In Chicago, Braves make case as NL’s second-best behind Dodgers

Atlanta Braves left fielder Austin Riley, right, can't make the play on a single by Chicago Cubs' Anthony Rizzo as third baseman Josh Donaldson (20) watches on during the first inning of a baseball game in Chicago, Thursday, June 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Atlanta Braves left fielder Austin Riley, right, can't make the play on a single by Chicago Cubs' Anthony Rizzo as third baseman Josh Donaldson (20) watches on during the first inning of a baseball game in Chicago, Thursday, June 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Craig Kimbrel made his Cubs debut Thursday when he should’t have. The Braves blew a five-run lead while allowing two unearned runs, so Kimbrel came on to save the 9-7 victory after allowing two base runners. Freddie Freeman’s sharp ground out ended the Braves’ late bid to win the series, but after the series split, I’d say it’s no longer clear that Kimbrel joined the better ballclub between the two.

The Braves provided more evidence that, if it comes to it, they can best the Cubs in the playoffs. That shouldn’t be a revelation considering their lead in National League East, which was 4-1/2 games after they lost to the Cubs and the Phillies beat the Mets. But the Braves’ division foes are fading, and the Cubs, despite some recent wobbles, still are the class of the NL Central.

The Braves showed they are on Chicago’s level. They won the season series 5-2. The Braves earned a three-game sweep against Cubs in April, though that series featured some weird defensive miscues by the visitors. This time the Braves won two of four despite their best pitcher (Mike Soroka) not taking the mound and Bryce Wilson getting a start fresh from the minors.

The Braves, like everyone else in the NL, can’t match the Dodgers (55-27 before playing at Colorado late Thursday). Their plus-125 run differential entering Thursday was 78 runs better (!) than the next-best, the Cubs. There is little evidence that any NL team can stop the Dodgers from marching to another pennant.

But the Braves (48-34) could get their shot. They have the second-best record in the NL and the fourth-best run differential. The Cubs (44-37) are third in the NL but just a game better than the Brewers in the Central. Like the Braves, the Cubs are a good-hitting team with enough questions about their pitching to prevent you from thinking they can overcome Los Angeles.

The Braves could have won three consecutive in Chicago. Wilson’s spot start makes it tempting to throw out the finale, especially because two of his six runs allowed were unearned. The problem with that view is Wilson was filling in for Mike Foltynewicz, whose struggles led to a demotion, and the Braves lost the series opener because the Cubs beat up Julio Teheran.

The Braves need another starter. They may need another reliever. They aren’t lacking for much else. In Chicago the Braves showed that their bullpen resurgence is real, their offense is potent and their pluckiness makes it difficult for even good opponents to keep them down for good.

The Braves won by one run Tuesday when their relievers provided three scoreless innings. The next night Braves starter Dallas Kuechel was just OK, but that was enough because relievers covered 3-1/3 scoreless innings and Nick Markakis clubbed a three-run homer. The bullpen can only be asked to do so much, which is why manager Brian Snitker stuck with Wilson for as long as he could, and the relief pitching final cracked.

In the fourth inning Wilson gave back three runs of a five-run advantage. He surrendered the rest in the fifth inning, though his cause was hurt by a Nick Markakis error in the outfield (Ronald Acuna may have been more to blame). Jayson Heyward’s triple off reliever Josh Tomlin tied the score, and Victor Caratini’s two-run homer put the Cubs ahead for good.

The Cubs could say the Braves didn’t get their best. No. 1 starter Kyle Hendricks is on the injured list (he could return before the All-Star break). The Braves also didn’t see Cole Hamels, who continues to pay dividends on Chicago’s investment in his late-career resurgence. Those are two guys the Braves would see in a postseason series.

The Braves are favored to make it there. After their loss to the Cubs, the statistical projections by FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus and all have the Braves at least an 85 percent chance of qualifying for the postseason. The Braves’ odds to win the East ranged from 68 percent to 76.3.

Any scenario in which the Phillies come back to win the East includes the assumption that their expensive lineup will start producing to its expected level. Andrew McCutchen is out for the season, but it’s hard to think Bryce Harper, Jean Segura and J.T. Realmuto won’t get going. Even if they do, though, it surely will be offset by regression from current hot hitters Rhys Hoskins, Scott Kingery and Jay Bruce.

The Nationals (39-40 entering Thursday) have the best starting pitching in the NL behind the Dodgers (of course). But their lineup is just OK. The Nationals got so desperate for relievers that they just called up 42-year-old Fernando Rodney and Braves castoff Jonny Venters.

The Mets have three very good starting pitchers and a lineup that can match the Braves, but they are sinking as the Braves soar. The Mets have blown leads in five consecutive games. Four of those were on the bullpen, which is worse than any in the NL outside of Miami. The Mets are showing more spirit feuding with beat writers than playing games.

The Braves head to New York this weekend with a chance to pretty finish off the Mets. They left Chicago with a good case that they are the NL’s second-best team.