Could the Braves lose the East? Would it matter if they did?

Credit: Atlanta Braves

Pitcher Kyle Wright on his progress, following an 8-0 loss to Marlins, who hit three homers off Wright, Sept. 8, 2020, at Truist Park.

Credit: Atlanta Braves

Tuesday will not be remembered as the greatest day in Braves' history. In the morning, they placed Max Fried, the last starting pitcher standing, on the injured list with back spasms. Several hours later, they lost 8-nil at home to Miami. Their lead in the National League East shrank to 1-1/2 games over Philadelphia — that’s the closest anyone has been since Aug. 21 — and 2-1/2 games over the Marlins.

Were this a normal season, the Braves would have cause to worry about their postseason chances. This being the least normal of seasons, they’re OK — more than OK, actually — on that front. FanGraphs gives them a 97.9 percent chance of making the playoffs: They’re 24-18 with 18 games remaining; any club that breaks .500 is apt to qualify for the 16-team tournament. As of Tuesday morning, 15 of MLB’s 30 teams held winning records.

In a normal season – apologies for having turned into a tape loop – the penalty for not winning the division is severe. You get thrust in the abominable wild-card game, where a curiously adjudged infield fly can render you one-and-done. (Not that we’re still bitter or anything.)

This expanded tournament offers more wiggle room. The top four seeds in each league play host to a best-of-three series, with all games being at the higher seed’s home park. (Unless you’re Toronto, in which case “home” is in a different country. Did we mention that this is no ordinary year?) That would seem a considerable advantage, until we recall that fans aren’t being allowed into ballparks in 2020. Still, the Braves are 14-10 at Truist Park; they’re 10-10 elsewhere.

Usually we make a semi-big deal of being tied in the loss column, the thought being that teams with a game or two in hand might hold a slight advantage. As we speak, the Braves, Phillies and Marlins each have 18 losses. Given COVID-induced postponements, the Phillies have played three fewer games than the Braves; the Marlins have played five. Seeing as how the chances of going 5-0 at any point in any baseball season aren’t great, this time you’d rather be the leader in the ol' clubhouse.

The irregular season ends Sept. 27. The Braves have 18 games remaining over the final 19 days. The Phillies have 21, including four doubleheaders. The Marlins have 23, also including four doubleheaders. Philly and Miami are about to play a possibly unprecedented seven-game series over five days. That cannot help but benefit the Braves.

It would still be difficult for them to finish first. They’re done with Philadelphia. Of their final 18 games, 13 are against sub-.500 teams. The other five are against the Marlins, and all of those will be staged in Cobb County. The caveat here, though, is a mighty one: Over a 60-game season, the Braves have somehow managed to run out of starting pitching, and the quickest way to lose a bunch of games in a row is to trail 4-0 every doggone night.

The Braves' starting pitching has produced the 28th-worst ERA among MLB clubs. Those starters have produced an aggregate FanGraphs WAR of 1.5. That includes Fried’s 1.8 WAR, which is sixth-best in the majors. This might be funny if it weren’t so sad: The organization that famously rebuilt around starting pitching has been reduced to giving regular turns to the likes of Tommy Milone and Robbie Erlin. Of the 11 men who’ve taken turns for the 2020 Braves, only three – Fried, Mike Soroka and Ian Anderson – have ERAs under 5.19 as a starter. Four of the 11 have ERAs in double figures.

It’s possible that almost none of the pitchers who’ll be starting games over the next week will be doing similar duty in the postseason. Fried is supposed to miss two turns. Cole Hamels is said to be close to being ready, although we’ve heard that before. Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb are again trying to right themselves. (Heard that before, too.)

In a normal season, a good team that suffered so many reversals over a 44-game span would have time to correct its course. These Braves have 20 days. If the playoffs were to start today, they would be the No. 3 seed, meaning they’d get the entirety of Round 1 at home, but they’d face the No. 6 seed, which would be be the Cardinals, against whom the Braves haven’t had a lick of postseason luck this century.

Then again, the MLB postseason invariably defies handicapping, and this will be a postseason like no other. More teams. More rounds. No fans. Could a two-man rotation of Fried and Hamels carry the Braves to the World Series? Maybe. If nothing else, Hamels should be well-rested.

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