NL Central Notes: Top teams make the most of Plunk-o-Rama

Cards, Reds and Pirates show there's a correlation between pitching inside and winning

ST. LOUIS -- Based on hitting batters with pitches, teams in the NL Central like to work inside more than most teams.

Or maybe these clubs aren't real fond of one another.

The Pirates (first), Cardinals (second), Cubs (tied for fifth) and Reds (tied for seventh) all rank in the top 10 in the majors in hitting batters. The Pirates and Reds also rank 1-2 in getting hit. All four clubs are plunking division rivals at a higher rate than non-division foes.

Bad blood or merely unfortunate pitches that "got away"? The answer is somewhere in between, of course, but there is no doubt that clubs are on high alert when facing each other.

Look at what happened when the Pirates and Reds split a four-game series this week. Every game included at least one hit batter, and just about every game featured at least one close call.

On Monday, Reds closer Aroldis Chapman put Neil Walker on the ground with a 100-mph fastball that was up and in.  

On Tuesday, with his first pitch, Pirates starter Charlie Morton hit Shin-Soo Choo on the right knee. Morton later buzzed Reds star Joey Votto, whose displeasure was obvious as he stubbornly remained in the batter's box.

On Wednesday, the Reds plunked Russell Martin and Jordy Mercer.

In the top of the first on Thursday, Pirates star Andrew McCutchen was hit for the second time in the series. In the bottom of the first, Votto had a pitch thrown behind him.

This week was more of the same from the previous meeting between the teams. In that three-game set, at least two batters were hit in each game. Brandon Phillips missed nearly a week after getting hit in the forearm in the second game. The next day, there were five hit batters between the two teams.

Exactly how many of the errant pitches were intentional is open to debate, of course. Hin-Soo Choo, for example, has been hit six times by the Pirates. But the scouting report on Choo is to pitch him inside, and he leads the majors with 19 plunkings.

Reds starter Mat Latos shared his opinion on the matter after Morton's two-plunk performance Tuesday.

"It's time somebody stepped up and did something about the team that's hit more guys in the league than anybody," Latos told reporters. "I got fined for hitting Neil Walker (in a previous series), but you've got a team drilling guys over and over again. It's time for the league to step up and end it."

Publicly anyway, both managers have taken a less confrontational approach.

"When two teams are focused on winning and neither one wants to blink and they just want to play hard and compete, you push the envelope in a lot of different places," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle told reporters. "Not just at the plate trying to get balls in on people, but breaking up double plays and everything."

Said the Reds' Dusty Baker: "No. 1, you have to pitch inside to get guys out. And they're doing a pretty good job of getting people out. ... I hope nothing is intentional. We pitch inside, too. Johnny Cueto pitches inside. There's a correlation between success and pitching inside."

Baker has a point. The Brewers have hit the second-fewest batters in the majors (15). They also have the worst ERA in the NL and are tied with the Cubs for last place in the division.

The Cardinals, Reds and Pirates, meantime, rank first, third and fourth, respectively, in NL ERA. They also own the three best records in the NL. With their approaches paying off in the standings, don't look for much to change.

Which leaves the rest of the season to find out just how much these teams don't like each other.

Cubs starter favors Reds

No team has been beaten around by the Central contenders more than the Cubs, which puts starter Jeff Samardzija in a good position to handicap the top three teams.

His verdict, in order: Reds, Cardinals, Pirates.

"You're talking about a small difference between them," he said Thursday before the Cubs left town.  

His reasoning: The Reds have the best bullpen, and it will be even better when lefty Sean Marshall returns (maybe before the All-Star break).

Samardzija says the Pirates' lineup is better than it's given credit for, pointing to left fielder Starling Marte as one reason. The 24-year-old left fielder is hitting .283 with a .347 on-base percentage and has scored 45 runs.

"They have some guys that you don't hear about but are good players, like Marte," Samardzija said. "They don't have the ability to put up runs like the other two teams, but they're a gritty, scrappy team and they're used to playing in close, low-scoring games."

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