NL Central Mid-Season Superlatives

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Though I’m sure Cincinnati handled last week differently, I’ve typically tried to ignore the MLB All-Star Games and all of its satellite events. (Side note: If you sit down and watch the full celebrity softball game, you may have a baseball addiction problem. Seek help immediately.)

I need the breather, you know? The season is so long, so nonstop, that the break feels necessary to recharge your batteries for the stretch run. Thoughts and prayers with my Seattle Times colleague, Ryan Divish, a Mariners beat writer who was stranded in the Cincy airport by a cancelled flight for one of his few true off days of the year.

By Thursday, though, I miss it. I miss the Pirates and A’s and Rays—even the Phillies, if only a little bit. (No, you have a baseball problem.)

So I’m glad baseball is back. These last two months are going to be a blast. (It helps that I’m a Pirates fan. Sorry, Redleg Nation.)

But before we look too far in the future, let’s take one last glance over our shoulder. These are my midseason NL Central superlatives.

MVP: Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
Yes, I know he was hot garbage for the opening few months of the year. But did you see that walk-off? And that celebration, that slow, ooh-Cutch-don’t-hurt-em stroll over home plate?

McCutchen has a flair for the dramatic unlike any other player in this division, an innate ability to deliver exactly what his team needs exactly when it needs it.

The story of Pittsburgh’s long overdue renaissance overlaps with McCutchen’s career arc. When he took a step forward from prospect to legitimate star, so the team went from oh-how-cute to real contender.

Cutch looks ready to make the leap from legitimate star to transcendent cold-blooded killer, and that’s the No. 1 reason why the Pirates may be the team to beat in the NL Central.

Cy Young: Gerrit Cole, Pirates
Stop screaming biased. Words hurt, you know.

I’ll move on to the rest of the division soon, I promise. But it’s hard to argue with this one—unless you want to make the case for another salty, constantly scowling Pirate, A.J. Burnett.

Cole leads the National League in wins (by three!) with 13 against three losses. The 24-year-old hurler has a 2.30 ERA and has averaged nearly a strikeout an inning, 116 in 117.1.

Most important of all, Cole has developed into the kind of ace a team can rely on for the big ones, which, given that Pittsburgh started Edinson bleeping Volquez against Bumgarner in last year’s Wild Card game, is something his team desperately needed.

Top rookie: Kris Bryant, Cubs
Hitting 12 homers and 51 RBIs in 78 games ain’t bad for a 23-year-old.

It feels as though everyone has repeated “the Cubs are still a few years away” for so long that it has become an accepted truth, like the Confines being Friendly. And the four-game Pirates-Cardinals brouhaha before the break soaked up much of the national attention.

But Chicago is still hovering, eight games back of St. Louis but just 5.5 behind Pittsburgh.

The Cubs also currently occupy one of those two precious wild card slots. And if recent years have taught us anything, it’s that you just have to get invited to the party. Make the playoffs, and anything can happen.

Most exhilarating individual skill: Billy Hamilton’s base running
The Reds outfielder can’t hit for average, riding a .220 BA into the break. He doesn’t have much power, either, with just three homers. Cincinnati as a whole has been a bit of a bummer, a team stuck between contending and rebuilding while spinning its wheels with a cast of players that might have peaked a few years ago. But Billy Hamilton the base runner is a joyful delight, a human yelp.

Tell me you don’t edge toward the front of your seat every time Hamilton reaches base, measures out a lead. He’s almost disorientingly fast—it’s like he apparates from first to second, then second to third.

Hamilton has swiped 45 bags in 81 games, the best mark in the majors. He’s getting caught less often, too. After being thrown out 23 times against 56 stolen bases last season, he’s been nabbed just seven times thus far in 2015.

Most satisfying bit of Schadenfreude: Watching the Brewers fall off
Because Ryan Braun.

Best team: Cardinals
Because of course they are. Whether that holds come late September is another question.

Play ball.

Matt Pentz is a Nuxhall Way contributor and a reporter for The Seattle Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @mattpentz.

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