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Most baseball people would say that it’s way too early to keep a close eye on the divisional standings. There are still four full months of baseball, they would say.

I disagree. It’s never too early to watch the standings, since a game in late May counts just the same as a game in late September.

With that being said, an exciting race is brewing in the NL Central between the St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates. Only three games separate these teams for the lead in the NL Central.
Adam Wainwright has been key for the Cards
Photo by bk1bennet, used under creative commons license.

If the season were to end today, the Cardinals would be the division winner, with the Reds and Pirates squaring off in the play-in game.

Of course, as I pointed out earlier, plenty of baseball still needs to be played. The great thing about this race is that it’s likely going to come down to head-to-head matchups.

The Cardinals are simply a winning machine. No matter who takes the field for St. Louis, the team always seems to put a competitor on the field. Yadier Molina and Carlos Beltran have led a consistent offense, but it’s been the starting pitching staff that has propelled the Cards to the division lead.

St. Louis leads league with a collective 3.07 ERA. But interestingly, who are the two teams right behind? The Pirates (3.20) and the Reds (3.23).

Mat Latos is off to roaring start for the Reds at 5-0. Cincinnati’s bullpen has allow been lights out late in games. Joey Votto is putting up MVP-type numbers, and the Reds have received great production from the newly-acquired Shin-Soo Choo. Brandon Phillips is leading the NL in RBIs.

It was expected that the Reds and even the Cardinals would be near the top of the NL Central. However, the Pirates have been the real surprise over the first two months.

The team’s offense has exactly been great -- 24th in batting average and 20th in runs scored in the league. But as the team ERA suggests, Pittsburgh’s pitching has allowed the team to win close games.

Starters Jeff Locke and Jeanmar Gomez have been a nice complement to Wandy Rodriguez and A.J. Burnett. They aren’t exactly household names, but they are getting the job done, with each having an ERA less than 2.50.

The real story for the Pirates this year has been the bullpen. Who would have thought that Jason Grilli -- in his first extended action as a closer after spending parts of 10 seasons as a situational reliever -- would be leading the league in saves?

It’s a long season, but the Pirates should focus on channeling whatever they are doing now and save it for September. Again, every game counts, but Pittsburgh has shown its reputation for late-season collapses the past few years. Could this be the year of snapping the streak of 20 consecutive losing seasons, the longest active streak in professional sports?

If the Pirates want to experience October baseball, they’ll have to get past the Cardinals and Reds, which will be no easy task. If all three teams can keep up their current pace, the NL Central is in store for an exciting race to the finish.