• Sizzlin’ Central boasts 3 of NL’s best teams
     | June 16,2013

    CINCINNATI — The Reds are off to their best start since 1995, the last time they reached the NL championship series. They’ve had the second-best record in the league most of the season, winning more than 60 percent of the time. It’s quite a start by any measure.

    So, why isn’t Dusty Baker more content?

    “It doesn’t even seem like we’re playing .600 ball,” the Reds manager said. “Most of the time, you know when you’re playing .600 ball. But it doesn’t seem like it. It seems like we’ve been struggling some.”

    Forgive him. That’s what it’s like this year in the NL Central, where you can be one of baseball’s best and still find yourself needing to make up ground in the standings.

    The Central is already sizzlin’ as summer officially starts. Heading into the weekend, the top three teams in the NL were all in that single division — St. Louis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh. All had winning percentages of at least .600. And it’s been a long, long time since one division so dominated the National League at this point in a season.

    The last time three teams in the same NL division had .600 records heading into June was 1977, when the Cubs, Cardinals and Pirates were atop the East, according to STATS. This is only the 10th time since Major League Baseball split into four divisions in 1969 that one division had so many good teams in June.

    And it’s only the second time since baseball went to six divisions in 1994 that one of them had three .600 teams in June, STATS research shows. The AL East had three hot teams in June 2010. Adding that extra division to each league made it much less likely that so many good teams would be concentrated in one place.

    But here they are, clumped together atop the NL Central.

    “I’m not sure what to make of it, I really don’t, but I know it’s piqued a lot of people’s curiosity,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “I’ve gotten calls from a lot of old friends from Texas and Colorado asking about it. It’s drawn the attention of people around the game.”

    No one is more riveted than the three teams out in front of the field.

    The Cardinals are setting the most torrid pace with a lineup that’s putting up incredible numbers. When they came to Cincinnati last weekend and took two of three, their lineup had four players with hitting streaks of at least eight games and another player — Yadier Molina — leading the NL in batting average. They’ve been the best in the clutch by far, batting better than .300 with runners in scoring position.

    “They take every at-bat seriously,” said Cardinals Adam Wainwright, the majors’ first 10-game winner. “They take every pitch seriously. That makes it very tough on the pitcher, when you’ve got seven or eight guys doing that over and over.”

    If there’s been one surprise, it’s their pitching. With starter Kyle Lohse gone and Chris Carpenter hurt, they’ve relied on a lot of youth in the rotation and bullpen to get them through. So far, they’ve been superb, making the Cardinals the best team in the majors.

    And they’re thinking they can keep it up.

    “It sets that level of expectation that this is what it should look like,” manager Mike Matheny said. “If early in the season you prove to yourself that you can do that for a considerable amount of time, then all of a sudden that becomes the expectation. And anything short of that, they’re not going to settle with.

    “I think it’s a great place to be, and that’s where I believe we are. They’ve seen themselves do all of the above. Now it’s a matter of making it happen on a consistent basis.”

    The Reds have stayed right behind them despite twice losing top starter Johnny Cueto to the disabled, losing cleanup hitter Ryan Ludwick for at least the first half of the season, and having several others out for extended times. They’ve played great, just not quite as great as St. Louis, which has won six of their nine head-to-head games this season.

    “It ain’t frustrating,” Baker said. “It would be frustrating if we were 15 (games) out. Imagine if we weren’t playing .600 ball how far we’d be behind. You can look at it both ways. We can’t do anything about what they’re doing.”

    Then there’s the Pirates, in many ways the biggest surprise in the trio. Their solid start has sparked hope that one of the longest streaks of futility in professional sports history might be finally coming to an end.

    Of course, Pittsburgh fans were thinking the same thing last July when the Pirates moved into a tie for first place. They were 16 games over .500 in August, but fell apart down the stretch and finished with their 20th straight losing record.

    A 12-8 win over San Francisco last Wednesday left the third-place Pirates with a .600 winning percentage and a 23-11 mark at PNC Park, the most home-field wins in the majors.

    “Pittsburgh absolutely is a team that plays different (at home),” Matheny said. “There’s another level of confidence or something there.”

    If the Pirates can keep it up this time, they’ll bust “The Streak” and set up a lot of autumn drama in baseball’s hot-as-summer division.

    “If we play .600 ball the rest of the year, there’s a good chance all three of us will be in the playoffs,” Baker said.

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