Analyzing NL Central contenders schedules: Brewers have toughest path
If the Milwaukee Brewers are going to hold on and win the National League Central, they are going to have to navigate through a tough final two months in order to do so.
The toughest remaining schedule among the NL Central contenders belongs to the Brewers, while the second-place Cardinals have a much easier path to the division crown. September is a month filled with divisional games, so head-to-head battles will still carry a lot of weight.
Here's a breakdown of what is ahead for each of the four teams with roughly two months of baseball to be played:
1. Milwaukee Brewers (61-51, first place)
Remaining games: 50
Games against teams currently over .500: 27 (54%)
Opponent winning percentage: .506
The toughest remaining schedule in the NL Central based on opponent winning percentage belongs to the Brewers, and it isn't hard to see why. While every other team in the division is done with Los Angeles and San Francisco, the Brewers have 12 games left with the two NL West contenders in August. This doesn't even take into account the fact Milwaukee has to take two separate trips out west. Four games at Wrigley Field against the Cubs and three games against lowly San Diego remain in August, but the Brewers also host AL East contender Toronto for two games later in the month and have a critical three-game series with Pittsburgh on the same homestand.
September is very NL Central-heavy for all teams, as Miami is the only non-divisional opponent Milwaukee plays during the final month. The Brewers and Cardinals play seven times in September -- four in Milwaukee and three in St. Louis. Milwaukee only plays three games against Pittsburgh in September, while facing Cincinnati and Chicago six times.
2. St. Louis Cardinals (59-51, second place, 1 GB)
Remaining games: 52
Games against teams currently over .500: 16 (30.7%)
Opponent winning percentage: .483
St. Louis has the easiest remaining schedule among the four NL Central contenders and it isn't close. The Cardinals play just 16 of their final 52 games against teams with a winning record, with 10 of those 16 games coming in September.
The Cardinals do head to Baltimore for a tough-three game set with the Orioles this weekend, but St. Louis begins this week with a home series against the last-place Red Sox. While the Brewers still have 12 contests with the Giants and Dodgers, both playoff contenders, in August, the Cardinals have 11 games against the Padres, Phillies and Cubs. St. Louis could have a golden chance to take control of the division heading into September.
Of course, September is a crap shoot because of how many divisional games are on the schedule. But St. Louis has three games with last-place Colorado in the middle of the month and finishes the season against the Cubs and Diamondbacks.
There's no question the remaining schedule favors the Cardinals.
3. Pittsburgh Pirates (59-52, third place, 1.5 GB)
Remaining games: 51
Games against teams currently over .500: 26 (50.9%)
Opponent winning percentage: .499
The Pirates' road to a division title became much more difficult Monday when star center fielder Andrew McCutchen was lost for up to a month with a strained oblique. Pittsburgh doesn't nearly have as favorable of a schedule as St. Louis, but the Pirates' path isn't quite as challenging as Milwaukee's.
After six home games against the Marlins and Padres this week, the Pirates have a pretty tough stretch through the middle weeks of August. First comes four games (two at home, two on the road) against first-place Detroit, followed by three games in Washington against the NL East-leading Nationals. After three games in Pittsburgh against Atlanta, Pittsburgh wraps up August with the Brewers, Cardinals and Reds and starts September with a three-game set in St. Louis.
Things lighten up a bit after the first series in September, as the Pirates have a stretch in which they play two series against the Cubs, a three-game series against the Phillies and three home games against the Red Sox. Following three home games against the Brewers, Pittsburgh closes its season with a seven-game trip to Atlanta and Cincinnati.
4. Cincinnati Reds (56-56, fourth place, 5 GB)
Remaining games: 50
Games against teams currently over .500: 32 (64%)
Opponent winning percentage: .501
Already five games out of the division race and sitting at .500, the Reds have the second-toughest remaining schedule based on opponent winning percentage among the NL Central contenders. Cincinnati plays 32 of its remaining 50 games against teams over .500, starting with three games against Cleveland this week. After a stretch in which they face Miami, Boston and Colorado, the Reds head to St. Louis for three and host the Braves for four. Cincinnati wraps up August with a home series with the Cubs and a trip to Pittsburgh.
The Reds begin September with a tough trip to Baltimore for three games with the Orioles. Cincinnati will play Milwaukee, St. Louis and Pittsburgh a combined 16 times in September, meaning the Reds still have a chance to climb back into this. Cincinnati could possibly have Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips back in time for a final push, but the key will be for the Reds to start playing better and gain some ground before the head-to-head series against the Brewers, Cardinals and Pirates come late in the year.
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