On paper, the National League East consists of five teams, but when it comes to postseason significance, there are really only two. The Washington Nationals (67-43) and the Atlanta Braves (63-47) are dominating, and the rest of the division has essentially fallen by the wayside.
In the offseason, this division seemed to be shaping into one of the more competitive divisions in baseball. At the beginning of the season the Miami Marlins (17.0 games behind) had high hopes for themselves through the restructuring of their team, and no one expected the Philadelphia Phillies (17.0 games behind) to tank like they have. But, the Phillies have waxed the floor pretty much from the get go, and the Marlins have sunk lower and lower until they joined them. The New York Mets (14.0 games behind) showed promise there for a while, surprising everyone by putting together a strong start to their season, but they too have begun to descend to the depths of the division.
Up through June, the space between first and last place remained close, and the standings could be shuffled into a totally different order at the end of each night (although the Nationals managed to reign in the top spot consistently). But as the season has progressed, more and more space has been growing between the winning teams and the losing teams, and the race for the pennant between the Braves and the Nationals grows hotter as we move further through the summer.
While the other teams have fallen out of contention, the Braves and the Nationals have kept pace with each other, with the Braves pushing towards the top but the Nats doing just enough to stay ahead of them. As the pages fall off the calendar heading towards October, it is becoming clear that these will be the two teams to watch from this division.
Going forward, every move the Nationals make will have an impact on the Braves and vice versa. Nats fans spend quite a bit of time watching the Braves scoreboard. The two remaining series against the Braves become even more important as the season progresses, and the Nationals 8-4 record against the Braves this year – winning or splitting every series – looks very possible.
The thing about whittling the competition down to two teams, though, is that it makes the rivalry even more intense. The Braves have tasted the playoffs, and in the last two years they have either made it to the postseason or missed it by a hair. They aren’t going to be eager to let the Nationals waltz into the playoffs without a fight, when the Nats have yet to even finish a season with a winning record.
Despite the lack of competition from the other three teams in this division, the NL East is no less entertaining to keep up with. With the Nationals in the thick of battling the Braves for their first potential playoff berth ever, they have their fans on the edge of their seats, some in disbelief that a team with a history so full of disappointment is actually being mentioned in the same sentence as the word “playoff.”
Welcome to the pennant race, folks: Washington Nationals versus Atlanta Braves, charging towards October. Enjoy the ride.