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Rivals trying to dethrone Cubs in NL Central

MLB.com @castrovince

The Cubs won the National League Central by 17 1/2 games last year, then they won the World Series. So pardon us if we weren't expecting a scintillating battle for supremacy in this particular division in 2017.

Well, here we are in the throes of August, and the Central is still very much up for grabs. The Cubs are in first, but only by a 1 1/2-game margin. They haven't come together as advertised, and even the good vibes of the midseason acquisitions of Jose Quintana and others have been offset in some measure by the recent loss of rising star Willson Contreras to a hamstring injury.

The Cubs won the National League Central by 17 1/2 games last year, then they won the World Series. So pardon us if we weren't expecting a scintillating battle for supremacy in this particular division in 2017.

Well, here we are in the throes of August, and the Central is still very much up for grabs. The Cubs are in first, but only by a 1 1/2-game margin. They haven't come together as advertised, and even the good vibes of the midseason acquisitions of Jose Quintana and others have been offset in some measure by the recent loss of rising star Willson Contreras to a hamstring injury.

The Cubs (62-55) are still the favorites in the Central (FanGraphs is now giving them a 77.5-percent chance), and they've got a relatively soft, home-heavy schedule these next few weeks, which will aid their cause. But there are three other clubs still alive in that race, two of whom (the Cardinals and Pirates) will face each other in Sunday's MLB Little League Classic in Williamsport, Pa. Here's the outlook for the Cards, Brewers and Bucs as they try to topple the defending champs in what might be the Majors' best remaining division race.

Cardinals
61-57, 1 1/2 games back

It took an eight-game winning streak, which was snapped on Sunday, for the Cardinals to be taken seriously as a contender. But even though their season had been a struggle up until that point, this is still the team with the best run differential (plus-55) in the division and a team that Baseball Prospectus' third-order winning percentage (based on strength of schedule and underlying statistics) suggests should have 67 wins, not 61. Their actual winning percentage going back to June 25 (.622) is second in the Majors only to that of the Dodgers (.805). In other words, there's nothing fluky about the Cards' recent rise, even if none of us expected the middle of the order to be carried by Tommy Pham, Paul DeJong and Jose Martinez.

Of course, the Cardinals aren't going to maintain the offensive performance they've put together over the past nine games, in which they posted a collective .964 OPS. That's why it's imperative that a starting rotation that has been a strength all year not show any cracks. It was unnerving (no pun intended) to see Adam Wainwright throwing 60-mph pitches while he dealt with a tingling sensation in his right arm on Friday night, and Carlos Martinez has not been nearly as dominant since the start of July (5.06 ERA in eight starts) as he was previously (2.88 ERA in 16 starts). And after a quiet non-waiver Trade Deadline, the Cards might need to look for a little bullpen assistance in this waiver period.

Whether you believe in the magic of the "Rally Cat," the Cards have some very real momentum right now, and with half of their remaining 44 games against the Cubs, Brewers and Pirates, they've got to ride it for all it's worth.

Video: ATL@STL: DeJong uncorks a solo home run to left

Brewers
61-59, 2 1/2 games back

Milwaukee's momentum has been moving in exactly the opposite way. After entering the All-Star break with an unlikely 5 1/2-game lead, the Brew Crew has gone just 11-18, with the once-homer-happy offense averaging just 3.6 runs per game (only the Rays have been worse in this department).

With the Brewers ahead of schedule in their rebuild and with some ominous signs in the games leading up to the non-waiver Trade Deadline, general manager David Stearns opted not to make any major moves that would have raided his farm system. But he did pull off a potentially impactful swap for Neil Walker, who had cleared waivers, over the weekend. The club's second-base production had been barren the better part of this season, with Jonathan Villar a shadow of his 2016 self and Eric Sogard's rousing turn atop the order proving to be short-lived. For the Brewers, Walker was an acquisition with little risk and obvious upside, and the club can only hope that his contribution to Sunday's win over the Reds (the Brewers' second straight) is the start of a late surge.

For the Brewers to stay alive in this race, it might just be as simple as getting the bats back on track. But they have their work cut out for them between now and Labor Day, with 14 of their next 17 coming against the Pirates, Rockies, Dodgers, Cardinals and Nationals.

Video: CIN@MIL: Walker knocks two hits, shows off glove

Pirates
58-60, 4 1/2 games back

It seems odd to be labeling a sub-.500 squad a contender this late in the calendar, especially in a division that had three teams win 97 games or more just two years ago. But math is math, and the Bucs, for all their faults and ups and downs this year, still have a lot of opportunity ahead of them.

The Pirates are a .500 team against their Central foes this season, but they've won 11 of their past 16 within the division, and division opponents will take up 34 of their next 38 games. That includes seven games against a Cubs team they've beaten seven times in 12 tries.

This is another team that needs to get it going offensively, averaging just 4.03 runs per game (second fewest in the NL) in the second half. The Bucs have been a little banged up in the outfield lately, with Andrew McCutchen (knee) and Gregory Polanco (hamstring) both missing some time. But the good news is that, in the second half, Adam Frazier (.347/.380/.458 slash) has been a sparkplug near the top of the order and Josh Bell (.313/.367/.531) has asserted himself in the cleanup spot. The Pirates aren't out of it yet.

Video: PIT@DET: Frazier doubles to plate two in the 4th

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.