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NL Central on wretched pace

| Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The National League Central isn't merely a bad division.

It has an excellent chance to be the worst division -- by one telling measurement -- since Major League Baseball expanded from four to six divisions in 1994, back when the circumference of Barry Bonds' skull was smaller than a pitching mound.

Out-of-division winning percentage is the measurement, and the NL Central is 46-82 against the rest of the baseball world this season, good for a winning percentage of .359.

Without radical improvement, this group will make history.

The wrong kind, of course.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the worst out-of-division winning percentage since 1994 was .412, posted by the AL Central in 2002. That division featured one winning team (Minnesota) and a pair of 100-loss disasters (Kansas City and Detroit).

This group has six flawed clubs, even if Pirates left fielder Jason Bay disagrees.

"I don't know about flawed," Bay said. "I don't think, by any means, we're a division that is any less than any other one."

The numbers scream otherwise. A look at the out-of-division records, heading into Tuesday night's games:

NL West: 67-48 (.583)

AL Central: 77-61 (.558)

NL East: 60-49 (.550)

AL East: 72-73 (.497)

AL West: 66-68 (.493)

NL Central: 46-82 (.359)

You thought this division was bad last year, when St. Louis won it with 83 victories?

It was. But not this bad. It had an out-of-division winning percentage of .432.

Even in 1997, when the "Freak Show" Pirates were in first place as late as July 17 with a 47-47 record, the NL Central had an out-of-division winning percentage of .450.

Certainly, one team can drag a division down -- and the Cincinnati Reds are doing their darndest -- but that's not the case with the Comedy Central, where every team has a losing record outside its friendly confines.

The Chicago Cubs' $300 million winter binge hasn't added up to peanuts, and the Milwaukee Brewers have crashed back to earth after playing at a .700 clip for more than a month.

"They're obviously a really good team; I don't know how good," Pirates first baseman Adam LaRoche said of the Brewers. "I don't know if they were playing over their head."

Fact is, the Brewers don't pitch or catch well enough to run away from anyone. They've beaten up their Central brethren to the tune 17-8 but were 11-15 against everybody else heading into last night's game against Atlanta.

All of which is great news for the Pirates.

Forget each one of the aforementioned numbers and consider this as proof of the NL Central's wretchedness: The Pirates, with all their glaring flaws, were only 5 1/2 games out of first place heading into their game last night against San Diego.

Now, the bad news: The Pirates have played the most divisional games -- they are 17-19 in those -- and won't play another for more than a month. The interim will include a 15-game interleague stretch, never a good thing for the Pirates.

If this team can somehow tread water until its next divisional game, July 2 against Milwaukee, this summer could become more interesting than most.

And you could thank the NL Central for that.

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