Monday night, the Atlanta Braves stopped the bleeding. It took them 14 innings -- many of them hitless -- but they managed to beat the Marlins. Meanwhile, the Washington Nationals were losing a tight game to the Phillies. All of which reversed a recent trend. A month ago the Nationals, heavy preseason favorites to win the National League East, were eight games behind the first-place Braves. Two weeks ago, they were six games behind. And before Monday's action, they were just four games behind.
Now the gap is five games. But doesn't it seem like the Nationals are going to catch the Braves, eventually? And doesn't it seem like the second-place team in the National League East is going to left on the sidelines in October?
Well, yeah. But only sort of. Just a week or so ago, it looked like the second- and third-place teams in the Central might well run off and hide in the Wild Card standings (with the Western second-placer already practically eliminated). But things have changed. Now the Nationals are only four games behind the Reds and the Pirates in those same standings, and making up four games on one team over the course of two-and-a-half months seems hardly a monumental task.
Today, though, I'd like to stick to the National League East, if only because nobody wants to be stuck in that one-game playoff for the right to advance.
Remember, before the season the Nationals were supposedly better than the Braves, and roughly five games better. Which seems like a lot at the end of a season, but doesn't mean a whole lot at the beginning. Just think about how many players will wear the uniforms of the Nationals or the Braves this season, and how few of them would have to deviate, just a bit, from their expected performances to make the Braves five games better.
Still, it's good to remember that. It's good to remember that we liked this team a lot just four months ago, which should temper our knowledge that the Nationals, so good just a year ago and (we thought) just four months ago, has actually been outscored this season.
What we didn't know was that second baseman Danny Espinosa would be one of the worst players in the majors. But he's out of action now, and rookie Anthony Rendon seems to have turned a terrible weakness into a strength. Jayson Werth got off to a rough start, but he's been good lately. Kurt Suzuki hasn't hit at all this season, but Wilson Ramos is just off the Disabled List and figures to help, too. At the moment, you might reasonably argue that the Nationals' lineup doesn't have a single weak link. Which was supposed to happen all along.
The Nationals' rotation has been almost exactly as good as we expected, except Dan Haren's been a lot worse. Just off the DL, Haren started against the Phillies Monday night and got hung with his 10th loss, but he pitched reasonably well and there's some reason for optimism. But even with Haren struggling, four good starters should be enough and the Nationals do have four good starters. Their bullpen's been fine, and might well be finer; Drew Storen just has to give up a few fewer long fly balls.
On balance, I still think this team is the team we thought it was, a team that's right now capable of winning 95 of its next 162 games. Of course, it doesn't have 162 games. If the Nationals win the corresponding percentage from this point, they'll finish with ... an 89-73 record, which quite likely won't be good enough. And therein lies the tyranny of the mathematics of the slow start: You can't just play as well as you're supposed to; you have to play better than you're supposed to. A more comfortable finishing figure would be 92-70 ... and to finish 92-70, the Nats have to go 46-27 the rest of the way. Which is really hard.
Of course, that argument presupposes the Braves will play reasonably well down the stretch. For them to win 92 games, they merely need to go 41-32 the rest of the way. Which doesn't seem so difficult at all. But of course the Braves are hardly perfect. Their two young outfielders, Justin Upton and Jason Heyward, were supposed to play brilliantly. Between them, they've been just decent. Their veteran outfielder, Justin's big brother, has been one of the worst players in the majors. And with the Braves' fourth outfielder on the DL, they've just called up someone named Joey Terdaslovich. In one sense the Braves have been exceptionally fortunate this season, as bench players Evan Gattis and Jordan Schafer played exceptionally well before going down with injuries.
Pitching-wise, the Braves boast the second-best ERA in the league and it's largely real. Their rotation is solid but hardly overperforming, and soon they might be even deeper, with Brandon Beachy slated to come off the DL. The bullpen's been outstanding, and that's where I must inject one note of possible regression (and pessimism). The Braves' top seven relievers have given up only a dozen home runs in 235 innings. They're good, but they're probably not quite this good.
There are a lot of things to like about the Braves. There might be slightly more things to like about the Nationals, but not quite enough to give them a five-game advantage in the standings the rest of the way. Which is why I'm sticking with the Braves in the East, and leaving the Nationals to fight with the Reds or the Pirates or maybe the West's runner-up for the second wild card.
And of course everything could change in a week. That's why they play the games.