The Braves lead has thinned, but the schedule softens

Braves third base coach Ron Washington (left) congratulates Adam Duvall who circles the bases after hitting a three-run home run off Colorado Rockies starting pitcher Ryan Feltner in the third inning Sunday, Sept. 5, 2021, in Denver. (David Zalubowski/AP)

Credit: David Zalubowski

Credit: David Zalubowski

Braves third base coach Ron Washington (left) congratulates Adam Duvall who circles the bases after hitting a three-run home run off Colorado Rockies starting pitcher Ryan Feltner in the third inning Sunday, Sept. 5, 2021, in Denver. (David Zalubowski/AP)

Labor Day closed with the Braves in first place by a game and a half, which beats where they were on Memorial Day (three games behind the Mets) or the Fourth of July (four games back). For the Braves, this holiday was a day of rest. For the second-place Phillies and third-place Mets, it was not. The Phillies won big in Milwaukee; the Mets blew a ninth-inning lead and lost to Washington. Such is the state of the National League East that the determinant could be who you’re playing, as opposed to how.

On Aug. 12, the Braves held third place, one game behind the Mets and Phillies. On Aug. 13, the Braves opened a nine-game run against tanking Washington, Miami and Baltimore. They went 9-0, moving from third to first, and not just by a bit. They led the Phillies by five games, the Mets by 6-1/2. Then the schedule turned. The Braves played the Yankees and lost twice, played the Giants and took two of three, played the Dodgers and got swept.

This came as the Phillies and Mets were facing bottom-feeders. The former won six straight against Arizona and Washington; the latter won six straight against Washington and Miami. Had the Braves not managed to win the first and last of a four-game set at Colorado, where the Rockies have been disproportionately good, their division lead would be down to nothing. As is, they took some solace in coming home having gone 4-8 over a difficult fortnight.

Now the schedule turns again. The Braves face the Nationals, 3-12 since Aug. 20, and the Marlins, 6-12 since Aug. 13. Apologies for inundating you with logistics, but the lesson of these past five weeks is that the NL East isn’t just the least of MLB’s divisions on paper. The Braves are 21-11 against the Nats and Marlins, which means they’re sub-.500 against the rest of the majors.

The Braves’ next three series will be played at Truist Park against the Nats, Marlins and Rockies. (The latter is 18-50 away from Coors Field.) The Phillies will face the first-place Brewers in Milwaukee, then Colorado and the Cubs in Philly. The Mets get three with Miami, then six against the Yankees and Cardinals. Should the Braves not be in first place on Sept. 17, when they begin another Western swing that includes stops in San Francisco and San Diego, they’ll be in trouble.

The season’s penultimate week will have Philly at home against the Orioles and the Pirates. Meanwhile, the Mets will be on the road against the Red Sox and Brewers. The Mets have crept within 3-1/2 games of first place, but their schedule makes it difficult to imagine them overtaking anybody. Per FanGraphs, the Mets’ remaining games will come against teams with an aggregate winning percentage of .508. The Phillies will finish against teams that have won at a .464 clip, the Braves against teams at .482.

The Braves won’t see the Mets or Phillies until the final week. (All those games will be staged in Cobb County.) The Braves are 7-9 against Philly, 8-8 against the Mets. There’s a reason it took the Braves more than four months to break .500; for most of this season, they were the essence of mediocrity. They got a post-deadline bump from Alex Anthopoulos’ many acquisitions, but the past two weeks saw a flattening. The Braves played seven one-run games over 11 days; they lost five.

Before the Braves play their scheduled game on Friday, Sept. 24, in San Diego, they’ll have to finish the back end of a doubleheader that began here on July 21. Game 2 was suspended after 5-1/2 innings by rain. It will be concluded in Petco Park, with the Braves trailing 5-4 but coming to bat as the “home” team in the bottom of the sixth. (Doubleheader games are seven-inning affairs.) The result of that remaining inning-and-a-half will count as a full game in the standings, which could be significant.

Or it could be immaterial. The Braves have outscored opponents by 94 runs this season. The Phillies and Mets have been outscored on the season. Going by Pythagorean wins/losses, the Braves should be 11 games ahead of the Mets and 12 games up on the Phillies. But the Braves have lost 26 one-run games — no team has lost more — and are 3-7 in extra innings.

The Braves should win at least seven of these nine against Washington/Miami/Colorado, which would figure to rebuild their working lead, but “should” is an empty word in sports. You don’t make the playoffs on the strength of Pythagorean wins. The Braves have left the door ajar for two teams that weren’t above .500 on Aug. 27. They need to shut it.