Should the Washington Nationals survive this week’s monumental-for-mid-April series at Citi Field against the first-place New York Mets and decide to go ahead with the rest of the 2018 season, a weird scheduling quirk awaits them. After this week, the Nationals will play just three more games against division opponents — a home series against the Philadelphia Phillies on the first weekend in May — over the next five weeks. They won’t see the Mets again until mid-July.
At one time, that may have seemed like a raw deal: Most preseason projections had the Nationals waltzing to the title in the presumably mediocre National League East. Those 76 intradivisional games against their cupcake rivals would be where the Nationals fatten up for the long haul.
But even if it’s still too early, with less than 10 percent of season having been played, to draw large-scale conclusions — the Mets (12-2), for example, are not going to keep playing at an .857 clip — it is not too early to draw some significant but smaller ones. For example: The NL East may be better than we thought.
The Nationals (7-9), who won their division by 20 games in 2017, enter their three-game series in Queens in fourth place, trailing the Mets by six games, the second-place Phillies (9-5) by three and the third-place Atlanta Braves (8-6) by two. (Let’s leave aside for now the Miami Marlins, who at 4-11, are basically what we thought they were.)
No, the Mets aren’t going to win 139 games, and the Phillies and Braves probably won’t win 104 and 93, respectively — which is what their current win totals extrapolate to over a full season.
But at the very least, the Mets, who swept the Nationals in Washington two weekends ago, look like a potential juggernaut — the team many expected them to be in 2017, before injuries and internal strife essentially sunk their season by the end of April — and the Phillies and Braves look like rising threats that, with a little good fortune, could see the end-stage of their long rebuilds arrive ahead of schedule.
Most of the preseason projections had the Nationals winning the East with ease. Fivethirtyeight.com, for example, ran thousands of simulations and predicted the Nationals would go 93-69 and win the division by 14 games over the Mets. (“It would take another unlikely confluence of underperformance from the Nationals and breakout elsewhere,” the website wrote, “for anybody to catch Washington this year.”)
That’s not to pick on fivethirtyeight.com. For one thing, it is still possible it will be correct in the end. Also, pretty much everyone else — humans, computers or otherwise — came to roughly the same conclusion. ESPN.com’s 29 baseball experts were unanimous in picking the Nationals to win the East. Fangraphs.com’s computer projections had the Nationals winning 92 games and beating the second-place Mets by eight. Interestingly, since those projections are updated daily, based on ongoing results, they now have the Nationals downgraded to 88 wins, while the Mets, Phillies and Braves have seen their projected win totals rise by three games apiece, to 87, 79 and 76, respectively.
While it’s the Mets that the Nationals are most worried about, and with good reason, both the Phillies and Braves may have staying power as well, given the former’s economic might and the latter’s elite farm system. (The Braves, in fact, may be just days away from calling up outfielder Ronald Acuna, widely considered the top prospect in baseball.) For both franchises, their best days are clearly ahead of them, which is not something the Nationals, to name one other team, can say with any certainty.
Plenty about this season’s first 2 1/2 weeks has been fluky, from the awful weather to the scheduling quirks that seem to have affected almost everyone. Win-loss records at this point can be deceiving. The Phillies, for example, are coming off a week that saw them go 6-0 and outscore opponents by an aggregate score of 37-18 — but all six wins were over the Cincinnati Reds and Tampa Bay Rays, the worst teams in each respective league.
What is clear already, however, is that the NL East is not going to be the one-team race most of us foresaw in March. The Nationals have put themselves in an early hole — behind not one team, but three. Those rivals aren’t all likely to be in those same positions come late September, but it is no longer unreasonable to think such a thing is possible.