by Ian Kollar
Not much to say about this one. With just weeks remaining in the regular season, the St. Louis Cardinals continue to slide and the Cincinnati Reds are holding steady, keeping a comfortable lead and inching closer to wrapping up the division.
A few years ago, I came out and touted the Reds as an up-and-coming team. People thought I was joking. Okay, I half-was. But I enjoyed watching them when they were occasionally on television (usually against the Pittsburgh Pirates or the Phillies) and checking their box scores. It was like watching a young child grow up before my very eyes now, two years later, where first baseman Joey Votto is turning in an MVP season, second baseman Brandon Phillips is performing extremely well in the field and at the plate, and various others have filled roles, come up in clutch spots and played hard for Dusty Baker. A consummate players’ coach, Baker has done well to not let his team get complacent; they were one of the few teams in the majors this year to not go on a terrible losing streak, though they never were red hot either. A 6-game winning streak in August and a 5-game losing streak in September were anomalies. Everything else was consistent.
Their pitching rotation isn’t the best – two starters ERAs are above 4 (and former ace Aaron Harang’s was a 5, though he was hurt for a month and now pitches out of the bullpen), but their bullpen has been one of the best in the game. The late-season addition of Aroldis Chapman, a hard-throwing lefty rookie who reaches the 100s routinely, could have a similar effect to David Price on the Rays in 2008.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, trailed off late in the season, coinciding with young centerfielder Colby Rasmus complaining about team chemistry. Albert Pujols was himself throughout the season, and the pitching was as good as a Tony LaRussa-run team typically is, but something intangible was missing. And before they knew it, they were on the outside looking in for the third time in four years after a pair of World Series appearances earlier in the decade. Changes may be coming in St. Louis before Pujols’ prime is over.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Ask me the same question in July and I would’ve given you the exact opposite answer.
You see, rolling out of the All-Star break, the San Diego Padres were the hottest team in the National League, a strong bullpen and an unheralded yet efficient offense built around All-Star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. The pitching rotation boasted an excellent season from Mat Latos and several other solid starters such as Jon Garland and Clayton Richard. The bullpen was, for almost the entire season, the best when it came to strikeouts, ERA, hits allowed and holds. They played well with the lead and often kept it, utilizing a versatile lineup and smart managerial decisions from Bud Black to carve a double-digit lead in what was predicted to be a competitive division.
Then, in late August and early September — when it matters most — they started losing. And losing. And losing some more. Before you knew it, the pundits were proven right once again, as San Francisco and Colorado streaked into contention once more. The Rockies have especially been hot, winning in a similar fashion that preceded their World Series run a few years back. The Giants have been getting by, winning tight games with good pitching and clutch hitting. Of the three, I’d hate most to see Colorado in the playoffs as my opponent simply because of two things: their offensive prowess in the heart of the order, and facing Cy Young candidate Ubaldo Jiminez once every four games.
So who will win? The Padres have righted the ship lately, and were tied with the Giants for the division lead. The Rockies were two back but had a more favorable schedule down the stretch. None of them were rallying (San Diego and San Francisco were 5-5 in their last 10; Colorado was 6-4), and all of them were showing some fatigue that often comes late in the year. Ultimately, I believe the Giants have the best chance because of their pitching staff, Rookie of the Year candidate Buster Posey and solid, top-to-bottom lineup.