Reds now team to beat in NL Central

The wild-card game is, of course, a bit mad. Or maybe completely mad. Telling teams they have to play 162 games to get into the playoffs and then one game to stay alive is akin to telling two NFL teams they've made the playoffs after 16 regular-season games and then get six minutes to determine who moves on to the next round.

That's my new name for the wild-card game: Six minutes of hell.

The one positive aspect of the wild-card game is one of its intended results: Winning your division is, of course, paramount. Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon explained it succinctly the other day, telling the Tampa Bay Times, "I want us to win the division, period … and avoid that madness."

Madness. That's kind of what we have going on in the NL Central right now, in which the Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds are now separated by just 2½ games. The Cardinals and Reds won on Sunday behind dominant pitching performances from Adam Wainwright (11 strikeouts in a 6-1 win over the Cubs) and Homer Bailey (three hits in eight innings against the Brewers), while the Pirates suffered a gut-wrenching 16-inning loss at home to Arizona when rookie Kris Johnson, making his major league debut, finally surrendered two runs in his sixth inning of relief work.

Right now, the Reds are hot, the Pirates are scuffling and the Cardinals are the team everyone bet on at the All-Star break. But it's anybody's race to win, and while all three will likely make the playoffs (the Reds are five games up on the Diamondbacks for the second wild-card slot), only one of the three can win the division. Let's ask some key questions and predict our winner.

Who has the toughest schedule remaining? Here are each team's remaining series against teams currently above .500:

Pirates: STL (3), at STL (3), at TEX (3), CIN (3), at CIN (3)

Cardinals: ATL (4), CIN (3), at PIT (3), at CIN (3), PIT (3)

Reds: ARI (4), at STL (3), STL (3), LAD (3), at PIT (3), PIT (3)

They all have home-and-home series with each other, so no advantage gained there. The Reds have one extra series against a quality opponent, but one big edge they have is 24 of their remaining 38 games are at home and they are 37-20 at home, 33-34 on the road. The Cardinals have a tough slate ahead, beginning Thursday when they have consecutive series against the Braves, Reds, Pirates, Reds and Pirates, but their final 19 games are against current losing teams.

Advantage: Reds and Cardinals. That season-ending stretch should play into the Cards' favor while the Pirates have to finish up at Cincinnati and also have more road games remaining.

Which rotation is hottest? There's no best way to evaluate this, of course, but over the past two weeks, the Reds rotation has the second-best ERA (2.16) in the majors behind the Dodgers. The Pirates are 30th -- worst -- at 6.11. It's only a span of 12 games and includes Francisco Liriano's 10-run blow-up in Colorado but also includes just five quality starts, none by A.J. Burnett or Jeff Locke in five outings between them. Locke was an All-Star, but since the break, he has a 5.58 ERA while allowing more than two baserunners per inning. His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) has regressed -- as many predicted -- and he's walked 21 in 30⅔ innings.

Advantage: Reds. Even though Johnny Cueto isn't healed from his right lat strain, the Reds are clicking on all cylinders. Tony Cingrani, their rookie starter, has outpitched the more highly touted Gerrit Cole of the Pirates with 111 strikeouts and a .191 batting average allowed in 94 innings. When your No. 5 guy is arguably is good as your No. 1, that's a nice rotation.

Hitters who can carry a team: On the season, the Cardinals have scored 578 runs, the Reds 533 and the Pirates 478, although the Reds do gain some runs from their home park while the Pirates lose a few.

Since the All-Star break, however, the Pirates have actually performed as well as the Cards or Reds, with a .311 weighted on-base average (wOBA) versus .299 and .298, respectively. This time of season, you're looking for that guy who can carry a team down the stretch, like Miguel Cabrera last September or Vlad Guerrero in 2005 or Chipper Jones in 1999. If you had to pick one guy from these three teams to do that, I go with MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen, who has been one of the best hitters in the majors since the All-Star break with a .355 average and 1.056 OPS.

But the Pirates have another guy who can go on a hot streak in Pedro Alvarez, co-NL home run leader at 30 with Paul Goldschmidt. Alvarez is hitting .175 in August but hit .309 with 10 home runs in June, which shows what he's capable of when he gets in a groove. A good sign for Alvarez: Cingrani is the only lefty starter the Reds or Cardinals are using right now and Alvarez has hit 27 of his 30 home runs against right-handers.

Advantage: Pirates. Their offense might not look as good on paper, but it's been as good in the second half.

Who has the bullpen advantage? Aroldis Chapman isn't the automatic save he was most of last season, not with five losses (including one on Friday night), seven home runs allowed in 49⅓ innings and a 3.10 ERA. The Pirates have been without Jason Grilli, their All-Star closer, but he hopes to re-join the team in September and Mark Melancon and the other relievers have stepped up in his abscence. The Cardinals' back two of Trevor Rosenthal and Edward Mujica have been dominant all season, and, now, rookie lefty Kevin Siegrist -- eight hits and 33 strikeouts in 24⅓ innings -- is looking like a third weapon out there, averaging 94.5 mph on his fastball and touching 97.

Advantage: None that I see. All three pens are strong. The Pirates have pitched the most relief innings in the majors, so that's an issue; they need Grilli to return healthy and pitching like he was. I love the way Rosenthal and Siegrist are throwing right now, and Cincinnati's pen has settled down after some early struggles.

Enough … make a pick already: The Reds have been the third wheel in this party all season, but they're finally on a good roll, winning nine of 12. This is the time of season when rotation depth plays a huge factor, as legs get tired and arms get sore. I like the way Cincy's five guys are throwing right now, and I like all the home games the Reds have on their schedule.

I'm picking the Reds now to win the division … putting the Pirates and Cardinals into six minutes of hell.