Among Major League Baseball’s six divisions are five compelling races and tales.
In the AL East, the Red Sox are trying to complete another unexpected worst-to-first transformation while holding off the perpetually pesky Rays, the ascending Blue Jays and the Yankees, who added Joey Gallo and Anthony Rizzo despite months of uninspired play. The White Sox, with polarizing Tony La Russa in the dugout, are cruising to the AL Central crown while in World Series-or-bust mod.
Speaking of polarizing, the AL West-leading Astros are in pursuit of a title that would quiet the criticism stemming from their trash can-tainted 2017 crown as well as lock up a spot in Cooperstown for manager Dusty Baker. But they’re being pursued by the Athletics, who were the Rays literally before the Rays were the Rays, and the surprising Mariners. In fourth place reside the Angels, who are barely on the fringes of the race despite employing the best two-way player in a century (and the best player in baseball, though Mike Trout has been out for two months with a calf injury.
The Brewers, who have never won the World Series, lead the NL Central by seven games and seem primed to try and make Milwaukee the new Titletown. And the NL West is a turbocharged version of the turn-of-the-century AL East, with the surprising Giants trying to fend off the defending champion Dodgers and the bold Padres, the latter two of whom are trying to outbid one another for Max Scherzer.
Then there’s the NL East, which, well…if it was a Division I college basketball conference, its winner would be sent to Dayton for a play-in game. If it was a movie, the reviews on its poster would be carefully edited to make it sound as if critics were complimentary instead of caustic.
But someone has to advance to the playoffs out of the NL East, because a division winner has never not made the postseason. It’s not exactly the most impassioned of defenses, but you should see what those actually in the race have to say about it!
“We’re hanging in there, that’s all I can say,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said after Atlanta beat the Mets, 6-3, to win the rubber game of a five-game series Thursday afternoon. “Whether or not we hopefully get on that run that we’ve been waiting on for four months, I don’t know. But guys are getting after it, I’ll tell you that, to stay right here. Nobody wants to run away with it.”
(Snitker’s comments on the NL East poster might read “Hopefully we get on that run…guys are getting after it!”)
The third-place Braves are 4 1/2 games behind the first-place Mets despite the best run differential (plus-46) in the division. Yet Atlanta hasn’t been over .500 for a single day this season. The only other teams to not get over .500 this season are the last-place Marlins and Rangers.
In between the Mets and Braves are the Phillies, who have a potential Cy Young Award winner in Zack Wheeler and Bryce Harper manning right field while on pace to produce his highest OPS+ since his MVP season but a combustible bullpen in which four pitchers have been cycled in and out (and sometimes back in again) of the closer’s role.
The Mets have been alone in first place for the last 83 days, a span in which they’ve gone 38-34 — the 13th-best record in baseball. Since a season-high seven-game winning streak ended May 11, the Mets have had one winning or losing streak longer than three games (a five-game winning streak from May 25-31). And their run differential is plus-2 — two runs lower than the Marlins.
“Today it’s kind of unfortunate the way it panned out, but every single day’s a new opportunity and I feel like this weekend is going to be a really good series for us,” Pete Alonso said Thursday.
The Mets’ resiliency has been reflected in their inconsistency. Things would be much worse if not for the dramatic comeback wins against the Pirates and Reds on July 18-19 as well as the impressively fundamental victories against the Braves Monday (a 1-0 win in which six pitchers navigated the seven innings of the second game of a doubleheader) and Wednesday (a 2-1 win preserved when Michael Conforto threw out Abraham Almonte trying to score the tying run in the ninth).
Still, interesting and resilient does not necessarily make a championship contender, especially with all-world ace Jacob deGrom on the shelf and unlikely to return anytime soon. Yet it might be enough to win the division, depending on what everyone does or doesn’t do at today’s trade deadline.
“I don’t waste time on that,” the always-entertaining Snitker said Thursday. “If it happens, if it does. If it doesn’t, we’re going to keep fighting like we have been.
“The old proverbial thing: I can hope in one hand and you-know-what in the other and see which one fills up first.”
The Braves did something to fill up the hope hand this afternoon by acquiring outfielders Adam Duvall and Eddie Rosario from the Marlins and Indians, respectively. As this is typed, the Mets are down to two hours to mount a response, though their inaction shouldn’t necessarily be seen as an indication they won’t do anything. Their biggest recent splash was made seconds before the 2015 deadline by acquiring Yoenis Cespedes.
Alonso, who was still mashing baseball at Florida back in 2015, offered a trade deadline take Thursday that was even more indifferent than Snitker’s.
“The deadline is tomorrow?” Alonso said.
It’s not exactly a poster-worthy slogan, but in the NL East in 2021, it just might have to suffice