Five games up with 18 to go. Stranger things have happened, though not many. Barring an Epic Collapse on the scale of 2011, the Braves will win the National League East. And what happens when they do?
First, they celebrate. Then they get down to the business of October. They won’t have to fret over the wild card game. That’s the benefit of being division titlists: You can’t be eliminated on a whimsical infield fly. Their first postseason game will be the opener of a Division Series. There’s a good chance that could be played at SunTrust Park.
They’re 3-1/2 games behind the Cubs for the league’s best record. The advantage of having the league’s best record is that you face the wild-card survivor, which will almost certainly have used its best starting pitcher in the coin-flip game.
(We pause here to mention Philadelphia, which ran in lockstep with the Braves through mid-August. It has now been outscored by 13 runs on the season. It's five games back in the East and five back of the second wild card, too. Baseball Prospectus assigns an 8.6 percent chance of making the playoffs. All the Phillies have going for them are those seven remaining games against the Braves.)
As it stands, the wild cards would be Milwaukee and St. Louis, both of the NL Central. That could change, though. The Brewers have won seven of eight to pull within a game of the Cubs, whom they beat Monday night in a game that saw Jon Lester leave with back spasms. Milwaukee also has a better record – by 2-1/2 games – than the Braves.
If the playoffs began today, the Braves would face the West champ in a best-of-five, and that West champ would be … Colorado. By taking three of four from Arizona, the Braves threw that division into a tizzy. After another loss – this to the Rockies on Monday – the Diamondbacks’ playoff chances have dwindled to 16.1 percent, per BP. The Dodgers, who trail by 1-1/2 games, remain the percentage choice to prevail, owing largely to having a softer schedule but also to having more talent.
For all their health issues – Corey Seager’s elbow, Kenley Jansen’s heart – L.A. holds the league’s best run differential. (Cubs are second, Braves third.) They made the World Series last year after a 29-year absence, and they do have the league’s best starting pitching: Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill, Alex Wood, Kenta Maeda, Hyun-Jin Ryu, the rookie Walker Buehler and sometimes Ross Stripling.
After Kershaw, though, there’s no starter who scares you, and the Dodger Way of deploying lots of starters – they wear out the newish 10-day disabled list – won’t play as well in a best-of-five as over 162 games. And Kershaw, while still great, hasn’t quite been Kershaw-great this season. And the Dodger with the most RBIs is Matt Kemp, who fell off a figurative cliff after making the All-Star team.
With their gigantic payroll and their always-lofty aspirations, the Dodgers would enter this postseason – provided they qualify – seeking to win one more game than they did last fall. (They lost Game 7 of the World Series to Houston.) The Braves would enter October playing with house money: If they win it all, great; if not, they’ll have the satisfaction of having won the East a year ahead of schedule and the expectation that their best lies ahead. But they should have no fear of any playoff opponent. They’re really good, too.
The Cubs are a fine team in its prime. The Dodgers are the same. The Braves are the team of tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, and not in a gloomy Macbeth/Shakespearean way. On paper, the up-from-oblivion 1991 Braves shouldn’t have beaten Pittsburgh in the NLCS. On the field, they won in seven games, shutting out the Pirates of Bonds and Bonilla and Van Slyke over the final two. Time – borrowing from the Rolling Stones now – waits for no one, and the Braves – Stones again – have time on their side.
They also have the National League. The four best teams in baseball are based on the American side, and that’s not counting Cleveland. There’s nobody over here that’s unbeatable, but somebody’s going to represent the NL in the Fall Classic. This is not a prediction – there’s no predicting baseball, especially October baseball – but we shouldn’t assume these Braves will be a one-and-done. They’re good enough to stick around, maybe all the way to Halloween.