The waning days of the regular season – the pennant stretch, to use the vernacular held over from baseball’s pre-divisions era -- just feel different this year. Maybe it’s because of the strangeness of the shortened season. Maybe it’s because the inflated number of teams that will reach the expanded playoffs has further diluted the significance of division titles. Maybe it’s because of the empty seats. Or because fans have so much else on their minds in 2020.
“It’s never felt normal from the get-go,” Snitker said of this season.
But with just 10 games remaining in the regular season, the Braves lead the National League East by three games over the second-place Miami Marlins, who will come to Atlanta next week.
Here’s where the Braves – and the postseason picture – stand heading into the final stretch of a season like no other:
The Braves' final 10 regular-season games include a three-game series against the Mets in New York this weekend and a seven-game homestand next week (four against the surprising Marlins and three against the disappointing Boston Red Sox).
Max Fried, the Braves' No. 1 starting pitcher, will return from the 10-day injured list (muscle spasms in his back) to start Friday’s game in New York. His velocity fell off sharply in his last start before he went on the IL, so it bears watching if he’s back to peak form.
The Braves' series against the Marlins, starting Monday, looms potentially larger than anyone would have imagined when the season began with Miami projected to finish last in the division. It should be noted, though, that the standings might look different by Monday than they do today. Before the four-day visit to Truist Park, the Marlins have a five-game weekend series, including doubleheaders Friday and Sunday, against the Washington Nationals, the defending World Series champs who are in last place in the NL East.
If the division remains unresolved after the Braves-Marlins series, the Braves have a more favorable schedule in the final weekend of the regular season Sept. 25-27. They’ll close with three games in Atlanta against the last-place team in the AL East (Boston) while the Marlins visit the New York Yankees.
The injury-ravaged Philadelphia Phillies currently are in third place in the NL East, four games behind the Braves entering the Phillies' game Thursday night against the Mets. The Phillies' remaining opponents are Toronto, Washington and Tampa Bay.
Everything’s different this season, including the playoff format. Eight teams in each league, up from five, will make the playoffs. The first- and second-place teams in each division will qualify, and the two teams with the next best records in each league will make it as wild cards.
The teams will be seeded 1 through 8 in each league. The top three seeds will be the division champs in order of record. The next three seeds (4-6) will be the second-place teams in order of record. The final two seeds (7-8) will be the wild-card teams in order of record.
The format – No. 1 seed plays No. 8, No. 2 plays No. 7, etc. -- theoretically suggests that the higher a team’s seed, the weaker its first-round opponent. But that theory may prove invalid if a wild-card team has a better record than a second-place finisher or, as Snitker pointed out, if a lower-seeded team carries formidable starting pitching into a short series.
All playoff teams will begin with a best-of-three series, dubbed the “Wild Card Series,” played entirely in the home stadium of the higher seed. Then the best-of-five Division Series, best-of-seven League Championship Series and best-of-seven World Series will be played at neutral sites with the participating teams in “bubbles” to attempt to guard against COVID-19 infections.
LIKELY PLAYOFF MATCHUPS
The Braves currently are in position to be the No. 3 NL seed, well behind the NL West-leading Los Angeles Dodgers and one game behind the NL Central-leading Chicago Cubs (before the Cubs' game Thursday night). As the No. 3 seed, the Braves would open the playoffs with a home series against the No. 6 seed, which likely will be the second-place team in the Central Division (Cincinnati, St. Louis or Milwaukee) or possibly the second-place team in the East.
⋅ If the Braves move up to the No. 2 seed, their first-round series would be at home against the No. 7 seed, which could be the Phillies (based on the standings entering play Thursday) or any of several other teams. Only three NL clubs – Pittsburgh, Arizona and Washington – were more than 2-1/2 games out of a playoff spot through Wednesday’s games.
⋅ If the Braves were to finish in second place in the East, they likely would be the No. 5 seed and play an opening-round series on the road against the No. 4 seed, which likely will be San Diego (provided the Dodgers win the West).
STORYLINES DOWN THE STRETCH
1. Will the Braves' starting pitching rotation, decimated by injury and ineffectiveness this season, finally find some much-needed stability with Fried, Cole Hamels, Ian Anderson and Kyle Wright as the top four starters? Or will the failure to add a solid starter at the trade deadline loom large into the postseason?
2. Will the Braves' high-powered offense, which leads MLB with an .823 OPS, remain as formidable through the end of the regular season and into the playoffs?
3. Will Ronald Acuna, who has no hits and 12 strikeouts in his last 18 at-bats, break out of his slump soon? And Dansby Swanson (1-for-his-last-24), too?
4. Will Freddie Freeman, who leads the National League in batting average and RBIs and is second in OPS (through Wednesday), close strong in the MVP race?
5. Will the Braves’ deep bullpen stay fresh enough to keep doing what it has been doing all season (2.35 ERA from the sixth inning on)?