Braves surge as some NL rivals sag

Less than three weeks ago the Braves were third in the National League East, five games behind the Phillies. Back then, the Braves couldn’t score runs consistently, and their bullpen labored to hold leads when they managed to get them. Since then, the Braves have done mostly everything right.

Now the Braves are surging at the same time many NL playoff hopefuls are slipping. They are beating up on lesser foes while rivals are getting beat by some of the best teams in baseball. The Braves are getting healthier while injuries pile up for other teams in the chase.

The Braves won 11 of their past 13 games before playing at Miami on Tuesday night. They began the day 1-1/2 games ahead of the Phillies in the East. Charlie Morton, the scheduled starter for the Wednesday finale in Miami, hasn’t had a bad outing since early July. The Braves return from Miami to face the Orioles, who suffered their 12th consecutive loss Monday.

The Braves just keep coming. Their turnaround has been so drastic that an NL wild card, seemingly out of reach, is in play should they fail to secure their fourth consecutive division title.

NL West teams seemed to have a lock on both wild-card bids, but San Diego has wobbled lately to leave an opening. The Braves recently bested two wild-card contenders from the Central, the Cardinals and Reds. And on Tuesday, the Reds put their best hitter, Jesse Winker, on the 10-day injured list.

The division title remains the best path to the playoffs for the Braves. Before Tuesday’s games, FanGraphs put their chances of winning the division at 51% compared with 38% for the Phillies and 11% for the Mets. Baseball Prospectus has been much more skeptical of the Braves than other projections since the preseason. BP remains unimpressed with the Braves: it gives them a 27% chance to win the East, behind the Phillies (45%) and Mets (29%).

BP’s PECOTA system must be seeing something that I can’t. It’s strange because run differential, which tends to be a better measure of team quality than record, strongly favors the Braves. Entering Tuesday, they’d outscored opponents by 82 runs. The Phillies had been outscored by 18 runs. Philadelphia’s closing schedule looks easy, but the Braves also don’t have a challenging slate remaining.

The Braves kept rolling while the Phillies lost steam. Philadelphia gained the East lead by feasting on bad teams, then fell back while dropping back-to-back series to the Dodgers and Reds. The Braves took advantage of the struggling Nationals and Marlins. Before that they swept the Cardinals and took two of three games from the Reds.

The surge is sustainable for the Braves. Their offense is humming, and that’s with catcher Travis d’Arnaud getting acclimated after a long stint on the injured list. Their starting pitching is good, and that’s with right-hander Huascar Ynoa just now returning to the rotation after three months on the IL. The Phillies just don’t have as many good things happening.

Zack Wheeler is Philadelphia’s only reliable pitcher in the rotation. Right-hander Zach Eflin is due back from the IL soon, but the Phillies need more than two good starters to win the East. Aaron Nola, once Philly’s staff ace, has a 5.75 ERA over his past 10 starts.

Meanwhile, Braves starters entered Tuesday with a 3.67 ERA since the All-Star break. That’s fourth-best in the NL and more than a run better than their Phillies counterparts. Braves right-hander Ian Anderson probably has one more minor-league rehabilitation outing before he returns. Once he does, the Braves will be strong through the back end of their rotation.

Philadelphia’s lineup also has been hit by injuries (the Braves don’t want to hear about it). Pretty much all of their regulars have spent multiple games on the IR. First baseman Rhys Hoskins and shortstop Freddy Galvis still are out. Hoskins is a very good hitter; Galvis is not. Even when the Phillies are full strength, the Braves have a deeper lineup.

Freddie Freeman and Ozzie Albies are over their mini slumps. Outfielders Joc Perderson, Jorge Soler and Adam Duvall have all produced since coming via trades. By now it’s clear that Austin Riley and Dansby Swanson aren’t just having hot streaks. They both are having very good years.

As for the Mets, well, they are a mess. They led the East from May 9 until giving it up Aug. 6. They were 3-1/2 games behind the Braves to begin Tuesday. There are few signs that they can get the lead back again.

I figured the Mets would go on a run once they got healthier. There were two obvious mistakes with that thinking. One is that the Mets, especially their pitchers, seemingly never are healthy. The other miscalculation is that, seeing as they are the Mets, something else always goes wrong.

Right-hander Carlos Carrasco finally made his Mets debut after a hamstring injury sidelined him for the first four months. He was supposed to boost a rotation that’s been missing ace Jacob deGrom since early July. Instead, Carrasco has been awful in four starts: 10.32 ERA with five home runs allowed over 11-1/3 innings.

It’s too late for deGrom to save the Mets. He kept them afloat with a 1.08 ERA over 15 starts before forearm tightness sent him to the IL. He experienced elbow inflammation while working back from that injury and was shut down July 30. Manager Luis Rojas recently told reporters that deGrom won’t throw until the end of this month, at the earliest.

It should be over for the Mets by the time deGrom returns, if he does. The Dodgers swept them at home last weekend. The Mets opened their series at NL West-leading San Francisco on Monday with another loss. The Mets are at the Dodgers for a four-game series later this week and then return home to play three more games against the Giants.

The schedule gets harder for the Braves next week. The Yankees are in town for two games, followed by the Giants for three. The Yankees have gotten their act together to join the American League wild-card race. At least the Braves will enjoy the weird scheduling quirk of consecutive off-days between those series.

The Braves won’t have an off-day between the end of the Giants series and a three-game set in Los Angeles against the Dodgers super team. The Braves won two of three games against the Dodgers in June. L.A. since has added All-Stars Max Scherzer and Trea Turner in trades.

The Dodgers have the luxury of sending away top prospects for short-term rentals because they know they can just replace them with high-priced veterans later. They may not win the West again, but the Dodgers are still favored to repeat as World Series champions.

The Braves aren’t on that level. They are better than could reasonably be expected given the premature end to Ronald Acuna and Marcell Ozuna’s seasons. And the Braves keep surging as some of their rivals are fading.

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