ST. LOUIS, MO - JULY 1: Shane Robinson #43 of the St. Louis Cardinals collects the game-winning hit against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Busch Stadium on July 1, 2012 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Could a strong Cardinals team give the Pirates and Reds fits down the stretch?
Finally, the Reds have stopped winning. Cincinnati's four-game losing streak opens a door for the Pirates in the N.L. Central, as the Bucs have won three of four in that period and whittled the Reds' division lead down to 2.5 games.
The problem for the Pirates, going forward, will be the two teams' respective schedules. It was the Reds who burst forth after the All-Star break, seemingly unable to lose, but it was the Pirates who were living high off the hog with an easy schedule: a series against the Brewers, then the Rockies, then the Marlins, then the Cubs, Astros and Cubs again before finally taking on the Reds last weekend. That's six straight series against teams who aren't even close to having winning records.
The Pirates' upcoming schedule isn't exactly difficult, but it's tougher than the Bucs have faced recently. They'll finish off their four-game set against the Diamondbacks on Thursday, and then there are three games against a weak Padres team. Then, though, they'll have to play four against the Dodgers, who are just 1.5 games out in the N.L. West, then three against the Cardinals. Then it's three against the Padres and Brewers before facing the Padres again.
Meanwhile, the Reds start a four-game series against the Cubs at Wrigley Field Thursday night. Then it's three against the Mets, four against the Cubs and four against the Phillies -- all losing teams. Then they, too, will take on the Cardinals.
The Pirates' September schedule goes back to being a breeze, with plenty of games against the Cubs, Astros, Brewers and Mets. And the truth is that the Pirates and Reds should both have a pretty easy time down the stretch.
The key team for Pirates fans to watch in the next few weeks may not be the Reds, but rather the Cardinals. St. Louis is still just 3.5 games off the Pirates' pace, and six behind the Reds for the division lead. Moreover, the Cards are a flat-out good team, with a much better run differential (+99) than either the Reds (+66) or the Bucs (+35). Baseball Prospectus' Adjusted Standings think the Cardinals have been the best team in the division so far, too. Led by Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran, Yadier Molina, David Freese and Allen Craig, the Cards have had the best offense in the National League so far this year, and they aren't to be trifled with.
The Pirates have six games left this month against the Cards -- a road series from August 17-19, and a home series from August 27-29. The Cardinals also play the Reds from August 24-26. As we head down the stretch, all three of these series could prove crucial -- the Pirates and Reds could pretty much destroy the Cardinals' chances with big performances, or the Cards could not only strengthen their Wild-Card position, but also muscle their way into the race for the N.L. Central crown.