The All-Star break in Major League Baseball gives fans a chance to catch their collective breath.
In the National League Central, they’re going to need it.
Get ready for the stretch run in baseball’s best and most competitive division, with four teams within range of the lead.
Milwaukee’s recent stumbles have given Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and St. Louis a chance to close a gap that was 6½ games at the start of the month. Now, the Brewers hold a one-game advantage over the Cardinals, with the Reds and Pirates in pursuit.
Injuries as much as momentum and talent are the latest wild cards in the race. On the same night last week, Cincinnati second baseman Brandon Phillips and St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina went down with thumb injuries. Each will miss at least six weeks.
Here’s a look at how the race might be decided.
Why they will win: Defense. Hitting and pitching get the most attention, but defense might win the division. The Reds are an NL-best .988 fielding percentage with only 41 errors in 95 games. Combined with shutdown closer Aroldis Chapman
(21 saves), Cincy holds on to leads better than most.
Why they will not: Injuries. Every team deals with them, but Phillips’ exit added to a long infirmary list. First baseman Joey Votto has missed 32 games with a thigh injury and is weeks away from returning.
Without the four-time All-Star, the light-hitting Reds (lowest average in NL Central at .249) will have trouble hanging with the pack.
X factor: Billy Hamilton. In his first full season as a starter, Hamilton’s threat as a base-stealer was a given. The question was whether he could hit for average and field with dependability over the course of a season. The answer is yes and yes. With 38 steals, the center fielder has delivered on all accounts (.285 average and only one error).
Why they will win: The long ball. With 94 home runs in 96 games, the Brewers are second only to Colorado in dingers. They also lead the league in doubles. With a potent offense behind the best hitting outfield in the majors (Ryan Braun, Carlos Gomez and Khris Davis), Milwaukee is never out of a game until the final out.
Why they will not: Momentum. The All-Star break came at the right time for the Brewers, who have the best record in the NL despite losing seven of their past eight games. A post-break series at NL East-leading Washington may decide which direction the Crew takes.
X factor: Health. Milwaukee is the only NL Central team to have its starting rotation intact so far this season.
Why they will win: Andrew McCutchen. If you watched Saturday’s game with the Reds, you know why. The reigning NL MVP sent the game into extra innings with a homer and then won it with another. Sure, the Pirates have a good supporting cast, but McCutchen might be the best at rising to the occasion.
Why they will not: Bullpen. Former All-Star closer Jason Grilli imploded this season, and the Pirates are still trying to find a way to close out games. In the ninth inning or later, the Pittsburgh staff has an ERA of 4.38.
X factor: Indianapolis Indians fans know the name Gregory Polanco. Called up to Pittsburgh in early June, the power-hitting right fielder has earned a permanent spot and gives the Pirates another potent bat behind McCutchen.
St. Louis Cardinals
Why they will win: Adam Wainwright. In his second year back from Tommy John surgery, the pitching ace is having a Cy Young-worthy season (12-4, 1.83 ERA). The Cards need it, as three of the other five starter slots have been impacted by prolonged injuries.
Why they will not: Run support. St. Louis is last in the NL in home runs and near the bottom in stolen bases. A light-hitting outfield (Matt Holliday, Oscar Taveras and Allen Craig) is largely to blame.
X factor: Molina. No injury is bigger than the ligament tear in Yadi’s throwing thumb. Expected to miss eight weeks, whether Molina can recover for the stretch run is critical. It is not just a matter of hitting; the catcher has thrown out 17 of 35 base-runners, by far the highest rate in the NL. That presence is key against division rivals.
Bob Johnson is a correspondent for the Daily Journal. His columns appear Tuesdays and Fridays. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.