cardinals in the final game of the series, was found dead eight days later. The win over the Cardinals was his last.

What to watch for: Houston, which has played shorthanded because of injuries, has second baseman Jose Altuve back now, joining outfielder George Springer, who also had been out for several weeks. When shortstop Carlos Correa (fractured rib) returns this month, the Astros will be whole among their position players and should be able to pull away with the best 1-2 starting punch in baseball in All-Stars Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole.

X-factor: Who has more wins than either Verlander (10) or Cole (nine)? That would be your favorite righthander you didn’t know you would miss so much until he was gone, Texas’ Lance Lynn. The 11-game winner knows the way to postseason ball. He came out of the bullpen when La Russa didn’t want him to in Texas during the 2011 World Series and then he was a part of the continued postseason run of the Cardinals through 2015. He has been in 12 postseason series.


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