On the Pirates: Is the NL Central home to baseball's best race?

From all sides of Target Field’s visiting clubhouse before Tuesday’s All-Star Game, players who are invested in the tight second-half race in the National League Central interpreted the competition in similar fashion.

“For our team I think it’s really our pitching,” Cincinnati Reds third baseman Todd Frazier said. “Our pitching takes care of the business.”

Tony Watson remembered seeing on the Great American Ball Park scoreboard last weekend that the NL Central was the only division with four teams above .500. “It’s a good division, I think one of the deepest in baseball,” he said.

Andrew McCutchen took a simple approach. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but it’s going to be fun,” he offered.

So did Milwaukee Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy. “This division’s good, man,” he said. “Really good.”

The Brewers, St. Louis Cardinals, Reds and Pirates entered the final two and a half months of play with only 31⁄2 games separating them. The Pirates, at 49-46 entering their weekend series against the Colorado Rockies, brought up the rear in that tight race.

The Brewers were 19 games above .500 June 28 and had a season-high 61⁄2-game lead in the division July 1. They proceeded to lose 11 of their final 13 games before the All-Star break, including seven losses in a row and a four-game sweep against NL East bottom-dweller Philadelphia.

“We obviously hit a little rough stretch, but every team does during the year,” said Lucroy, the NL starter in the All-Star Game. “We got to find a way to beat back the adversity and keep moving forward.”

An exceptional catcher for three years, Lucroy still managed to improve his production at the plate this season. He hit .315 with a .385 on-base percentage, 9 home runs and 32 doubles before the break.

“Honestly it’s just about my mechanics, trying to fix that as best I can,” Lucroy said. “My first couple years I had some things going on. I fixed that and what you see is a result of fixing my mechanics.”

The Brewers offense ranks second in home runs and slugging percentage in the NL, behind only the Coors Field-aided Rockies. Sophomore second baseman Scooter Gennett’s .482 slugging percentage has helped, as have All-Star seasons from Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Gomez, and a healthy Ryan Braun.

“Keep grinding hard, keep rolling, keep working,” Lucroy said. “Can’t let up. The teams in our division are too good, period. Cardinals, Reds, Pirates, they’re too good. We can’t mess around with them.”

The second-place Cardinals resumed play Friday one game back of the Brewers. They took three of four from the Pirates and two of three from the Brewers to win five of their final seven entering the break. The return of Joe Kelly from injury should help a rotation that lost Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia, but losing catcher Yadier Molina to a thumb injury presents a big challenge.

The Reds won 8 of 11 before the break and trailed the Brewers by 11⁄2 games, but face a challenging July and August. Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips are on the disabled list.

“I’d be lying to you saying it’s not going to be tough, but it is,” Frazier said. “… We know each other well. We’ve got new guys that have stepped into roles that have been doing very well. If our pitching staff keeps doing what they’re doing we have a very good shot of winning this division.”

Two-fifths of the Reds rotation, Johnny Cueto and Alfredo Simon, made the All-Star team, as did closer Aroldis Chapman. Asked to describe facing Chapman, whose fastball averages 100.1 mph, McCutchen said, “It’s like trying to catch a fly. … A really fast one that hasn’t eaten anything yet.”

Billy Hamilton has emerged as one of the best defensive center fielders in baseball in only his second season playing the position. He also hit .285, stole 38 bases and found some power, hitting 5 home runs, 19 doubles and 6 triples.

“He gets on base, he tears it up, he keeps doing his thing,” Frazier said. “To put pressure on a rookie like that is tough. He knows what he’s capable of. He’s fine with it.”

Losing five of seven to the Cardinals and Reds before the break dropped the Pirates to fourth, but only 31⁄2 games out. Watson and Josh Harrison spoke of the team’s confidence and Harrison said the team has high expectations.

“Doing what we did last year, making the playoffs, and going further,” he said. “There’s no reason why we can’t. We got a group that knows that we can do that.”

The bullpen gave up three of those five games, but the rotation had a 2.87 ERA in July entering the opener of the Rockies series, the third-best mark in the league. Francisco Liriano returned just before the break, but Gerrit Cole is still on the disabled list because of a strained right latissimus dorsi muscle in his back.

“This last road trip we had a couple crazy innings,” Watson said. “I think as a group we’re playing well and we feel collectively … we have a good team. We’re real hungry from last year. Got a taste of the playoffs and got that experience, and we all want to get back there.”

Bill Brink: bbrink@post-gazette.com and Twitter @BrinkPG.

First Published July 20, 2014 12:00 AM

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