Last year, the National League Central was a neck-and-neck-and-neck scramble. This year, it could turn into a one-horse race.

It’s still earlyin case you’re not sick of that particular qualifierbut the Chicago Cubs are establishing themselves as the class of the division. 

After defeating the Pittsburgh Pirates 7-1 Tuesday night behind ace Jake Arrieta, Chicago sits at 19-6, five games up on the Bucs and seven games ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Cubs are also now 4-1 in head-to-head matchups with Pittsburgh and St. Louis—the two clubs that finished ahead of them in the NL Central in 2015.

In case you have short-term memory issues, the Cardinals went 100-62 last season, and the Pirates went 98-64. The Cubs finished in third at 97-65, though they defeated the Pirates in the NL Wild Card Game and dropped the Cards in the division series before losing in the National League Championship Series to the New York Mets.

This time around, the Cubs apparently don’t want to wait until October to blow past their division rivals.

Even casual baseball fans are aware of the hype surrounding this Cubbies squad. Already loaded with young talent, including reigning NL Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant, the Cubs added key pieces such as versatile veteran Ben Zobrist, five-tool outfielder Jason Heyward and playoff-tested right-hander John Lackey over the winter.

So far, they haven’t disappointed. The offense is tied with St. Louis for the MLB lead in runs scored. And the pitching staff, led by Arrieta in full Cy Young Award-winning form, paces the Senior Circuit in ERA.

The Pirates and Cardinals, meanwhile, are wrestling with questions.

St. Louis, as mentioned, has managed to score its share of runs thanks to rookies Jeremy Hazelbaker and Aledmys Diaz having surprisingly stellar starts and catcher Yadier Molina’s solid return from offseason thumb surgeries.

But their starting rotation owns a pedestrian 4.22 ERA, with ace Adam Wainwright looking particularly mortal. 

The Pirates, likewise, have hit the ball. They rank among the top five MLB teams in runs scored and OPS, even with their best player, Andrew McCutchen, hitting a paltry .221.

But Pittsburgh has also wobbled on the mound, ranking near the bottom third in baseball in ERA and opponents’ batting average.

There’s enough talent on both teams to turn things around.

Pittsburgh’s rotation boasts a solid top two in Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano. And the Cards can reasonably cross their fingers for improvement from the likes of Wainwright (6.68 ERA) and free-agent addition Mike Leake (5.83 ERA).

Alternately, as Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal put it, “We interrupt the coronation of the Cubs to remind you that the NL Central features two other contenders with powerful offenses.”

But through the first month of the season, the Cubs simply look like the most complete team. They’ve shown they can shake off setbacks, including the loss of slugging sophomore Kyle Schwarber to season-ending knee surgery. And they’ve delivered, convincingly, in nearly every facet of the game.

All of the squads involved in this three-team scrum get to feast on the bottom-feeding Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds. It’s how they fare against each other that will ultimately decide things.

The Cubs and Pirates engaged in a beanball battle Monday in Chicago’s 7-2 victory. At one point, Cubs skipper Joe Maddon and Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli got into a shouting match, though Maddon downplayed it afterward.

”I like him. I really do,” Maddon said, per John Perrotto of the Associated Press (via ”It’s always fun to vent.” 

Fun when you’re in first place, maybe. 

Joking aside, Chicago understands the stakes. 

“These games were big for us,” said Heyward after Chicago took two of three from St. Louis in April, per USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale. “When you’re in a division like this, knowing how close it was last year, these division games mean as much now as in September.”

The Cubs and Cardinals will clash 16 more times before the season is through. And Chicago will play Pittsburgh 17 more times, including Wednesday’s tussle. So this is far from settled.

FanGraphs, however, projects the Cubs to run away with the division, finishing 98-64 to the Pirates’ 86-76 and the Cardinals’ 85-77. 

Say what you want about the games being played on the field and not by some computer. Based on what we’ve witnessed so far, those win totals seem about right.

The NL Central is a race worth watching, and the division could easily produce more than one playoff team. Maybe it’ll even churn out three.

But don’t be shocked if the young-legged Cubs keep sprinting and never look back.


All statistics current as of May 3 and courtesy of unless otherwise noted.

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