The Braves are running away with the NL Least

Atlanta Braves' starting pitchers in 2019

The Atlanta Braves awoke Monday leading the National League East by 6-1/2 games. En route to the 2018 division title, they didn't lead by 6-1/2 games until Sept. 11. It's not that they've played much better this year than last. They're 46-32, which marks a one-game improvement. Difference is, the rest of the East has commenced its collapsing much earlier.

This, we emphasize, was supposed to be the Bigger & Bolder East. Harper and Realmuto to the Phillies! Corbin and Gomes to the Nationals! Cano and Diaz to the Mets! Not so long ago, some rational baseball observers wondered if the reigning champs might finish fourth. Today we wonder if it’s mathematically possible to clinch by the All-Star break. (It isn’t, but you get the picture.)

The week just past was, depending on your allegiances, either outrageously giddy or shamefully shambolic. The Braves went 4-2 and padded their lead by two games. The Phillies played six games, winning none. The Nationals swept the Phillies and had a grand chance to sweep the division leader, but they blew a four-run lead Saturday night and lost Sunday on a day when Mike Soroka worked only two of the 10 innings. The Mets went 3-4 and closed the week by allowing a tiring reliever to face Javier Baez in the eighth with the game on the line, whereupon hilarity ensued.

Division standings

Baez smashed a three-run run homer on reliever Seth Lugo’s 42nd pitch. Asked afterward why he hadn’t turned to his closer, manager Mickey Callaway said he was prepared to deploy Edwin Diaz for four outs but not five. Someone asked the difference between a four- and five-out save. Callaway resisted the urge to say, “One out, duh.” That proved the extent of his resistance.

A few minutes after the manager's enlightening media opportunity concluded, Tim Healey of Newsday passed him and said, "See you tomorrow, Mickey." Callaway responded by asking the reporter not to be a smart-aleck and, for good measure, and added a 12-letter noun. He would repeat the 12-letter characterization while demanding Healey be removed from the premises. (Which, per MLB rules, isn't how clubhouses work.)

By then, pitcher Jason Vargas was staring at Healey. Said Vargas: “I’ll knock you out, bro.” He, too, added a colloquialism. Vargas began to move toward Healey, whereupon two teammates and the Mets’ PR representative interceded. By evening’s end, Mets owner Jeff Wilpon had called Healey to apologize. A mass email expressed the team’s desire to hold “further discussions” with those involved.

Back to the non-usage of Diaz. Asked if the Mets might, uh, reconsider the apparent policy to eschew five-but-not-four-out saves, Callaway said: “Just because you think so? Absolutely not. We have a very good plan. We know what we are doing, and we are going to stick to it.’’

From Kevin Kernan of the New York Post: "The plan is so good the Mets are four games under .500 and have not won a road series in 81 days."

As we speak, the only race in the NL East is to see which manager gets fired first. Like Callaway, Philadelphia’s Gabe Kapler and Washington’s Dave Martinez are in their second season. None has a winning record. Each seems in over his head.

Kapler’s Phillies spent half a billion in offseason additions and have lost seven in a row and 16 of 22. They’ve gone from 3-1/2 games ahead of the Braves to 6-1/2 back in 26 days. On Thursday, Kapler moved Bryce Harper to leadoff. The Phils spent the weekend getting swept at home by Miami for the first time in 10 years. On Sunday, the Fish outhit the Phils 16-4. Kapler misses no chance to say the Phillies “play as a team.” Last week Jean Segura and Cesar Hernandez forgot to hustle. Neither was benched. Go, team!

Martinez’s Nats have the second-best run differential among Eastern teams. They have the best starting pitching. They might have the second-best everyday eight. They haven’t been above .500 since April 18. Last year they finished above .500 – and then only at 82-80 – by going 5-1 against the Marlins in the final two weeks. These are the Nats who’d made room for Martinez by firing Dusty Baker, who’d led them to consecutive division titles. Moral of our story: Be careful in thy wishing.

The Mets, as ever, are a special case. They have Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz, Zach Wheeler and Diaz. They also have the 10th-best ERA in the National League. Last week they fired pitching coach Dave Eiland and bullpen coach Chuck Hernandez — the same Chuck Hernandez fired as Braves pitching coach last October — and hired Phil Regan, who’s 82. (Not a misprint.) Also of note: The Mets’ general manager is Brodie Van Wagenen, previously the agent for deGrom and Syndergaard. Seasons come and go, but the search for baseball’s silliest organization always begins in Flushing, N.Y.

Each of the above clubs made more offseason moves than the Braves. Such motion has enabled the three to compile a collective record of 113-119. The Phillies, Nats and Mets will surely spend more money before the trade deadline, but that will be throwing good money after bad. These are flawed teams with substandard managers. They’re going nowhere fast.

This division is again the Braves’ to lose, which might be surprising — they’re now working without their top starter and closer from last season — until we concede that Brian Snitker is the best manager in this division by such a distance he’s about to lap the field. Not coincidentally, so is his team.

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