NL Central, home field and replay

Here are a few All-Star break notes and observations from Major League Baseball:

n Nothing was decided in the National League Central Division standings this past weekend, but the momentum may have turned in favor of the Pirates.

After struggling to a 2-4 start in their first six games with St. Louis this season, the Pirates answered with three wins in four games this past weekend at PNC Park, including two in electrifying fashion in extra innings.

Major League Baseball Network analyst Dan Plesac – who was a former relief pitcher with the Bucs – remarked the other day that he believes the Pirates are a better team than the Cardinals right now.

Based on what has transpired in the very recent past, it might be difficult to disagree.

The Pirates own MLB’s best won-lost record (40-19) since the start of play on May 9, and they’re hitting on all cylinders right now. Between June 29 and July 12, the Pirates shaved what had been the Cardinals’ nine-game first-place lead in the NL Central to 2 games.

The Cardinals have been beset by injuries, the most serious of which was pitching ace Adam Wainwright’s season-ending Achilles tear suffered in late April.

Without Wainwright, the Pirates’ starting pitching, on balance, might be a little better than the Cardinals.’

The Pirates’ top three starting pitchers – Gerrit Cole, A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano – could be given a bit of a collective edge over the Cardinals’ top three of Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha and John Lackey, although Martinez and Wacha, like Cole and Burnett, were all-stars this year.

St. Louis’ Lance Lynn and the Pirates’ Charlie Morton probably pan out about even, and the Pirates have the edge in the fifth starting slot with lefty Jeff Locke while the Cardinals don’t have a permanently established fifth starter.

n Home-field advantage is very important in postseason baseball, and it may especially be so if the Cardinals and Pirates happen to meet up this fall.

Since the start of the 2013 season, when the Pirates made their first playoff appearance in 21 seasons and the rivalry with the Cardinals was re-energized, both teams have had a tremendous advantage playing against one another on the home field.

Since 2013, the Pirates have won 18 of 26 regular-season games with the Cardinals at PNC Park, counting three of four in last weekend’s series. During the same time period, the Cardinals own a 17-5 regular-season edge on the Pirates in games played at St. Louis’ Busch Stadium.

The 2013 National League Division Series between the two teams went the full five games, before the Cardinals won the decisive Game 5 behind Wainwright in St. Louis.

All of which makes winning the division and securing the home-field edge for a playoff series seem doubly important where the Pirates and Cardinals are concerned.

n Major League Baseball’s replay review system has eliminated much, but not all, the controversy surrounding plays on the bases.

This season, there seems to be much more arguing and contention centered on ball-and-strike calls, and often, with good reason.

Last Saturday’s ejection of Pirates’ manager Clint Hurdle and catcher Francisco Cervelli following home plate umpire Vic Carapazza’s egregious ruling of a non-foul tip by the Cardinals’ Mark Reynolds that prolonged Reynolds’ first-inning at-bat against Burnett and paved the way for Reynolds to hit a subsequent solo homer screamed for a replay review.

The problem is that balls and strikes are currently not reviewable calls.

That is likely to change, if more situations arise like last Saturday’s and more teams are hurt by poor calls with higher stakes on the line.

n Biggest first-half surprises among National League teams are the New York Mets, Chicago Cubs and Arizona Diamondbacks. Biggest first-half disappointments among NL teams are the San Diego Padres and Miami Marlins, both of whom were very aggressive in offseason deals but haven’t received the desired results.

Biggest first-half surprises in the American League include the Minnesota Twins and Houston Astros, while the Detroit Tigers, Seattle Mariners and Chicago White Sox rank among the league’s most disappointing teams.

John Hartsock can be reached at jhartsock@altoonamirror.com