Strong NL Central shut out of World Series
Division with top three regular-season clubs falls short of Fall Classic
The 2015 National League Central is nothing but a trivia answer now -- the kind of thing you'll attempt to recall while drinking cold beer and eating hot wings with your buddies.
"Which division became the first in history to provide each of baseball's top three records in a single season?" the question might read.
And the further we get from this moment, the more difficult that question will be to answer.
Our brains, after all, tend to navigate toward title winners. And after a regular season in which they routinely wowed us, the 100-game-winning Cardinals, 98-game-winning Pirates and 97-game-winning Cubs are all now out of the running for the 2015 World Series crown.
We knew two of the three would be eliminated by the end of the NL Division Series round. Such is the unavoidable effect of a postseason system weighted toward division winners (for all its obvious top-heavy talent, the Central, sadly, was still limited to just one of those).
But if there was any thought that the team that survived this rigorous three-team wringer would be better and stronger for the effort, the opposite proved true.
The Cubs, like the Cards before them, looked gassed in the NL Championship Series sweep at the hands of the Mets, and the poor Pirates never even got a full-series shot to strut their stuff.
Now, on the one hand, there's this thought: Baseball is hard, October is weird and regular-season records don't matter.
On the other hand, you can't help but wonder if these three teams were victims of their collective success. Or at the very least, their shared general geography, which forced them to wear each other down in a brutally entertaining battle for playoff positioning.
The Pirates, naturally, were no fans of the map, and a fat lot of good the second-best record in baseball over the last three seasons has done them.
While even Clint Hurdle is quick to admit that elongating the Wild Card round would have negative consequences of its own, the Pirates have provided example 1 and 1A of the difficulty of running into the wrong pitcher at the wrong time when you get to that one and done.
But even if the Pirates had done what they were unable to do against Madison Bumgarner a year ago and found a way to beat Jake Arrieta in the NL Wild Card Game presented by Budweiser, it is fair to wonder -- if only because the examples the Cards and Cubs provided -- if some pain was eventually in the offing either way. After all, Pittsburgh ace Gerrit Cole saw a 30-percent increase in his innings workload this season over last before throwing a single pitch in the postseason. Like Arrieta himself, maybe he was due to wear down. As noted by FanGraphs.com, four of Cole's worst five fastball-command games came after Aug. 25, including the Wild Card Game.
Beyond that glaring concern with Cole (and some questions after his spot in the rotation), the Pirates simply did not have a power-packed lineup. And a key contributor in the power department -- Jung Ho Kang -- was robbed from them on a takeout slide by -- who else? -- a bit player in the Central's three-headed monster (the Cubs' Chris Coghlan).
With the Pirates, ultimately, we're only working off conjecture, and that's ultimately unfair. But the bottom line to their season is that the Central killed them. They went 34-42 in the division, 64-22 elsewhere. We never got to see how that "elsewhere" portion translated to the postseason stage.
We did, on the other hand, get a more revealing look at the Cardinals in October, and it was abundantly clear that their biggest strength -- their pitching staff -- had morphed into their biggest area of vulnerability, as the September stretch had hinted. Because the Central race remained close into the season's final week, the Cards had little opportunity to rest their primary pitchers, and they looked worn down almost across the board in the short NLDS series with the Cubs.
Having already been entrusted with 129 2/3 regular-season innings (his highest total, by far, since 2012), Jaime Garcia had a brief, series-shifting outing in Game 2, when he allowed five runs (none earned) in two innings. Furthermore, concern over the way Michael Wacha staggered to the finish line in the regular season proved justifiable with Game 3 (in fairness, the Cards did skip Wacha once in early September, but he nonetheless saw a 66.4-percent jump in workload this year). Carlos Martinez, of course, wasn't available, having broken down in late September. And Kevin Siegrist, after working the ninth-most relief innings in baseball this season, coughed up the decisive home runs in Game 4.
Oh, and beyond the pitching pain, let's not forget that Yadier Molina's torn thumb ligament was suffered on a late-season play at the plate against the Cubs. Because of course it was.
Turns out, dining on the prominent Central peers at the October table made the Cubs bloated, not better. They didn't hold a single lead in the four-game sweep at the hands of the Mets, their brash young bats hitting a wall (that it was an ivy-covered wall did little to soften the blow) and reminding us that old habits (or, more accurately, century-long droughts) die hard.
Again, as a function of dueling for home-field positioning in what became an entirely intradivision race, the Cubs rode Arrieta hard in the second half. They had no choice. And for one delectable 10-start stretch that concluded with the NL Wild Card Game, he was as dominant as any pitcher in this game has ever been over such a prolonged period. But the velocity dip first evident in Game 3 against the Cards and further confirmed in Game 2 against the Mets made it abundantly clear that even Arrieta, with a 59-percent jump in innings from 2014, is human. That was as big a factor in the outcome as anything, because going home in a 2-0 hole creates a decidedly different tone than 1-1 would have. The Cubs' defensive miscues and inability to adjust to the Mets' continual pounding of the lower-third of the strike zone (to say nothing of their inability to contain the Legend of Daniel Murphy) sealed the deal.
So that's it, folks. Our Central focus has abated.
It had been 32 years since teams from the same division had been responsible for even three of the top four records in baseball, so it could be a long while before we see something quite like this again. The Cardinals, Pirates and Cubs staged a race for the ages.
It's just too bad it left them out of breath in October.