Braves extend NL East lead to season-high 4-1/2 games

The Braves' postseason pursuit grew another day more feasible Tuesday. They won, the Phillies lost and another day was peeled from the calendar.

An offensive onslaught in the eighth prevented the Braves from blowing a game at home against the feisty Rays. They won 9-5, snapping Tampa Bay’s eight-game winning streak and moving a season high-tying 17 games over .500.

Meanwhile, a gaff from pinch-runner Vince Velasquez, who took off early from second base, cost the Phillies in a 5-4 loss to Washington. It was an embarrassing slip that dropped the team a game in the National League East.

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And as such, the Braves hold their biggest lead of the year at 4-1/2 games. The Braves are 6-4 across their past 10, while the Phillies are 2-8. In other words, 10 games has made a four-game difference in the standings.

The magic number, entering Wednesday’s games, stands at 27.

“Once it was the ninth inning and I saw the score change, I got pumped,” Braves outfielder Ender Inciarte said. “I was talking to (Ronald) Acuna and said ‘Hey, pay attention to that.’ And he was just laughing.”

The Braves are having fun. They’re enjoying the pennant race. Many of the players don’t understand the magnitude. They’ve never been in this position, nor have they experienced the losing droves of recent years. Their naivety is an asset.

On a night when Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis went 1-for-9, the Braves cranked out nine runs on 12 hits (Markakis was responsible for two RBIs on his double). The starting pitching, which had an astounding 0.89 ERA across the seven-game road trip, has carried the team at times.

When a starter has an off night, as Julio Teheran did Tuesday in allowing four runs, the offense comes through. The Braves aren’t firing on all cylinders, but they’re balancing the game’s aspects enough to remain among the best in the NL.

Inciarte had three hits and a walk Tuesday. He's hit .307 since the All-Star break. Ozzie Albies, who's slumped of late, had a three-hit game of his own.

The Braves are doing their part while the Phillies flounder. Philadelphia has a historically bad defense, and in the season’s waning weeks, that’s caught up to it.

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The Phillies have one of the 30 worst defenses since 1961, according to Baseball Reference. Their starting pitching is being hampered by it, while the bats can’t do enough to overcome it.

That’s an ideal combination for the Braves, who are rounding through their own inconsistencies, but finding ways to win while doing so. The Nationals remain eight games back, and even when it looks like they’re starting a run, the Braves mitigate it with their own play.

So the Phillies remain the Braves’ lone competitor in the NL East. It was expected earlier in the year one of the two would drop off, since both were exceeding expectations and loaded with younger players.

Cracks in the Phillies’ armor are being unveiled. There is still plenty of season left, but every day matters. Even the days both teams win or lose, that’s another missed chance for Philadelphia to gain ground.

The Braves are in the driver’s seat. The season may still come down to the teams’ seven head-to-head meetings in the final two weeks, but with the way the games have trended lately, the Braves might be able to build a cushion between now and then.