One day after the trade deadline, St. Louis trailed Milwaukee by two games in the ever-competitive National League Central division. The Cardinals, of course, were the preseason favorites in the Central, after advancing all the way to the World Series last October. The Brewers, however, grabbed first place on April 5, and they have surprised most observers by remaining in first ever since. OK, maybe I'm the only observer who is baffled by Milwaukee's success, but that counts for something, right?
Anyway, the Cardinals have tied for the Central lead on a couple of occasions, most recently on July 20, but they've never been able to overtake Milwaukee completely. This, of course, was an unacceptable situation in the eyes of St. Louis GM John Mozeliak, who went to work at the trade deadline, acquiring pitchers John Lackey and Justin Masterson to shore up a rotation that has been OK but has suffered somewhat due to Michael Wacha's bum shoulder.
The Brewers countered with a deadline deal that essentially bet on Gerardo Parra returning to form (which was not a bad bet), but after the flurry of deadline trade activity, St. Louis saw its playoff odds increase more than any team in baseball. These teams have been fighting all season, and there's every reason to believe they will continue that fight over the last two months of the season (with the Pirates trying to get in on the action, as well).
Right on cue, the Cards and Brew Crew began a pivotal three-game series in St. Louis on Friday night. With one of the NL's best, Adam Wainwright, on the mound and an improved roster, it was only a matter of time before the Cardinals began their march to the division title, right?
Not so fast, my friend. With a 7-4 win before a sellout crowd at Busch Stadium, the Brewers made a statement Friday. No, the public relations department didn't literally issue a statement, but Milwaukee did serve notice on the Cardinals that they aren't planning to go away any time soon.
Milwaukee scored early and often against Wainwright, eventually driving him from the game with a four-run sixth that blew the game wide open. Up to this point in the season, Wainwright has been among the contenders for best pitcher in the world (Non-Clayton Kershaw Divison). After giving up seven runs, nine hits and three walks in 5 1/3 innings Friday, however, Wainwright saw his ERA jump from 1.92 to 2.26, and he permitted the Brewers to further increase their lead in the division.
On the other side of the ledger, Milwaukee starter Wily Peralta came into Friday's contest with a 12-6 record and an ERA of 3.56. While he wasn't at his best, Peralta pitched an effective 6 2/3 innings, giving up two runs and five hits to win his 13th game, which ties for the National League lead (along with Wainwright and Kershaw, appropriately enough).
A Brewers offense that is second in the National League in runs scored didn't miss a beat, either. Aramis Ramirez was 3-for-5 with a double, homer (his 13th of the season) and two RBIs. Catcher Jonathan Lucroy continued to mash the baseball, with two hits, including a bases-clearing double that drove in three runs and sent Wainwright to the showers in the sixth inning. Ryan Braun had two doubles and two RBIs, as well. If you haven't noticed, these guys can hit.
In the end, St. Louis remains a solid bet to win the NL Central. The pitching should be slightly better the rest of the way, after the trade-deadline acquisitions of Lackey and Masterson. The offense probably will improve as well, thanks to the subtraction of Allen Craig, who has been simply dismal this season, hitting a pathetic .237/.291/.346 with seven homers (.286 wOBA and 81 wRC+; that's bad). It will be interesting to watch young Oscar Taveras as he gets regular playing time for the first time as a big leaguer. If nothing else, he surely won't be worse than Craig has been.
Don't bet against these Brewers, though. I keep waiting for them to falter, but they hit the ball hard, they score runs and they keep defying expectations. That's precisely why we love baseball. With nine more games still to be played between these teams, you should dig in: This could be a fun couple of months in the National League Central.
(And don't forget about the Pirates!)
Chad Dotson writes for Redleg Nation on the SweetSpot Network.