The Atlanta Braves have the third-best record in the National League. They have scored a bunch of runs since the all-star break, and allowed the second-fewest earned runs in that span. Yet, they sit in second place in the NL East standings, five games behind the Washington Nationals. And beginning Monday, the two teams will face off for three games — a chance to widen the divide or see it shrink to a two-game difference.
It’s the Nationals’ biggest series of the season to date. That may seem like a common refrain when both teams play this season, but there’s no escaping the magnitude. The Braves have played well enough to keep within arm’s length of the Nationals. Since the all-star break in mid-July, the Nationals division lead has stayed between two and 5 ½ games. Separation has been difficult to come by.
In most divisions in the major leagues, the Braves would likely be a bigger story. Yet, behind the Nationals, who sport the best record in baseball, they’re just second-best. In 12 games between them this season, the Nationals have won eight — the biggest difference in the standings between the teams.
“We’d probably be tied if we had split the series to date,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “But we know that they’re the club that we got to play good against. They’ve always been ahead of the Nationals in the standings. They were ahead of us last year. Our sights have always — we respect what New York is doing, what the Marlins are doing — but you can’t not avoid what Philadelphia and Atlanta has done.”
The Braves are an organization that the Nationals have admired and modeled themselves after. When explaining why the Nationals would approach the July trade deadline with a long-term future in mind, Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner cited the Braves of the 1990s and early 2000s as a model of consistency. Johnson has said he appreciates their consistent ability to develop players through their farm system.
Ryan Zimmerman said he wasn’t surprised that the Braves have stayed close enough behind them for so long. Keep in mind that this Nationals-on-top and Braves-in-second-place story line is completely new.
“The Braves are a really good team,” he said. “I think they did it last year and they have the same team as last year with a couple other people that made their team better. That’s a really good team and I don’t think they’re going to go anywhere.”
The series was so important that when Johnson used Thursday’s off day to adjust the starting rotation’s and split up the two left-handers by putting Edwin Jackson between Ross Detwiler and Gio Gonzalez, he did so with the Braves in mind, a left-handed heavy lineup vulnerable to the left-handed pitching. He toyed with the idea of having Gonzalez face the Braves, too, but settled for Detwiler in the series finale Wednesday.
“The Braves been playing unbelievable baseball as well so it’s not going to be an easy three games,” Danny Espinosa said. “It’s definitely going to be a dog fight with them. Can’t always look to sweep everybody. I know everybody thinks that’s what you try to do. You got to go out there with the goal to just win a series, take two of three.”
Nationals fans get to watch a real, important pennant race in person beginning Monday, writes Thomas Boswell.
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Syracuse 5, Indianapolis 3: Brett Carroll hit his 10th home run, a three run shot. In his first start since promotion, Kevin Pucetas earned the win with seven strong innings, allowing three runs on seven hits.
Harrisburg 8, Erie 6: Seth Bynum and Tim Pahuta each drove in three runs and smacked a two-run home run.
Hagerstown 8, Delmarva 2: With a 3 for 5 game, Khayyan Norfork is hitting .375 in six games since promotion. Reliever Christian Meza pitched two scoreless for a hold and lowering his ERA to 2.59.
Auburn 8, Batavia 7: Estarlin Martinez continues to hit, adding two more hits in four at-bats and raising his average to .333 over 49 games. David Fischer allowed five runs, two earned, over six innings for the