COMMENTARY | According to Harry Nilsson, "One is the loneliest number that you'll ever do." Apparently, no one told the Atlanta Braves. It seems the front-runners of the NL East are perfectly happy being the one, very lonely team at the top of the divisional standings. Will any other club even threaten to join the Braves in -- what has quickly become -- baseball's most one-sided race?
If someone said at the beginning of the year the Braves would lose Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters to Tommy John surgeries, have Jason Heyward, Brian McCann and Freddie Freeman all spending time on the disabled list, and watch Dan Uggla, B.J. Upton and Heyward all below .190, it would have been safe to assume that Atlanta would be struggling to keep their head above the .500 mark.
The Braves have somehow managed to use a next-man-up type of mentality to just keep winning. The patchwork bullpen has hung together nicely and Freddie Freeman and Evan Gattis have supplied the power and RBIs needed in key moments. It's scary to think that the Braves currently have a 7 ½-game lead in the National League East, yet their team has still not even begun to fire on even half of their available cylinders. Exactly how good can this Atlanta team be in 2013?
Will Anyone Else Even Contend for the Division?
Think about this: The Braves are currently the only team in the NL East with a winning record. After the Braves started their week with a three-game sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates, they now hold a 7 ½ game lead over both the Washington Nationals and Philadelphia Phillies.
As for the rest of the East, the 22-33 New York Mets continue to be a bipolar with extreme ups and downs. Case in point, the Metropolitans took four consecutive games from the New York Yankees in the city's Subway Series, and then they proceeded to get swept by the Marlins. And speaking of the Miami Marlins -- well -- if you turn your head, you might be able to just make them out in the very, very far off distance (16-44)..
Consider this: Atlanta is also the only team in the division to even have a positive run differential. The Bravos have crossed the plate 64 more times than their oppositions; No. 2 in the division is Washington who has a mark of -25 in the run differential category. Thanks to the lack of push-back from the rest of the East, BaseballProspectus.com has the Braves ranked with a 90 percent chance of making the postseason. Could the rest of the division be in danger of allowing Atlanta to simply run away and hide with the 2013 crown?
The Braves are 15-6 against the entire NL East division this season.
Washington Nationals' Issues
That thud you heard was the Washington Nationals crashing back down to earth after posting a 98-win season in 2012. The team built on tough pitching and young stars are starting to come apart at the seams. It was reported today that Stephen Strasburg is on his way to the DL with a lat strain. While he's there he will be able to visit the already disabled Bryce Harper. And, if the reports circulating around Major League Baseball are accurate, Gio Gonzalez could be in danger of facing some type of suspension for having his name associated with the Biogenesis scandal -- sources suggest that Gonzalez only took legal substances, but who knows the information that will ultimately come out surrounding these names.
Aside from the problems created by the players the Nationals don't have playing, the ones they do have suiting up are just as much of a cause for concern. Washington had the No. 1 ranked pitching staff in all of baseball in 2012. While their feared pitching staff has been largely above average, they are not nearly as potent as they have been. Washington allowed the lowest batting average to opposing hitters last season (.237), but now find themselves ranked No. 7 in that category. The staff is also striking batters out at a more infrequent clip in 2013. The team which ranked No. 4 in all of baseball at punching people out has been relegated to No. 11 in the National League.
Although Strasburg and Jordan Zimmerman were having fine individual seasons, Gio Gonzalez has not been the same pitcher he was during his All-Star campaign of one year ago, and Dan Haren's nightmarish 5.09 ERA has Chicago Cubs fans thankful the Carlos Marmol trade for Haren fell apart this offseason. Despite the Washington hurlers' lower production, they are far from the biggest problem in D.C. It is actually the offensive side of the ball where the Nationals have struggled most.
Exactly how bad is it? If it were not for the Miami Marlins and New York Mets clogging up the bottom of the rankings, Washington would be dead last in the NL in hits, runs and team batting average. A good microcosm of the Nationals' season can be seen by simply glancing at Strasburg's stat line. Washington's fireballer has an ERA of just 2.54, yet his record is a meager 3-5. Needless to say, the offense has simply not been producing.
The Braves are 7-3 in head-to-head matchups with the Nationals this season and will not face their rivals again until August. The biggest potential threat for the Braves could turn out to be the Phillies, who, at 30-30, are currently trying to ride a four-game winning streak back over the .500 mark.
Utility outfielder Reed Johnson may have said it best. The 10-year MLB veteran had shirts printed up for every member of the team which reads: "Suffer in Silence." As Johnson says, "There are 25 guys in here going through a lot of the same issues, whether it's aches and pains or things they might not agree with -- whether they think they should be playing more, playing less, or whatever. If you express those problems out loud, a lot of times, that's really what can tear a team apart. So with things that really don't matter and are not going to affect you on the field as far as wins and losses are concerned, that's where the suffer in silence comes from."
The Braves are a team which seems to have the right mix or star players and veteran leaders. At 37-22, Atlanta has jumped out to a nice early lead, but don't expect them to get complacent. Far too many guys still remember the 2011 season which saw them blow a 9 ½ game lead in the last month of the schedule. Baseball is a long season, so no team is truly out of it in early June -- although the Miami Marlins are trying their very best.
The Best is Yet to Come
Atlanta fans have not seen the Braves play to their highest level this season. If we are to believe in B.J. Upton's sudden emergence, and, if Kris Medlen starts consistently turning his 3.14 ERA into wins, then the NL East could become even more of a one-team race. And hey: Atlanta has yet to even see their best pitcher take the mound. Brandon Beachy is on schedule to return to the Braves' rotation on June 18, at which time, it will be as though these first-place Atlanta Braves just signed a Cy Young contender at the trade deadline. Watch out NL East; this might get ugly.
Anthony Schreiber is a freelance sportswriter based in "Braves Country." He has penned articles for a variety of online publications and magazines.
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