Will the NL East be a race or a runaway?


Will the NL East be a race or a runaway?

Regarding blown leads, some among us can cite bitter personal history. On July 22, 2010, the Atlanta Braves led Philadelphia by seven games in the National League East. This correspondent seized that Thursday to concoct the immortal “8 Reasons The Braves Won’t Squander This Lead” missive.

The Braves blew that lead, finishing six games behind Philly and needing a victory in Game No. 162 to grab the wild card over San Diego. Beggaring belief, they blew a bigger lead the next year. Leading the wild-card chase by 9 1/2 games on Aug. 26 and St. Louis by 8 1/2 on Sept. 5, they lost 13 of their final 18 and missed the playoffs.

With such memories fresh in their rottenness, nobody around here — I count my chastened self among that number — sees the NL East as won. The Braves awoke Monday leading the division by 7 1/2 games, which matched a seasonal apogee. Still, 99 games remained. In 2010, the Braves needed only 57 games to go from seven up to seven behind. That said …

This is a better team than in 2010, when the offense fell to pieces when the retread Troy Glaus stopped hitting and when Chipper Jones tore his ACL in August. (Glaus had 47 RBI’s in May and June, 15 thereafter.) This is a better team than the 2011 edition, which hit even less and which lost starting pitchers Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson in the final weeks. This is a better team that has already faced the hard part of its schedule.

Of those 99 remaining games, only 21 will be played against teams currently above .500. (The Nationals are 31-31.) Of those 99 games, 53 will be staged at Turner Field, where the Braves own the best winning percentage in the majors. Of those 99 games, 30 will match the Braves against the Marlins, who have the worst record in baseball, or the Mets, who have the third-worst.

Given that the Braves lead by seven games, some falling-apart on their part will be necessary for Washington to close ground. The Nationals will also have to play better — they’re 28th in the majors in runs, having been outscored by 27 for the season — and they can’t play better if they don’t get healthy. Five key Nats, Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg chief among them, are on the disabled list.

Yes, it’s a long season: Strange things can and do happen. Still, we’re seeing signs that the Braves might be moving beyond clout-or-out mode — they’re tied for first in the majors in homers, second in strikeouts — toward something less extreme. Jason Heyward raised his batting average from .142 to .200 in a week. B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla, still dwelling south of the Mendoza Line, have managed big hits the past 10 days. Given the number of options at manager Fredi Gonzalez’s disposal, it’s hard to imagine this lineup hitting any less than it has.

For all the Braves’ top-end talent, depth is the best thing about them. Evan Gattis is too good not to play; Jordan Schafer and Ramiro Pena have done many good things in not much time. There’s no non-pitcher who could really be called indispensable. Freddie Freeman would be the closest, but Gattis could take a turn at first base. Justin Upton has had one RBI over the past 22 games, over which the Braves are 16-6.

The surprisingly strong rotation could get stronger. Brandon Beachy’s return will present the best sort of problem: With five guys going well, who moves to make room? Some believe the Braves will trade Paul Maholm, whose contract is about to lapse, but should a team with sights on winning a World Series — a team that has already lost relievers Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty — trade any asset? Isn’t this a time for hoarding?

From Glaus’ fade and Chipper’s absence in 2010 and the Jurrjens/Hanson ailments of 2011, the Braves learned that there’s no such thing as having too much talent — and a steep penalty for having too little. Toward that end, general manager Frank Wren has built the strongest Braves roster of the 21st Century. The only obvious area of need is the post-Venters/O’Flaherty bullpen; as luck would have it, set-up men tend to be easy to find at the trade deadline.

So long as Craig Kimbrel remains intact, the Braves should be able to cover the seventh and eighth innings. So long as Kimbrel is around to hold leads, the Braves should hold this lead — maybe not all of it, but enough — through the 162nd game. As odd as it might sound, the one indispensable Brave is the one who works only the ninth inning. There’s a Plan B everywhere else; there’s no Plan B behind Kimbrel.

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