5/4/2014 7:50 P.M. ET
Team to beat in National League East? Take your pick
All five clubs within 1 1/2 games of lead in Major League Baseball's tightest division
By Richard Justice / MLB.com
Who ya got in the National League East? Go ahead and check out the standings. Take all the time you need. If you're looking for baseball's craziest division race, you've come to the right place.
Just when you thought the American League East was ridiculously tight, the NL East finishes the week with five teams -- that's all five teams -- separated by 1 1/2 games. Remember when it looked like the Braves might sprint right through the summer into October?
Just a week ago, the Braves were 17-7 and leading the division by 3 1/2 games. Atlanta lost its sixth game in a row on Sunday. The Braves scored 10 runs in the six losses, and so even as the pitching remains solid, they have come back to the pack in a big way.
This is where the fun starts. This is where every team sees an opportunity. All five NL East teams have a winning record, and there's a case to be made for every single one of them. So let's go to the big board and check out our contenders.
First, the Nationals. They're 17-14 and a mere half-game behind the Braves. These facts qualify as news because there has been way too much hand-wringing about this team in the nation's capital.
Some of us in the media have praised this franchise so effusively that a good number of Nats fans expected the franchise to have the NL East clinched by now. For that, we are sorry. We meant to mention that the Braves are still pretty good, that the Mets and Marlins are significantly better and that the Phillies have a bunch of old pros who understand winning and still burn to prove to people that their time hasn't passed.
But the Nationals still are the easy pick to win the NL East. They're still the most complete team, and even after what appears to be a slow start -- a playoff berth hasn't been clinched quite yet -- they've yet to spend a day under .500 this season.
Offensively, they're plenty good. Their bullpen is good, too. This puzzle will be complete when Doug Fister returns from the disabled list to deepen the rotation. At that point, the Nats might just have baseball's best rotation, or one that's certainly in the conversation.
Stephen Strasburg obviously is important. He won one of his first four starts and had a 6.00 ERA. In three starts since, Strasburg has been almost perfect, rolling up a 0.95 ERA and walking four and striking out 25 in 19 innings.
If Strasburg comes close to throwing those numbers on the board the rest of the way, if Fister is Fister, if Bryce Harper is able to come off the DL and contribute in the second half of the season, the Nationals are going to be tough to beat.
But the beauty of this division is that there's a case -- at least some kind of a case -- to be made for all four teams.
For instance, the Marlins.
As you know, they have a pair of superstars in Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Fernandez. As you may not know, their offense has some other terrific young players, especially outfielders Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich.
And there are talented young starting pitchers behind Fernandez: Nathan Eovaldi, Henderson Alvarez, Jacob Turner and Tom Koehler. Of them, only Koehler has celebrated a 25th birthday. Miami's rotation is No. 1 in velocity in the Majors at 94 mph, according to Fangraphs.com.
General manager Dan Jennings did a nice job adding veterans like Jeff Baker, Casey McGehee, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Garrett Jones to the mix. All in all, it's an interesting club, a club that bears watching.
The Marlins are 16-15 after taking two of three from the Dodgers this weekend. They're 14-5 at home. They have some intriguing pitching depth in the Minors. What's not to like?
Don't overlook the Braves. Their pitching staff is plenty good enough to take the team into October, but unless the offensive parts contribute more, Atlanta is going to be fighting to win a lot of 3-2 and 2-1 games.
Now about the Phillies. It's impossible not to root for these guys to put another run together. Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, etc., have accomplished so much and done so much for that franchise and that city that it would be great fun to see them do it one more time. If Cole Hamels gets it going in a rotation that has A.J. Burnett, Cliff Lee and Kyle Kendrick, the Phils have a shot.
So do the Mets. Dillon Gee and Jon Niese have been outstanding, and Bartolo Colon almost certainly will start rolling off quality starts. If Curtis Granderson performs the way his track record says he should, the Mets have a chance to hang with the other four teams.
OK, maybe all five teams won't be separated by 1 1/2 games the entire season. That's unrealistic. On the other hand, even if, say, the Nationals do end up winning the division, the other four teams are good enough to push them the entire way.
In short, this is how it ought to be. If you're a fan of any of these five teams, you've got reasons to believe and reasons to be nervous. It makes for a fascinating summer and is a reminder why we love this stuff.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.