As soon as a week ago, most Braves fans had given up on winning the division and shifted their attention to maintaining the lead in the Wild Card. The Nats weren’t losing, and a 7.5 game deficit seemed too large to overcome. But, having swept the Mets this past weekend, the Braves suddenly find themselves within striking distance of the Washington Nationals. At 5.5 back with a little over 20 games to go, I understand that things don’t look promising, but I will certainly be paying more attention to the division race now than I was a week ago. As long as there is a reasonable chance to win, it’s a lot more fun to hope for victory than to soberly examine the tough odds. Plus, rationalizing ways to win is the duty of a good fan. Even despite that, winning the division isn’t some crazy dream at this point, but its well within the realm of practical possibility. You can’t count out the Braves just yet:
The Nationals have a significantly tougher stretch remaining. Bracketing out the series against each other, the National’s remaining opponents’ winning percentage is just above .500. The Braves’s opponents’ is .477. Now, that may not seem like a huge difference. But let’s look into it a little more. 6 of their games are against the Phillies, who are not your run of the mill losing team. Their rotation still features Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay, and Cliff Lee. The Nats are due to play them 6 times in 9 games, so chances are they will not pass them in the rotation. The best team the Braves have left to play (Nationals aside) is the Pirates, who have been 12-23 since the start of August. If the Braves can continue their hot streak and take 2 of 3 from the Brewers, and the Nationals lose 2 of 3 against the Mets (they will face RA Dickey once and will feature John Lannan once), then the Braves be 4.5 back going into the series. If they take 2 of 3 from the Nats, then who knows what could happen – the Nationals are young and could wilt under the pressure of a division race.
I can see the Nats losing some steam down the stretch as well. If nothing else, the Nationals are built on their excellent starting pitching, which hasn’t been so excellent of-late. Jordan Zimmerman has been nothing short of great most of the season, posting a 2.28 ERA through July 28th. Since then, however, his ERA has been 5.54. And he’s not just being BABIPed to death either. His GB/FB rate since the start of August has been .54, which is just a little below the .92 it was through July. Similarly, his line drive rate has been 29% in the latter period, up from 21% previously. Edwin Jackson just hasn’t been all that good since he gave up 8 earned runs to the Rockies in Coors Field on June 28th. Up until that time, his ERA was at 2.91, but his BABIP was was .234. He’s hit some serious BABIP regression – since that time, his ERA has been 5.00 flat. And then of course, there’s Stephen Strasburg. Did you hear he was getting shut down? His replacement will be John Lannan, who I predict will not be nearly as good. He’s a career 3.99 pitcher who doesn’t really strike anyone out (4.8 K/9). This year he’s spent most of his time in AAA, putting up a below average 4.30 ERA and 1.439 WHIP in 24 starts. So far in 2 spot starts in the big leagues this year, he’s posted a 3.46 ERA and walked as many men as he’s struck out. Nationals fans can’t be super excited about him.
Besides that, we are starting to see Dan Uggla and Brian McCann turn it around in this past series, and Andrelton Simmons will be making a reappearance sometime soon. With the Nationals’s tougher schedule and some of their young arms probably feeling some fatigue, the Braves have a very real chance to catch them in the Division. I will be waiting with baited breath. I really want to avoid this dumb one-game playoff.