The NL Central is great and it has been strong for some time now. Since the majors added a wild card game and an extra playoff team, the Central has sent at least one extra participant to the playoffs each year. Two teams represented the division at PNC Park in 2013 when the Pirates defeated the Reds and if the season ended today, the division would provide both wild card teams again.
After 20 years of losing in a generally weak division, many Pittsburgh fans feel unfortunate to still be stuck with this tough group from middle America making the Bucs road to a potential World Series more difficult. After all they’ve hosted the winner-take-all wild card game twice now, meaning they were the best team not to win their division the last two years and it’s looking like they’re headed for a third. Why? They’ve been chasing the team with the best combined NL regular season record over that stretch.
If the feeling of perpetually nipping at the Cardinals heels wasn’t bad enough, the upstart Cubs with their seemingly endless stream of outstanding field players from a stacked minor league system have caught up with St. Louis and Pittsburgh. The division now houses the three best teams in the NL and three of the top four in all of baseball.
Rarely does a day go by where I don’t see a fan or two envious of the Houston Astros who managed to jump ship to the greener pastures of the AL West. To them I say “DH.” If they don’t like that argument, I say, “Pujols.” But all other things being equal, I’m glad the Pirates are where they are.
Don’t get me wrong, the 6.5 game lead the Pirates would have in the AL West would feel comfortable as would the 7.5 game cushion they’d have in the NL East. I’m not saying cushions and comforts are a bad thing. They are important features when buying a couch or when you’re making a trans-Atlantic flight. Is it really a good thing when it comes to sports?
In some cases, yes. For example, if you’re a fan with a serious heart condition, safe divisions are probably good for you. Nobody wants to see you die because of a game. Of course, you absolutely should lay off the all-you-can-eat seats at the ballpark or I’ll quickly lose sympathy for you.
It’s better to be the team being chased rather then the one doing the chasing. It would be a little disappointing if they settle for another Wild Card game, especially if they have to go on the road. I’d certainly prefer to be out in front of the division now, but how electric will it be if the Pirates have a successful Cardinal hunt down the stretch? Would it be as exciting if they had the division locked up in late August?
To me playing the best, and more importantly, playing meaningful games against the best makes sports more enjoyable. This isn’t an argument for masochism in fandom, but it absolutely is an argument that feeling a little on edge when it comes to sporting events makes them a little better. Certainty provides comfort, but not the melodrama that puts butts in seats and draws big TV ratings. If I know the outcome, I simply don’t care as much. I don’t think I’m alone either. It’s why people avoid social media like the plague when they’re DVR’ing a game they plan to watch later. Even if we just know the score, but not how it got there, it’s simply not as good. Ten games up for the division now and let’s be honest, even the most anxious fans are starting to realize that lead is likely to hold. Are they annoying their spouse by constantly refreshing the MLB.com game tracker on their phone at a nice dinner or shelling out 175% of face value on Stubhub to sit in 322? The answer is probably not.
In a 162 game season, I need more, not less, meaningful games. How many other divisions besides the Central will provide as many meaningful games? They started before the All-Star break when the Cardinals came to town. There was a great buzz about those games as the Pirates appeared ready to claw their way back into a race with a team they always seemed to trail. Walk off wins are always exciting, but when they come against a divisional rival to tighten a race to where it became as excruciating as they were enjoyable, it doesn’t get better. 20,000 people aren’t going to wait through hour after hour of rain delays like they did on August 3rd against the Cubs if the Pirates were well ahead of them in the wild card race in my opinion. Hell, 20,000 may not have shown up.
When you’re playing good teams, you’re playing good players. The kid in me still wants see the greats and we’re treated to a lot. Todd Frazier, Anthony Rizzo, and Matt Carpenter all entertain me as much as I would imagine Andrew McCutchen does opposing fans in other Central cities. All of those players can change a close game when they come to the plate. The sense of anxiety you feel when they reach base or relief when they sit back down makes for games within the game. I want to see a great opposing pitcher against Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, or AJ Burnett when I attend in person. It doesn’t get better for me than a marquee match up in a big game.
Weekend series between good NL Central teams are becoming almost automatic Sunday Night baseball fare. Not only are fans in the middle of country paying attention, so is the rest of the country. After watching years of meaningless baseball, I can’t get enough of it now. So I say bring on the Cubs and Cards and let’s see who comes out on top. The Astros can have the NL West and the Royals can coast into the playoffs. Give me sweet, sweet discomfort and a reason to hang on every pitch.