The National League Central is not a division. It’s a beast, a monster, a thing. It breathes fire.
The Cubs and the Brewers opened a three-game series at Wrigley Field on Friday, and there was an understandable temptation to make it into a big deal. Last season, the two teams met in Game 163 to decide the division title. The Brewers walked away from Wrigley that day as Central champions, and the Cubs trudged to their doom in a wild-card game.
So, yes, a three-game reenactment of that battle would have been a big deal if not for the fact that every game and every series in the division this season figures to be a big deal. As of Friday afternoon, four Central teams were .500 or above, and the fifth, the 16-22 Reds, had a run differential of plus-23.
It’s already a jungle out there. The vegetation will get thicker and the teeth sharper all the way to the end of the regular season, whenever that it is. The Cubs have bounced back from a rough start, thanks to very good starting pitching and bats that have finally started to warm up. The Brewers have picked up where they left off from last season. The Cardinals got better when they traded for All-Star Paul Goldschmidt in December. It’s why the NL Central is bunched like bananas.
“Even last year I was talking about it a bit,’’ Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “I could see these teams getting better. It started with Milwaukee. St. Louis was on the rebound. You could see that last year based on their pitching, and then they have to go get Goldschmidt.
“Pittsburgh – watch their pitching. It’s really that good. So Pittsburgh is ascending. They’ve also brought in some pretty good position players, too. And Cincinnati is not far off. Their pitching has really gotten better, also. Look at the pitching, and it’s gotten better within the division. So that in and of itself makes everything a lot more difficult.
“Traditionally based, good teams, great fan bases — all this stuff is in order. So not a surprise.’’
Teams don’t get to choose their division in baseball. If they did, everybody would move to the NL West, especially in frigid April and only slightly less-frigid May. But here’s a hypothetical question perfectly suited for the NL Central:
Would you rather be a very good team playing in the best division in baseball or would you rather be the big fish in a pond that allows you to win 100 games and make the playoffs?
“That’s kind of like a no-win question to answer,’’ Brewers manager Craig Counsell said, laughing. “We’re in this division, so you don’t get to play that ‘if’ game. We’re in this division, and it’s challenging. You learn everything about it when you have to play a 163rd game. And so you know that every game’s meaningful. It was made abundantly clear to us last year.’’
Even so, Counsell said he speaks with his players regularly about the importance of division games.
“The guys are all aware of it, for sure,’’ he said. “We’ve talked about it daily with the guys.’’
For years, managers have said there’s no such thing as an easy game in the big leagues, and most of us have rolled our eyes. Of course there are easy games. That’s why the Marlins were put on earth. But there really might not be any easy games in the NL Central this season.
You can blame the Cubs for that. St. Louis traded for Goldschmidt as an answer to the Cubs’ success of the past several years. They’re why the Brewers acquired Christian Yelich from the Marlins and Lorenzo Cain from the Royals before last season.
“I didn’t like either one of those acquisitions, like I don’t like Goldschmidt being in St. Louis,’’ Maddon said. “When they got both of those guys, didn’t like it. I’m a big Cain fan from Kansas City. And Yelich in Miami – my God, you could see this guy’s a superstar. So those were great acquisitions, and to put (Cain and Yelich) 1-2 in the batting order changes the entire tenor of the game for them.’’
The NL Central was the only division with four teams that finished above .500 last season. And it looks even better this year. If it were a movie, it would an action flick. Lots of hand-to-hand combat. Lots of blood.
It’s hard not to wonder if there will be any survivors come playoff time.
“These games are fun, for sure,’’ Counsell said. “When we played the Cardinals 10 times in (the first 26) games, I don’t know if that was really fun. That was kind of strange, really. That’s almost too much, a little bit. But we look forward to coming (to Wrigley), and we look forward to them coming to our place.’’
We’ll see what he says in September. Or October.