The final scores of the first three games between the Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals this season weren’t all that close, but the games were tighter than the margins of victory indicated.
That could foreshadow another season of great baseball between the National League Central Division’s two best teams, but it probably won’t determine which team wins the division.
The Cincinnati Reds destroyed the St. Louis Cardinals 13-4 Monday in the Cardinals’ home-opener, but that was a close game until the ninth, and the Cardinals ripped the Reds the next two days, 5-1 and 10-0, to take an extremely early 2-1 lead in the season series against their most dangerous divisional opponent.
That’s obviously a good way to kick off what could be a fun race for the 2013 division crown, but the Cardinals’ records against teams outside the National League Central Division might be even more important.
Based on how the teams played in their recent series at Busch Stadium, the Cardinals and Reds are both good, but they are pretty evenly matched. One team probably won’t win the vast majority of the 19 games the rivals play against each other this season, nor will one team likely falter against a specific divisional opponent.
The Milwaukee Brewers and Pittsburgh Pirates are decent, but the Cardinals and Reds are better than both of those teams, as well as the lowly Chicago Cubs, and they should run through the division relatively easily. Now, the division race could be drastically altered if the Cardinals or Reds continually falter against a particular opponent, but that is still improbable.
The more likely scenario is a season series that ends up 10-9, 11-8 or 12-7. Sure, those couple of games will be extremely important if the Reds and Cardinals end up in a tight battle in the standings near the end of the season, but the winner of that battle will likely be the team that wins the most games against teams in every other divisions, especially now that Major League Baseball has implemented season-long interleague play.
The Cardinals beat the Reds in eight of their 15 games last season, and both teams had similar records within the division. The Cardinals went 45-32 against NL Central opponents, while the Reds went 49-30. Again, those few games do matter, but the biggest difference between the Cardinals and Reds in 2012 was their performance against NL East teams.
The Reds won 19 of 34 games against the NL East last season. While that’s not a great record by any means, it is significantly better than the Cardinals 14-20 record against those same teams. And that’s largely the reason the Reds finished nine games ahead of the Cardinals in the final standings.
But that doesn’t mean Reds-Cardinals games won’t be a lot of fun to watch this season. Both teams have good pitching, and they have balanced lineups that can score a lot of runs at any time. That combination makes for games that will usually be close throughout, as the last three games were through the first half.
The Cardinals would’ve outscored the Reds 3-2 for the series if the teams had play just the first four innings each day. Instead, the Cardinals outscored the Reds 19-14 in what looks like an offensively charged series, when in reality pitchers shut down each offense for the majority of each game.
The teams will meet again April 29 for round two at Busch Stadium, and they’ll play four more series after that. But what each team does in the games between those meetings will play just as large a role in which team represents the NL Central in the 2013 playoffs.