Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The NL Central: closer than ever

The Milwaukee Brewers were sitting pretty atop the NL Central just a few weeks ago. They had the largest lead of any division leader, 6 1/2 games, and the best record in the National League, 51-32. In the eight games since then the Brewers have been the worst team in the National League. A 1-7 record in their last eight was caused by poor starting pitching. Matt Garza threw a complete game shutout in the one win, but the other starters allowed 28 runs in 38 1/3 innings.

The Brewers have allowed the rest of the NL Central to get back into the race with their recent poor play. The Reds, Pirates and Cardinals have three of the four best records in the National League since June 10. Now, the NL Central is so tight that the teams behind Milwaukee can flip-flop positions every night.

With the tight standings, anyone can lead the division heading into the All-Star break and they will all rely on key position players heading to the all star break.  The final series before the All-Star Game for each of these teams will be a divisional match-up, so who will step up the rest of the week, month and season to take the division title?

Milwaukee Brewers 52-39 record, First Place

Key Player – Jean Segura .235 BA 41 R 15 SB

With a strong lineup, the Milwaukee Brewers don’t rely completely on one guy. That being said, Jean Segura could take the Brewers to another level for the rest of the season.

Segura started the season as a top of the order player for the Brewers, but as his production dropped so did his spot in the line-up. He has fallen from second at the beginning of the year to eighth and even ninth this season.

His numbers have been less than stellar, but when he gets hits it really changes the Brewers lineup. The Brewers are 31-14 in games when Segura gets a hit, but they simply need him to get more hits. He has 41 games without a hit this season, five more than he had all of last season. If he can find some of his All Star form from 2013 the Brewers could hold the division lead for the rest of the summer.

St. Louis Cardinals 49-42, 3 Games back

Key Player – Matt Adams .331 BA 10 HR 36 RBIs 141 OPS+

Adams may be the most important position player in the division due to the incompetence of the Cardinals line-up. Adams is the only player on the Cardinals with an OPS+ over 115. He is the only player with a batting average over .290.

The Cardinals have struggled in hitting home runs, but Adams has not since coming off the DL. In the 24 games since Adams has seven home runs, four more than he had in his first 52 games of the season and more than every player on the Cardinals other than Jhonny Peralta, Yadier Molina and Allen Craig have hit all season long.

In addition to his power, Adams has been relentless in beating the shift. Whether it is infield hits (Adams has 6) or hitting the ball the other way (Adams has 36 opposite field hits, depending on how you define opposite field).

The only thing he needs to add to his offensive game is improving his splits. Adams is hitting .203 against lefties and .229 wRISP. If he can get those numbers up he could have more moments like this.

Cincinnati Reds 48-42, 3 1/2 Games back

Key Player – Billy Hamilton .280 BA, 43 R, 37 SB and 36 RBIs

Yes, that is not a mistake, Billy Hamilton has 36 RBIs. After struggling through his first 58 games. With a .251 batting average and just 12 extra base hits, Hamilton was just trying to slap it and run.

Hamilton has a .333 batting average, 16 extra base hits and an astounding 23 RBIs in the 27 games since then. The Reds have a 19-8 record in that time, and have picked up 4 1/2 games on the Brewers and 3 1/2 games on the Cardinals.

If Billy Hamilton can keep his offensive ways up, and that may be a big “if”, the Reds line-up takes on a completely different look and feel.

Pitsburgh Pirates 47-43, 4 1/2 Games back

Key Player – Josh Harrison .296 BA, 25 RBIs, 33 R and games played at 2B, 3B, SS, RF and LF

Surprisingly, Josh Harrison is the only player on this list who is an all-star. With the game suddenly menaing something, Harrison may be a new kind of all-star. He has a decent bat, good speed and the ability to play everywhere on the diamond. This winning type of player is what you want if you are trying to win home field advantage.

For the Pirates, Harrison has been that same type of winning player. The Pirates are 15-5 in games that Harrison has driven in a run. They are 18-7 in games that he scores a run.

With Gregory Polanco on the team to stay, Harrison’s versatility will be tested, but he looks ready to help his team.

Tags: Billy Hamilton Cincinnati Reds Jean Segura Josh Harrison Matt Adams Milwaukee Brewers Pittsburgh Pirates St St Louis Cardinals

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