Entering play on Friday night, the largest division lead in the National League is owned by the Washington Nationals. So why should we consider the National League East to be the most exciting division race in baseball? After all, the Nationals were supposed to win the division, and here they are with a 4.5 game lead.
But their current position atop the standings is not the story. The Nats only just arrived at the top two weeks ago. For most of the season, the NL East lead has belonged to the Atlanta Braves.
While the Nationals may currently have a lead, the division will be decided in the final weeks of the season and in the numerous head-to-head matchups NL East teams still have left to play. If the script plays out as baseball planned it when the schedule was made, the NL East will not be decided until the season’s final week.
For 60 days this season, the Nationals have not been in first and have been chasing the Braves. For 17 games throughout the season, they’ve been tied with Atlanta.
It's been two-and-a-half weeks since the Nationals regained sole possession of first place in the National League East but not because of their own stellar play. The Braves have lost eight straight games, a stretch during which Washington has only picked up four games in the standings due to its own lackluster play.
The Nationals have not taken advantage of the Braves' West Coast swoon like they could have, and with a three-game tilt between the two teams at Turner Field this weekend, Atlanta could erase much of the Nationals’ lead.
With seven wins in 10 head-to-head matchups so far this season, Atlanta has reserved some of its best work for Washington, a trend that has carried over from last season, when the Braves were 13-6 against the Nats.
While on the surface this division seems like a race between the Nationals and Braves, the Marlins could sneak into the mix (and possibly even the Mets). This is the result of all the head-to-head games left to play among these teams, especially in the final few weeks of the season.
When a team is trying to make up ground against an opponent in a playoff race, it helps to play the leading team (or teams) often. In the final two-plus weeks of the season, the NL East contenders will have plenty of opportunities to pick each other off.
In the Nationals’ final 11 games of the season, they play the Marlins eight times. Expand those final games played for the Nationals to 21 games, and Washington plays the Braves six times as well—that’s 14 of Washington’s final 21 games against teams looking to snipe it out of its first-place perch.
And remember, two wild cards mean that teams that previously might have given up on chasing a playoff spot will be playing deep into September.
The Mets might even consider themselves in this race. They play the Nationals in seven of their last 16 games of the season.
The Nationals are certainly in the best position to expand their lead. They’ve stayed relatively healthy most of the year but still need Bryce Harper to find his form after missing time with a thumb injury. They recently lost Ryan Zimmerman for six weeks with a hamstring strain, but his return in September could give the team a jolt down the stretch.
The Marlins have battled pitching injuries recently, and they lost ace Jose Fernandez early this season. But Miami has played better in close games than any other NL East team, using a strong bullpen to propel them to a 26-17 record in one-run games.
And then there’s the Braves. By most accounts, Atlanta should have already thrown in the towel. With three of its top starting pitchers lost for the season (Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy and Gavin Floyd) and Mike Minor unable to get anyone out, it’s hard to believe that Atlanta has spent the most time leading the NL East this season.
While one team could get hot at any point, no NL East team has shown any signs of playing well enough to distance itself from the rest of the division. The largest division lead for any team this season is Washington’s current 4.5 game lead.
So much of what will make this an exciting race is that no one knows what to expect out of these teams. The Nationals were expected to run away with the division but haven’t. The Braves could find new life if their offense stops trying to channel Dan Uggla. The Marlins could ride their young pitching and hot-hitting outfield to more and more victories in close games.
Could my team get a day off?
Another factor that could affect these teams down the stretch is the presence of days off (or in the case of some teams, the lack thereof). While the Braves have only three days off in September, the Nationals and Marlins have just two.
Furthering the difficulty of the final month is a doubleheader between the Marlins and Nationals in the season’s final series. Over the final 23 days of the season, the Nationals will play 23 games with just one day off. The Marlins’ schedule is identically unkind.
In this seesaw of a division with no team yet taking charge, the race for the NL East will come down to the final few weeks of the season. And with so many head-to-head matchups in the final weeks, there could be leads lost and won several times over if the teams are close.
It may be easy for Nats fans to bask in a four-and-a-half-game lead, or for Braves fans to abandon ship after an eight-game losing streak, or for Marlins fans to get excited that their team is adding players at the trade deadline rather than selling them off. But in the months ahead, with all the head-to-head matchups, a three- or four-game lead may only be a weekend series away from disappearing in the most exciting division no one is talking about: the NL East.