The NL East race hasn’t been much of one

Braves dugout reacts in the ninth inning coming up one run short to fall 5-4 to the Colorado Rockies Tuesday, Sept 14, 2021, at Truist Park in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Caption
Braves dugout reacts in the ninth inning coming up one run short to fall 5-4 to the Colorado Rockies Tuesday, Sept 14, 2021, at Truist Park in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

The 1993 Braves went 22-8 from Sept. 1 through their final regular-season game. They last lost consecutive games on Aug. 19 and 20. They finished 104-58. Had they been 103-59, they would have had to play a 163rd game to break a tie with San Francisco. Had they been 102-60, they’d have been done for the year. As it was, the Giants of Barry Bonds became the losers of the last great pennant race.

One reason MLB went from two divisions to three and added a wild card was so a 103-win team wouldn’t be barred from the playoffs. This year, however, three divisions per league seem an excess. The Braves are on pace to finish 86-78. Over a full season, this club has never qualified for October baseball with fewer than 88 wins. And these Braves, it must be said, hold a 4-1/2-game lead over the second-place Phillies.

The Braves would occupy third place in the National League West. They’d be fifth in the American League East. They’re 6-6 in September, yet they’ve seen their lead nearly double. The Mets are 7-7 this month; the Phillies are 4-8.

Matters reached a new low Tuesday night. The Braves lost at home to sub-.500 Colorado. The Phillies lost at home to the sub-.500 Cubs. The Mets lost at home to the Cardinals. All three Eastern clubs took a first-inning lead, not that it mattered.

Tyler Gibson, Philly’s starter, threw four perfect innings. He was done after five, his team trailing 4-1. Javier Baez hit a ninth-inning homer to tie it for the Mets. They lost in 11 innings. The Rockies, who are 22-51 on the road, took three of four games in Philadelphia before winning the series opener here. As Colorado second baseman Brendan Rodgers told reporters: “We’re just trying to ruin playoff hopes, honestly. It’s kind of fun.”

The division standings didn’t change, although the Braves’ magic number was shaved from 16 to 15. Truth to tell, not much about the NL East has been magical.

Season so far

The Braves, who didn’t rise above .500 until Aug. 5, are the only NL East team with a winning record. The race, such as it has been, changed over 10 days last month. On Aug. 12, the Braves held third place. On Aug. 22, they led by five games. They went 9-0 against bottom-feeders Miami, Washington and Baltimore. They’ve since gone 8-11. Their lead has been cut by a half-game.

We’ve stopped wondering what might happen if the standings truly tighten. Were that apt to happen, it would have by now. The Braves finish with three games here against Philly and three more against the Mets, but one of those teams must draw close for those to matter. The Phillies are 13-19 since Aug. 8. The Mets are 16-26 since July 31. They’re both done.

The Braves could have written off this season long ago. Instead Alex Anthopoulos added six players in July, all of whom have made an impact. There’s the story of the 2021 NL East. The Braves got a bounce at the same time the Phillies and Mets were headed south, figuratively speaking. A six-month season turned over a week and a half.

Credit to the Braves for hanging around long enough for their hot streak, when finally it arrived, to make a difference. Given the absences of Mike Soroka, Marcell Ozuna and Ronald Acuna, they’re not the team we thought we’d be seeing. Given the extended absence of Travis d’Arnaud, they’ve been forced to use seven different catchers. Given the fizzles of Cristian Pache and Kyle Wright – key men in the 2020 playoffs – they’ve had to scramble to fill a lineup and a rotation, and dare we mention the bullpen?

And yet: The belief remains that the Braves should be better than this. They’ve outscored opponents by 99 runs. They’ve lost 27 one-run games; only the Mets have lost more. Of the Braves’ 76 wins, 25 have come against the Nationals and Marlins.

If the regular season bore much resemblance to the playoffs, we’d be worried the Braves will get boat-raced come the NLDS. By now, we know better. They have the 12th-best record in the majors, but only 10 teams make the postseason, where everybody starts 0-0. Know what we call the 2006 Cardinals, who finished the regular season 83-78? World champs.

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