The Braves’ new mission - catch and pass the Phillies

Ozzie Albies of the Braves celebrates beside Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm after hitting a triple in the fourth inning of a baseball game Saturday, May 8, 2021, in Atlanta.

Credit: Ben Margot/AP

Credit: Ben Margot/AP

Ozzie Albies of the Braves celebrates beside Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm after hitting a triple in the fourth inning of a baseball game Saturday, May 8, 2021, in Atlanta.

The sentence has been typed so many times it all but types itself: “The Braves are (fill in blank) games under .500 and trail the Mets in the National League East by (fill in blank) games.” But here we sit, four weeks from Labor Day, and the sentence has, at least for the moment, been rendered moot.

The Braves – hallelujah! – are two games above .500. They no longer trail the Mets in the NL East; indeed, the New Yorkers trail the Atlantans by a half-game. The Phillies now lead the NL East, the same Phillies who were 4-1/2 games behind the Mets as July became August. Philadelphia has won its past eight games, a streak that arrived as the Mets were losing seven of eight. Philly just swept the Mets in a weekend series; it didn’t trail over those 27 innings.

The Mets’ chances of winning the division have, according to FanGraphs, shrunk from 77.6 percent to 18.9 in two weeks. Mixing sports and metaphors, the goalposts have moved. The Braves’ new target is Philly, though the two won’t meet again until the regular season’s final week.

Purely on numbers, as opposed to W’s and L’s, the Braves have been better than Philadelphia. They’ve scored more runs. They’ve allowed fewer runs. Their rotation has a lower ERA than Philly’s. So does their bullpen. If we go by Pythagorean wins and losses, which reflect run differential, the Braves should be 63-49 to the Phillies’ 55-57. The reason the Braves are two games behind is that they’ve gone 17-21 in one-run games and 2-7 in extra innings. The Phillies are 21-5 and 6-3.

With a healthy Ronald Acuna, the Braves are more talented than Philly. (With Acuna, they’re more talented than almost anybody.) Bryce Harper is having his best season since leaving Washington. He’s fifth among NL players in offensive WAR, as calculated by Baseball-Reference. He might never again be as good as in 2015, when he had an OPS of 1.109 and was the league’s MVP, but you still wouldn’t mind having him on your side. Second baseman Jean Segura and catcher J.T. Realmuto are of All-Star quality.

The Phillies don’t hit as well as the Braves, but they look like the ‘27 Yankees alongside the ‘21 Mets, who haven’t scored more than five runs since July 21, which was 18 games ago. Nor do the Phillies pitch as well as the Braves, with one exception. With Jacob deGrom shuttered until September, Zack Wheeler of East Paulding High has emerged as baseball’s best pitcher. When signed with the Phillies in December 2019, he seemed – as often happens with starting pitchers – an overpay. A team spending $118 million over five years expects to get more than a No. 3 starter, which is what Wheeler was as a Met. With Philly, he has become a no-doubt No. 1.

Aaron Nola, once a No. 1, has had a spotty season. (His ERA is 4.49; Wheeler’s is a bit more than half that.) The Phillies needed another arm, and their trade for Kyle Gibson has, through two starts, served its purpose. That deal also brought Ian Kennedy, who might be the closer they’ve lacked. They’ve blown 25 saves, more than any other team. Their relievers’ WAR ranks 30th among 32 clubs.

We’re a long way from the days of Ryan Howard and Chase Utley and Jayson Werth and Roy Halladay and, ahem, Cole Hamels. Not since 2011 has Philadelphia finished above .500. This year didn’t augur as a breakthrough – the Braves were the reigning division champ; the Mets spent big over the winter – but there’s something to be said for hanging around. At the close of business on July 31, the Phillies were 51-53. They haven’t lost since.

The Braves have tracked a similar course. They didn’t move above .500 until last week. The July additions of Joc Pederson, Stephen Vogt, Jorge Soler, Adam Duvall and Richard Rodriguez have re-energized a team that might have written off this halting season as a whiff. Neither they nor the Phillies are as good as the Dodgers or Giants or Padres or Brewers, but somebody has to win this division.

The Mets have blown their chance to run away with the East. They’re now looking up at two teams that, as of Aug. 1, held losing records. One of those two will win this division. There’s no good reason it won’t be the Braves.