Here’s a break for Braves: Maybe NL East isn’t as tough as we thought

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Michael Austin Riley was born April 2, 1997 in Memphis, Tenn. The Braves drafted Riley in the first round in 2015 (41st overall) out of DeSoto Central HS in Southaven, Miss. Riley hit 19 home runs in 408 at-bats in 2018, spending most of the season at Double-A or Triple-A. Riley hit 20 homers in 484 at-bats in 2017 at high Single-A and Double-A. He hit 20 homers (495 ABs) in 2016 and 12 homers (217 ABs) in 2015. Riley made his Triple-A debut May 7, 2018 for the Triple-A Gwinnett Stripers. Riley had two fo

Entering this season, general opinion (read that, best guess) held that the National League East loomed as a bear of a division. Splashy additions in Philadelphia and some significant shoring up in Washington and New York foretold a bloody battle. And, of course, the defending NL East champions were still young and ravenous.

Now, with more than a quarter of the schedule behind us, the East appears to be the least. The Phillies lead with the least substantial record (24-19) and run differential (plus-26, opposed to Houston’s plus-87) in baseball. Outside the division, the Braves are the only one of the four division teams worth mention – Miami is out of the conversation – with a winning record, if barely (16-15). The combined out-of-division record for the Braves, Phillies, Nationals and Mets is 39-52.

Milwaukee – the Braves’ opponent through the weekend – has made it a personal mission to expose the NL East. It just took three of four from the Phils, outscoring them 22-6 in the final three games of the series. Versus the Phils, Nats and Mets, Milwaukee is 11-2 this season. Yes, the Huns are at the gates of SunTrust Park.

At least the Brewers did the Braves a temporary favor. As Milwaukee was handling Philadelphia, the Braves crept to within a game-and-a-half of the division lead. Playing middling ball through the first 44 games of the season has scarcely dented any grand designs thus far.

There’s the feeling that if one team could get on some kind of decent run – no one in the NL East has a winning streak longer than four games – this division is there for the ruling. It may not require a heroic winning streak to take over the East, just something adequate.

The Braves have raised their hands for the assignment.

In their catcher’s eyes, the Braves clearly have not played to their capabilities, yet they have done enough to remain a close second in the East. “That’s how you win (a division), not playing your best you still got to win ballgames,” Brian McCann said. “We’ve been able to do that. Just gotta keep playing the way we’re playing and get on a run.”

“It’s a long season,” he said. “You have your ups and downs. When you start hitting on all cylinders you’re tough to beat.”

He seems to believe that day is coming. The question that will dog the Braves is whether they have the pitching to win on a sustained basis. Can they stack up enough good starts to go on a winning bender? Do they have the arms on the back end that can be trusted? On that rickety foundation do their hopes rest.

At least they have the impetuousness of youth on their side. The same kind of energy that propelled them to the top of the division a year ago exists today.

It was Wednesday, when Austin Riley was making his splashy debut, that it struck manager Brian Snitker again just how callow his team is. “I was looking down that line of guys standing for the national anthem, and I went, ‘Man, there’s some young, talented guys out there,’” he said.

And it’s not just in the lineup where that youth is going to matter. To hear Julio Teheran speak Thursday night after getting a win against St. Louis, the youth on the pitching staff has given him a caffeine jolt. Opposite of how seniority works, a 21-year-old starting in front of him in the rotation is showing him the way.

“Pitching behind (Mike) Soroka has been amazing,” Teheran said. “Kind of fun to see him do his thing and compete and put up the great effort, so when I get the ball, I want to do the same thing. That’s what it has been all about.”

For as erratic as youth can be, if Soroka and Max Fried can actually establish themselves as reliable and the likes of Teheran and Kevin Gausman can stand their ground, the Braves can get back atop the NL East and perhaps even stay there.

That may not take as much as originally thought.