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Thursday, August 21, 2014
Nationals the cream of the crop in NL East

By Jerry Crasnick


Writers for ESPN.com receive a voluminous amount of reader feedback, and much of it comes from fans whose passion outweighs their judgment or even their grip on reality. Readers accuse us of East Coast bias, big-market bias or other personal agendas that require lots of time and energy to decipher. Sometimes it's a challenge to keep track of which teams we ostensibly "disrespect" or enjoy slighting the most.

Unlike some of my more prudent colleagues, I'm enough of a masochist to read the comments at the end of a story, and I've found that few fan bases can discern a hidden motive in a column or a turn of phrase the way Atlanta Braves diehards do. During one particularly rugged stretch last fall, I got taken to the woodshed by Braves fans for failing to include Evan Gattis in my top 3 in the Rookie of the Year balloting, and for writing a story reflecting the industry sentiment that Atlanta's impressive 2013 regular season might not translate into an extended run in October.

Folks who feel strongly enough to defend their team's honor might not believe this, but it's nothing personal. As ball writers, we survey the landscape, weigh the numbers, sprinkle in some gut instincts and make calls based on the information at hand. A lot of times we're wrong. But sometimes the rigors of a 162-game season prove we're not as clueless as we appear.

The endless give-and-take came to mind recently when I dug up ESPN.com's preseason predictions and found that 40 of our 44 so-called "experts" picked the Washington Nationals to win the National League East this season. The consensus was less a knock on the Braves than a prevailing sense that the Nationals were a deeper, more well-rounded and balanced team, and poised for success after a 32-16 late run left them short of a playoff berth in 2013.

It's taken almost five months, but the March prognostications have developed a sense of clarity. As the Braves bounce from winning streaks to losing streaks and try to put together an extended run to escape the wild-card mosh pit, it's becoming evident the Nationals are who we thought they were.

The NL East is starting to have a "foregone conclusion" feel to it as September approaches. The Nats, who've earned a reputation as a puzzling and sometimes underachieving bunch, are putting together a season-defining run under first-year manager Matt Williams. In the bottom of the ninth inning Thursday, Arizona’s Jordan Pacheco threw a ball into a camera well to allow Denard Span to score from second base and give Washington a 1-0 victory. It was the Nationals' 10th straight win, tying them with the Kansas City Royals for the longest streak in the majors in 2014.

When Span described the Nationals' recent run of victories as "magical," he wasn't kidding. Washington is the first team since the 1986 Houston Astros to record five walk-off wins in a span of six games.

Shortly after Span received a Gatorade bucket drenching from teammate Anthony Rendon, the Braves took the field in Cincinnati and blew out the Reds 8-0. But they're left with some daunting math. With 5½ weeks left in the regular season, Coolstandings.com gives Atlanta a 1.6 percent chance to win the division and 39.1 percent odds to earn a wild-card spot. Even though the Braves have a 22-10 record against the Nationals over the past two seasons, they face Washington only six more times this year, so they're going to need some help.

The biggest reason to buy stock in Washington right now is its pitching. During the Nationals' 10-game streak, the rotation has a 1.34 ERA and the entire staff has allowed a total of 23 runs. Gio Gonzalez was lights-out with seven shutout innings against Arizona on Thursday. But if the postseason were starting today and Williams were going strictly on merit rather than pedigree, he might have a hard time starting Gonzalez over Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister and Tanner Roark. Fister (4-1, 0.88 ERA) and Roark (4-1, 2.30) have the best numbers of the group since the All-Star break.

Even though Rafael Soriano has had some hiccups lately, the Washington bullpen has been exceptional as well. Nationals relievers rank third in the NL with a 2.85 aggregate ERA and fourth in opponents' OPS at .628 this season.

"They might have the best pitching staff from 1 through 12 not only in the league, but in all of baseball," said a National League personnel man. "And they have power pitching. It wouldn't shock me if they go very far [in the postseason]."

In hindsight, the Braves had an awful lot to overcome losing Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy to Tommy John surgery in spring training, then watching Gavin Floyd go down with a fractured right elbow in June just when he was hitting his stride. General manager Frank Wren and his group did what they could by signing Ervin Santana in March and picking up Aaron Harang after he was released by the Cleveland Indians. But Julio Teheran has been forced to carry a heavy burden at age 23, and Mike Minor's disappointing performance can be traced back to January, when he got a late start in his training because of a procedure on his urinary tract. All things considered, it's amazing that Atlanta leads the majors with 89 quality starts.

The Braves need all the pitching they can get, with an offense that's middling at best and prone to streakiness. Justin Upton and Freddie Freeman are having fine seasons, but Dan Uggla is gone and it's long past obvious that B.J. Upton will not be giving the franchise anything close to a $75.25 million return on its investment.

September still has the potential for intrigue in Atlanta, as the Braves parry with the NL Central runner-up and the loser of the Los Angeles Dodgers-San Francisco Giants competition for one of the two NL wild-card spots. It's encouraging that Minor has pitched well in his past two outings and Freeman and Justin Upton have been torrid in August. But even if the Braves make it to October, they'll have to advance the hard way, with a one-game playoff and all the minefields that entails. Do the words "infield fly rule" ring a bell?

Personally, I'm not crazy over their chances of a deep postseason run. If I'm wrong, Braves fans, please feel free to drop me a note and vent.