By trade deadline, Braves will know just how serious NL East race is

I’m not going to overstate the importance of a July road trip, but the coming six-game swing will be a telling one for the Braves.

They play three in Philadelphia followed by three in Washington, beginning Friday. Those are the teams desperately trying to make them sweat in the National League East. And after a lackluster two games against the Royals, that division gap is shrinking.

Washington will be either 4-1/2 or 3-1/2 games back, pending their result Thursday, when the Braves begin play Friday. The Phillies are off Thursday, meaning they’ll enter this weekend 5-1/2 back.

Division standings

“Every time you play in the division, it’s important,” Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “It’s a big road trip. Definitely need to turn the page after these couple games and go out there and play like we normally can.”

What looked like a potential Braves runaway a couple of weeks ago has speedily shifted back into a three-team race. And if the Braves were to lose both these series, or maybe even one, bedlam breaks loose.

Few expected the Braves to cruise to the division crown. They had a remarkable June, boosted by unsustainable offensive numbers, that built a cushion. The Nationals’ horrible start, and the Phillies mediocrity during the Braves’ run, made things look easier than they were.

Washington now looks like the third-best team in the NL. The Phillies, still stocked with questions, shouldn’t be crossed off just yet. Taking two of three this weekend would leave the Phillies 4-1/2 back without yet playing to their capabilities.

In other words, when the trade deadline passes on Wednesday afternoon — the Braves wrap up their series in D.C. at noon, with the deadline at 4 p.m. — there will be clarity in how legitimate this race is.

If the Braves go 4-2, they should feel content with where they are. And truth be told, they could win the division without making any moves (as irresponsible as that would be). But it does feel these next six days carry more weight than the typical mid-summer divisional contests, given the context.

Not only will the deadline strike shortly after the Braves and Nationals conclude their series, but the former will be seeking comfort its rotation this weekend. Max Fried and Kevin Gausman, two potentially game-changing assets, will start Saturday and Sunday, respectively, in Philadelphia.

The Braves are centered on available relievers, as general manager Alex Anthopoulos even publicly acknowledged during his interview on Fox Sports’ broadcast Wednesday. The circumstances aren’t ideal to add a starter, with the controllable arms costing a bounty the Braves don’t seem enthusiastic to pay, and the rentals not apparently providing enough bang for the buck.

I think San Francisco’s sudden change of heart impacts the Braves. Madison Bumgarner and Will Smith were well on their radar, as they should’ve been everyone’s, but the Giants no longer seem committed to selling. Removing those two from the equation dried the well.

But if Fried and/or Gausman struggle, and the Braves lose the series in Philadelphia, does the sense of urgency heighten? With those two healty and pitching well, I think the Braves feel good about their rotation through the remainder of the regular season. We’ll see each only one more time before the clock strikes 4 p.m. Wednesday.

And we just don’t know about either player. Fried’s performance has tailed off, and there’s always the possibility of a blister resurfacing. Gausman was great in his return from the injured list, but that shouldn’t override a terrible start to the season. He’s the greatest unknown this side of a Mike Foltynewicz revival.

You can anticipate the Braves adding bullpen help regardless. It’s fair to ask how much significance these coming results might yield. The Braves losing in Philly, then doing minimal at the deadline, won’t be a good look (not that they should care about fan optics).

Pair that with the team’s recent play, which has finally regressed more toward the mean. Since their sweep in beautiful San Diego, the Braves lost two of three in Milwaukee, split with Washington and were two-game swept by the Royals. They’re 2-6 in their past eight.

“These guys have always been very resilient and put today behind them, however bad it’s been,” manager Brian Snitker said Wednesday. “I have every confidence in that group in there (the clubhouse) to do the same thing.”

There’s no reason to panic. Even mentioning such is laughable. That was an enormous split with Washington because it knocked four games off the calendar without the Braves losing ground. Josh Donaldson – who’s been well worth his cost – bailed them out there.

But I would deem this trip the most intriguing of the season by far. And while we should never overreact at small a sample size in a 162-game season, I do think the team’s performance will affect its deadline approach, especially relative to how the starters perform.

As for whether this results in trade action, well, we’ll find out in the next week. The clock is ticking.