Christian Yelich watches homer, AP photo

Brewers' Christian Yelich watches his three-run home run during the third inning on Opening Day, March 28, 2019. The shot gave Milwaukee a 4-3 lead en route to a 5-4 win over the St. Louis Cardinals.

We're seemingly headed toward an epic finish in the National League Central race between the Cubs, Cardinals and Brewers, just as many predicted before the season.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon said in the spring it would be a "cluster" until the end, and thus far that terminology is appropriate.

The Cubs and Cardinals will meet in a season-ending series Sept. 27-29 at Busch Stadium, while the Brewers end the season against the Rockies at Coors Field.

So which team has the edge?

It's difficult to say because each has its own peculiar problems.

"It's like the good, the bad and the ugly," Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "It's up to the reader to determine who's who."

The three contenders have taken turns being good, bad and ugly, so it might come down to these key people:

The managers

The 65-year-old Maddon was seen sliding down a hill on a cardboard box Sunday at the Little League World Series, proving you're as young as you feel. His Cubs have spent the season sliding downhill on the road, forcing them to make the long trek up whenever they return home, as they do Tuesday against the Giants.

Maddon's contract status has become a talking point, as happens when a successful manager enters his final season without an extension. Fans are debating whether he'll be asked to return if the Cubs don't go far in the postseason, which seems likely unless they fix the road issue.

The Brewers' Craig Counsell is 48 but looks young enough to get carded when buying a 12-pack at the Brat Stop. He's usually under fire in Milwaukee for his handling of the pitching staff, especially if closer Josh Hader has a bad outing, a more frequent occurrence of late.

Imagine managing a baseball team in a pennant race in which you're constantly trolled by O.J. Simpson's former houseguest Kato Kaelin. The Brewers' most famous fan once again tweeted Sunday: "Counsell please I beg u FIRE YOURSELF."

"You're playing the teams you're competing with for playoff spots," Counsell told reporters in Washington. "There are so many teams involved in this thing, you're going to be looking at the scoreboard no matter what."

The Cardinals' Mike Shildt, on the other hand, is the invisible manager. You don't see or hear much of Shildt because he doesn't say much and lacks charisma. Yet his mediocre team, left for dead in the first half, was tied with the Cubs for first place entering Monday's game with the Brewers, who were two games back.

Maybe being invisible is the way to go.

The bullpens

Otherwise, there hasn't been much to smile about when discussing the Cubs bullpen, including Kimbrel's performance since arriving in June as the designated savior.

Kimbrel has a 6.08 ERA in 15 appearances, serving up five home runs in 13? innings. He compiled a 4.57 ERA in the second half with the Red Sox last year and fared poorly in the postseason, so it's fair to wonder if this is a trend and not an anomaly.

Late innings are a scary time for the Cubs. They're in a four-way tie for the major-league lead with 23 blown saves - 13 more than the Cardinals. Their 4.15 bullpen ERA ranks ninth in the majors, but which reliever does any Cubs fan really trust?

The Brewers' most consistent weapon the last 2½ years has been the left-handed Hader, the skinny flamethrower whom Maddon once touted for a starring role in a shampoo commercial.

"He's proud of his fastball, and I love that, and he's proud of his hair," Maddon said.

Hader compiled a 2.09 ERA in the first half with 79 strikeouts in 43 innings. But he entered Monday with a 5.93 ERA in 13 second-half appearances and an 11.57 ERA in five August outings.

"Every game matters," Hader said of the NL Central race at the All-Star Game. "That's what it comes down to. Last year it came down to (Game) 163, and that's where it may come out this year."

If so, Hader needs to be Hader again, or the Brew Crew is toast.

The Cardinals have the best bullpen in the division and lead the NL with a 3.44 ERA in the second half. Converted starter Carlos Martinez, who took over for Jordan Hicks as closer after Hicks underwent Tommy John surgery in late June, has 12 saves in 13 opportunities since July 4 but also has a beefy 5.93 ERA in the second half.

The rotations

In this up-and-down season, Yu Darvish and Jose Quintana have emerged as the Cubs' most dependable starters of late, a scenario no one would've envisioned a couple of months ago.

Darvish has a 2.36 ERA over his last seven starts with 57 strikeouts and only two walks in 42 innings, limiting hitters to a .191 average. Quintana is 7-0 with a 2.96 ERA in his last nine starts, the best stretch of his Cubs career.

Now it's up to the threesome of Jon Lester, Cole Hamels and Kyle Hendricks to show more consistency.

The Brewers allowed 30 runs in their last two games in Washington, and the starters have a 5.05 ERA in August. With All-Star Brandon Woodruff down, the rest of the rotation is hit-and-miss — mostly miss.

The Cardinals are riding the arm of Jack Flaherty, whose 0.83 ERA in seven second-half starts leads the majors, while 37-year-old Adam Wainwright always seems to pitch well against the Cubs.

The lineups

All three teams have been awful with runners in scoring position. The Cubs lead the pack with a .256 average, which ranks 20th in the majors, while the Cardinals are 23rd (.252) and the Brewers 28th (.245).

Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich's bid for back-to-back MVP awards suffered a blow when he was forced to miss some games recently with back spasms. He's still engaged in a great home-run race with the Dodgers' Cody Bellinger and the Mets' Pete Alonso, but whether he'll hold up while carrying the Brewers on his back for a second straight stretch run remains to be seen.

The Cubs, surprisingly, have lacked power since the All-Star break. Kyle Schwarber is 40th in the majors with a .548 slugging percentage in the second half, just ahead of Nicholas Castellanos' .568 mark with the Tigers and Cubs.

The next-highest Cubs are Javier Baez at 72nd (.508), Kris Bryant at 81st (.492) and Anthony Rizzo at 85th (.487). In this era of flying baseballs, Baez, Bryant and Rizzo need to pick up the pace for the offense to operate efficiently.

Of course, everything is relative. The Cardinals are 25th in hitting (.244) and 24th in home runs (153), so basically it's Paul Goldschmidt or bust.

The only thing that seems certain is at least one of these teams will consider the 2019 season a bust — and perhaps all three.


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