As I write this, the Atlanta Braves are playing the Mariners in an afternoon game in Seattle. Did you see how the Braves lost their seventh game in a row on Monday? After a hit by pitch and base hit in the fourth inning, Logan Morrison singled to left field. Justin Upton airmailed an ill-advised throw home, allowing the runners to move up to second and third (and Andrelton Simmons exited the game after injuring his ankle on the play). Alex Wood then appeared to work out of the jam to keep the game tied, striking out Mike Zunino and getting Chris Taylor to pop up to second base.
That's how things have gone the past week for the Braves.
Thing is, the Washington Nationals haven't been much better, having gone 3-6 over their past nine games. The Nationals caught the Braves on June 7 and haven't relinquished the lead -- currently at three games entering Wednesday -- but neither have they managed to pull away. The teams still have nine remaining against each other, including three this weekend in Atlanta. The Braves are 7-3 against the Nationals in 2014 after going 13-6 in 2013, which isn't to say the Braves have the Nationals' number, but at least points to the Nationals having something to prove in those nine games.
A few weeks ago, I believed pretty firmly that one of the wild cards would come from the NL East. I don't think that's the case now. The Braves are three back of the Giants for the second wild, and the Marlins and Mets are proving to at least be competitive -- tougher opponents than the Giants will face in the Padres, Diamondbacks and Rockies. It's still possible the NL Central teams beat up on each other, but the playoff odds lean strongly to two teams from the Central making it.
How does the East play out? The Braves have obviously struggled to score runs (13th in the NL), although Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez continues to confound by hitting B.J. Upton leadoff (although he didn't play Tuesday and hit eighth Wednesday, with Emilio Bonifacio batting leadoff, so maybe this experiment is finally over). La Stella has been hitting second, and while he at least has a decent on-base percentage, he also has no home runs. Sabermetric studies suggest you should hit your best hitter second, yet the Braves have been batting a low-OBP guy leadoff and a no-power guy second. Meanwhile, Jason Heyward has been hitting fifth and Evan Gattis sixth.
Of course, changing your lineup is only a minor thing; it doesn't really have much of an impact on run scoring. What the Braves really need is Freddie Freeman to heat up. He's been solid overall, with a .279/.367/.467 line, but is also hitting just .257 with a .420 slugging since April 20. They need more from their No. 3 hitter.
After a hot start, the Braves' rotation has also predictably slowed. Monthly ERAs:
As for the Nationals, they had to deal with a lot of injuries early on and now Ryan Zimmerman is out again. That only puts more pressure on Bryce Harper to provide some needed power, which he hasn't done since returning from the DL, hitting .214 with two home runs and 35 strikeouts in 30 games. He's looked as bad as the numbers suggest, and you almost wonder if this is going to turn into a lost season for him. At least he still has seven weeks to turn things around.
The bullpen has had a couple rough outings of late but has generally been pretty solid. I wrote about Stephen Strasburg the other day and he then pitched one of his best games of the year. But Gio Gonzalez is the one starter who continues to be plagued with inconsistent results. With Tanner Roark's rise, Gonzalez's 4.01 ERA stands out as the weak link -- although his peripherals suggest he'll be better than that moving forward.
What happens the rest of the way? Braves fans have been on my case for sticking with the Nationals all season, but I still see Washington's rotation depth and Atlanta's issues at the top of the lineup, plus Mike Minor's struggles, and see the Nationals winning the division.
But the Braves will have those nine games to make up ground. In a sense, they control their own destiny. What do you think?