When the Braves headed to Orlando for spring training, they expected to be part of perhaps MLB’s fiercest division race. The National League East was supposed to be the most competitive grouping, if not the best.
It hasn’t developed along conventional lines, but the division is beginning to show why it was held in such high regard. On Aug. 6, it boasts four teams with winning records. And despite the Braves entering the night with a six-game cushion, it has the feeling of a race that could grow closer.
Even if the Braves do continue building their lead, there will be a dogfight behind them. The Nationals and Phillies are clinging to both the NL’s wild-card spots. The Mets, left for dead even a month ago, sit a game over .500 and 2-1/2 games out of a postseason berth.
The Braves expected that trio to be threatening their NL East crown. But it was hard for anyone to predict what’s happened in New York, where a franchise shrouded in drama, embarrassment and misfortune has rallied to become a factor in the season’s final two months.
All of a sudden, the perplexing trade for Marcus Stroman doesn’t look so questionable. The hottest team in baseball boasts a rotation of Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler and Stroman. If they don’t make the postseason, they could still ruin someone else’s chances.
“That’s where it starts,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “They’ve always had that potential. Now they’ve got them all back, and they’re healthy and pitching the way they’re capable of. That’s the key. You look at any team’s run and more than likely it’s because the starting pitching has been consistent and getting teams deep into games.”
Washington had its own poor start, yet the Nationals have a case as the most dangerous NL team east of Los Angeles. Like the Mets, their rotation is eye-popping, headed by the three-headed monster of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin.
Don’t count out the Phillies, who’ve had their share of silliness yet stayed within six games of the Braves. Bryce Harper’s first season hasn’t gone as the team hoped, and the Andrew McCutchen injury was as impactful as any, but the Phillies still have a chance to reach the postseason for the first time since 2011.
The NL East is rounding into form. The Braves took advantage of their circumstances and built a sizable lead. It’s up to them to keep it – and that doesn’t look to be an easy task, even with the team’s recent 4-2 trip to Washington and Philadelphia fresh on the mind.