Tilting the balance of NL Central power

After Tuesday night’s extra-inning mayhem in Milwaukee between the Cardinals and Brewers, complete with trash talk, beanball wars and umps’ warnings, the NL Central race seems made of the stuff other sports’ contests in the Midwest, equal parts parity and grudges and rivalries, and colored black and blue all over.

But Tuesday night and then Wednesday’s series anticlimax reflected a more basic proposition about where things are going in the NL Central. A division race that began the year with four teams having as much as a 10 percent shot at winning the Central -- and the Pirates weren’t the initial fourth team, the Cubs were -- is already getting down to the two teams beating on each other in Wisconsin this week. While the Reds and Pirates struggle to reach or remain around .500, the Brewers and Cardinals are the teams beginning to break away. And after three days of banging on each other, they can now get back to beating up on the rest of the division.

On Wednesday, the Brewers mounded up a 10-5 rout, powered by Casey McGehee’s three homers to avenge Tuesday night’s extra-inning loss, but the final score was far more one-sided than the significance of this one ballgame for the race that’s still being run. Newly minted Card Rafael Furcal’s command of the obvious was solid, as he observed postgame that, “We’ve got two more months to play.” While Yadier Molina rallied from a game he was responsible for at least a pair of runs all by himself by reassuring everyone that, “We still have nine games against these guys.”

It’s just as well, because after Tony La Russa left Edwin Jackson in to give up all 10 runs over seven innings, it’s clear that’s an attitude that is reflected in actions as well as words as we head into August’s dog days. Jackson could do no more than lose this game once, after all, no matter how many runs he allowed. With the bullpen shorthanded after short nights from starters Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia on Monday and Tuesday, this was something La Russa subsequently seemed fairly fatalistic about.

“He had to do it, he had his stuff. He also got blooped a few times, but they beat us. They pitched better and they played better,” the Cards skipper flatly noted.

You can quibble with the in-game tactics, of course, especially with La Russa’s decision to let Jackson hit for himself in the top of the sixth with runners on second and third and nobody out, and down by just three runs at that point. But roster design did La Russa no favors here -- while carrying seven relievers may not have been enough for this series, neither were five bench players sufficient, not when Tony Cruz, perhaps the best pinch-hitter on the bench to bring in against the left-handed Randy Wolf, was reportedly nursing a hand injury. Regardless, La Russa let his pitcher hit away, and reaped an opportunity-squelching fly out for his troubles, with La Russa’s defensive assertion -- “he had two hits for us, he had a great at-bat” -- doing little to reassure critics noting Jackson’s career .135 batting average.

So La Russa left Jackson in to take a beating, asking him to take one for the team so that the bullpen would be fresh for four games in Florida, and taking the tactical hit (and a loss) for the expected logistical and operational gain of having things squared away more to his liking. With no days off in the past two weeks, and none to come until Monday, you can understand the gambit La Russa employed.

If the Cards were left to offer truths and clichés after the game, McGehee’s trio of homers off Jackson provided a reminder that in just two months, all sorts of things can happen. After consecutive good years as a run-producer for Milwaukee, McGehee’s 200-point drop in OPS (or 60 points in EqA) through the first four months was a tough blow to absorb. You can jump on all sorts of numbers to document the how: his plummeting HR/FB numbers this year, a worse BABIP, fewer walks despite more pitches per at-bat, or an epic collapse against lefties, from a .947 OPS in 2010 to this year’s .344, while his numbers versus righties have been fairly constant, .728 this year to .750 last.

Jackson throws right-handed, so we can leave the mystery of where McGehee’s performance versus southpaws went besides the statistical rabbit hole. In the abstract, Jackson’s not a particularly complicated pitcher in terms of his assortment to right-handed hitter: He relies on a power slider to finish the guys he sets up with mid-90s heat. As McGehee noted after the game, “He’s going to make you look bad if you screw around. You have to be aggressive.” McGehee did exactly that, delivering his first and third homers on 0-1 fastballs he went with and drove to right and center, respectively, and his second on a 1-1 slider up in the zone that he got around on and clouted into the left-field corner.

Is that foreshadowing of second-half heroics from McGehee? Of course it is -- he shouldn’t be as bad as this awful four-month stretch. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA pegs McGehee’s rest-of-season production at a conservative, believable .732 OPS (.264/320/.412). The question is how much the Brewers have to get that sort of performance from him, and from deadline addition Felipe Lopez, because with second baseman Rickie Weeks out with a bad ankle for weeks to come, the Brewers find themselves stuck in a second race, this one against time -- and not big-league time, but against minor-league schedules. If Weeks can’t recover before the end of the month, the Brewers may run out of affiliate ballgames to assign him to for rehab, putting them in an awkward situation as far as getting him in gear for the stretch run.

With Wednesday’s win, the Brewers notched their 13th victory in their last 18 games. Admittedly, a big chunk of that involves sweeping the Cubs and Astros at home, and if there’s one thing the Brewers do better than anybody, it’s win at home, with a league-best 41-15 record playing in their own house. Of course, there is the flip side of that good news -- their ugly 21-35 road record. However, the Brewers did manage a 5-6 split on a West Coast swing against the Giants, D’backs and Rockies. But that was before Weeks got hurt.

In the end, playoff odds reports like Clay Davenport’s or BP’s favor the Brewers, who are still projected to win 88 or 89 games to the Cardinals’ 85. That might sound like a lot if you rely on sabermetric currency alone to buy those decisions at the rate of 10 runs per win, but that sort of macro-level consideration doesn’t necessarily mean much at the micro-level of day to day outcomes, where anyone -- even Casey McGehee or Edwin Jackson -- can be a difference-making hero for a day, for very different reasons.


Is there anything left to be said of Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, the two teams increasingly consigned to also-ran status? The Pirates are a bit hard to take seriously after their recent swoon, losing their last six straight and 11 of their last 13. They’re the team we all want good things to happen to because everybody wants a Bad News Bears story in the news, but sentiment for America’s Team is different from giving them practical consideration. Few runs scored plus a good-not-great pitching staff asked to deliver on demand adds up to a nice contestant, but not a finalist.

Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick are nice proofs of Pirates GM Neal Huntington’s willingness to try to contend -- on the cheap. You can even wishcast best-case scenarios. Maybe the aging Lee proves that not being up to the level of competition in the AL East is not the same thing as being done altogether -- he gave the Braves a good couple of months last year, after all. Maybe liberating Ludwick from Petco will give him a renewed lease on a career that had already bloomed late. These are weak reeds to lean on in a lineup already toward the bottom in runs scored, and little better in lineup-wide Equivalent Average (.252, ranking 24th). They were averaging 3.9 runs scored per nine before July, and they’ve been averaging 3.9 runs from July on. Whatever gains Lee and Ludwick add figure to be incremental at best, and too late to catch up with the pitching staff’s early-season performance.

The rotation has been the platform for the Pirates’ success, and should remain so, although cracks within the current quintet are beginning to show. Kevin Correia has taking a beating from the regression fairy in the past month, suffering three disaster starts (more runs allowed than innings pitched) in his last five spins, while Charlie Morton’s struggles with fatigue (failing to reach the end of the sixth inning in his eight starts prior to Wednesday night’s game against the Cubs) has helped overexpose the team’s no-name relief crew beyond closer Joel Hanrahan.

The Reds are the truly exasperating team in the division. While they came into the campaign with no end of options for so many positions, the Reds have been remarkably slow in sorting them out. Between injuries and ineffectiveness, they still haven’t found themselves a shortstop. Walt Jocketty and Dusty Baker only recently sorted out their outfield by trading Jonny Gomes out of Chris Heisey’s way, but that adds another non-walker to a lineup that takes a 40-point hit in isolated slugging (ISO) as soon as they leave the Gap’s small spaces. For all the Reds’ wealth in starting pitching, they’ve had to endure multiple disappointments. Dontrelle Willis is worth rooting for, but the mystery is how the Reds wound up having to call upon him -- after Travis Wood and Edinson Volquez pitched their way to Louisville, they had to use somebody. The Reds don’t just need consistency from Homer Bailey, or for Johnny Cueto to keep throwing a quality start every time out, they need to see Bronson Arroyo do something besides chase Jose Lima’s league record for homers allowed. Having already made the mistake of giving Arroyo a three-year, $35 million extension through 2013, this is one mistake they’ll be paying longer than they had to.

Does that mean they're both done? If anyone can pull off a waiver deal that alters a team fundamentally, it's probably Jocketty, but the Reds' failure to achieve much at the deadline creates questions over whether they're ever going to sort out their priorities in time before they run out of season and before the Brewers and Cardinals run out ahead. The Pirates may have to settle for a non-losing record, something that impresses you or me, but leaves them hungry for more, and ready to get back to knocking around in the baseball's black-and-blue division.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.