Handicapping the NL Central race


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Clint Hurdle has the Pirates in the thick of the NL Central race.
Clint Hurdle hopes the Pirates’ bubble doesn’t burst down the stretch. (Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

The sad spectacle of watching the two also-rans of the National League Central — the Cubs and Brewers — do battle this weekend got me to thinking in terms of horse racing. The outdoor season is winding down here in Illinois — as it other states, I’m sure — but the “sport of kings” does have something for baseball fans to chew over the final three weeks of the season.

Anyone who’s ever been to the track or wagered on a race can tell you about Win, Place and Show. And the way baseball has now structured the postseason, to include two non-division winners into the postseason fray, it resembles a horse race, under certain conditions. In this case, the NL Central race — in addition to the also-rans — has three teams jockeying for supremacy. Since both wild-card spots are likely to go to teams from the NL Central division, there are clear indications of Win, Place, and Show for each of these teams.

Win is self-evident. The team that emerges on top when the last out is recorded on September 29 will be guaranteed of a full series in the NLDS against one of the other division winners. That’s a lot more than the Place and Show winners receive.

Place, in this regard, means coming in second and having the home-field advantage in the one-game, wild-card playoff (the NL’s half of what I named “The Oc2ber” last year). But baseball teams, more than those in any other professional sport, play on the road all the time, and home field advantage in a one-game playoff doesn’t mean so much. Just ask Chipper Jones.

Show means third place, and it’s still “in the money” in a technical sense. But the St. Louis Cardinals, the National League’s Show team last year, came within an eyelash of making it to the World Series. So, being the Show horse in this sense isn’t such a disadvantage at all.

Handicapping means to look at a Racing Form and try to find factors that favor one horse over the others in the field. Perhaps it’s which jockeys are riding the horses, since a hot jockey could probably ride horses to victory that other jockeys could not. Or maybe it’s a horse’s most recent races, if it won or finished in the money in any of those. Or maybe it’s the horse’s past record with running at the distance the upcoming race is at. There could be a hundred things to consider, and what matters the most is up to the individual handicapper. If there was a foolproof way of sorting through the data to always find a winner, I promise you, everyone would be doing it.

So, with those disclaimers in mind, here’s my look at the main factors to pick the top three horses in the NL Central as they come spinning out of the final turn and down the stretch of this season:

Losers No More — a/k/a the Pittsburgh Pirates, ridden by Clint Hurdle

The feel-good story of the bunch, having run its last 20 races without finishing in the money. Jockey has won before, guiding Rockies to the World Series in 2007. Have faded late in previous races, but seven games remaining with the lowly Cubs — more than the other two contenders — will boost their chances. Three road games at Texas will be a challenge, and six games against rivals from Cincinnati could very well decide their fate.

Redbirds of a Feather — a/k/a the St. Louis Cardinals, ridden by Mike Matheny

Horse has run well with prior jockey, Tony LaRussa, and has had success with Matheny, as well. Lifetime earnings for this horse exceed those of its two main rivals. Possible benefit from not playing either of its rivals down the stretch. Six games with lowly Brewers will help, as will a soft slate of non-division opponents (three at home against the Nationals and a series with the sub-.500 Mariners and Rockies).

Hunt for Reds October — a/k/a the Cincinnati Reds, ridden by Dusty Baker

Jockey has seen the winner’s circle before, but has also failed to close out races late (see 2012). Series with Mets at home and Astros away will help chances significantly. Experienced lineup and pitching staff will add greatly. As with rivals from Pittsburgh, six head-to-head matchups could prove decisive.

If I were a betting man on the NL Central race, my trifecta order would be Reds to Win, Pirates to Place, and Cardinals to Show. Three weeks from now, we’ll see how much of a handicapper I really am.

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