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Who could upend Nats in East?

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Who could upend Nats in East?

The Nationals tonight will take the field for the 78th time this season, and incredibly this will be the 68th time they do so as a first-place ballclub.

Yes, the Nats have spent only 10 days outside of first place in the NL East, and all 10 of those days were spent in second place, none of them since May 21.

None of this, of course, guarantees anything. There is still more than half of a full season to be played, and anyone who followed this team during its inaugural 2005 campaign knows all too well how different the standings can look on October 1 vs. July 1.

But if the Nationals were to be overtaken in the NL East, which team would be most likely to do it? Who should the Nats most fear in their division?

The answer isn't as clear as most would have expected when this topsy-turvy season began.

The Phillies, the division's five-time reigning champs, have spent all but seven days in either fourth or fifth place and have offered little reason to believe they're going to turn it around. A lineup and rotation of aging stars hasn't been bolstered by the return of Chase Utley, and Ryan Howard's pending return may not make much difference either. At 36-45, they're an astounding 11 games behind the Nationals and talking about selling off free-agent-to-be Cole Hamels before the end of the month.

The Marlins, who made the division's biggest offseason splash with their Winter Meetings spending spree, are an enigma. On rare occasions, they look like as good a team as there is in the NL, with a potent lineup full of stars and a deep starting rotation. But on far more occasions they've looked like a trainwreck, an inconsistent and oft-feuding club probably takes after combustible manager Ozzie Guillen than owner Jeffrey Loria hoped when he made that hire in the first place. At 38-41, they're totally out of the race yet. But they're running out of time.

The Braves, the division's most-consistent organization, always seem to find a way to keep themselves in contention. With Jason Heyward re-emerging as a force, Michael Bourn and Martin Prado enjoying fine seasons and rookie Andrelton Simmons off to an impressive start, this is a lineup that should be able to produce. The pitching staff, though, is less of a sure thing, especially with burgeoning Cy Young candidate Brandon Beachy now out for the remainder of the season with a torn elbow ligament. And a bullpen that overwhelmed opponents in 2011 looks far less imposing these days. At 41-38, they're very much in it for now. But the only way these guys are going to overtake the Nationals is if they can find a way to beat them, having gone 2-6 against Washington so far.

Which leaves ... the Mets, a team that wasn't expecting to do anything of consequence this season yet has become one of baseball's biggest surprises. For that, credit the unorthodox-yet-dynamic 1-2 pitching punch of R.A. Dickey and Johan Santana. One's the sport's lone active knuckleballer. The other came back from major shoulder surgery to throw a no-hitter. Together, they've spelled doom for opposing hitters. Throw in a re-energized David Wright at third base, and fans in Flushing have every reason to buy into this as a legitimate contender. Can the Mets, 3 12 games back at 43-37, keep this ride going straight into September? With each passing day, they look like less and less of a fluke.

And yet, there the Nationals continue to sit, all alone atop the division, owners of the game's best pitching staff and a lineup that is finally coming together with Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse healthy and productive.

For three months, they unquestionably have been the class of the NL East. Whether they can hold that distinction through the season's final three months remains to be seen.

But given the state of the rest of the division at the moment, they sure have to like their chances.

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Updated MLB Postseason 2017 Bracket Projection

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USA Today Sports Images

Updated MLB Postseason 2017 Bracket Projection

Postseason teams are continuing to win, except for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and some incredible runs put on by teams just outside of the playoffs are being pushed to the side.

Although most of the divisions have been wrapped up, the battle for first place in each league and the overall top seed for home-field throughout the playoffs are getting heated. Of course the Dodgers losing three straight to Philadelphia Phillies, with the potential for the sweep tonight, is a huge factor.

RELATED: IN-DEPTH LOOK AT THE WILD CARD RACE

Still at 96 wins they hold the best record in baseball but everyone is charging fast. Cleveland is now a game behind for home-field throughout the playoffs and Houston is 2.5 back. The Indians have won 26 of their last 27 and the Astros have claimed six straight.

The Washington Nationals (NL East Division Winner) have all but clinched the No. 2 seed in the National League and are slowly catching up to the Dodgers for No. 1.

After getting swept by the Boston Red Sox at home, the Baltimore Orioles postseason hopes are all but gone. With the possibility of losing Zach Britton it may be time to see the white flag.

Since the last bracket update on September 18, only the Boston Red Sox have clinched a postseason spot.

NATIONAL LEAGUE:

Things are not looking good in Los Angeles as the Phillies are in control of the Dodgers. Clayton Kershaw gave up a grand slam in the sixth of his lone start and the bullpen has not been much better in the last two games. With the potential of the sweep tonight, the Dodgers are not trending in the right direction with the playoffs around the corner.

As a result, the Nationals are back into the fold for first place after winning two straight against the Atlanta Braves (the series finale is tonight). Only back 3.5 games for the top seed in the National League, the Nationals are in a golden opportunity. On top of making this run with a six-man rotation to get playoff starters rest, the team is going against opponents with a .432 winning percentage the rest of the way.

MORE NATS: SCHERZER'S HSITORIC NIGHT

While the Dodgers have struggled, their NL West rival, the Arizona Diamondbacks have not done much better. Arizona lost two of three to the Padres, only gaining one game on the Dodgers division lead. Los Angeles’ magic number is two with ten games remaining.

The National League Central Division has crunched up slightly from Monday. Chicago still leads but it is now down to 3.5 edge over the Milwaukee Brewers. Right behind the Brewers are the St. Louis Cardinals five games back of the Cubs. It is now gut-check time for the Cubs who have won seven of their last ten. Today they head to Milwaukee for a four game series that will likely decide the division and then head to St. Louis who are still in the thick of things.

Despite the bumps, Arizona is still well in control of their playoff fate. Colorado is behind them by 5.5 games for the first Wild Card, but the Brewers (-1.0 game) and Cardinals (-2.5 games) are now within striking range.

If the season were to end today, here is how the National League bracket would look:

Wild Card Round (Winner-take-all):

No. 5 Colorado Rockies (82-70) at No. 4 Arizona Diamondbacks (88-65)

National League Divisional Series (Best-of-5):

No. 1 Los Angeles Dodgers (96-56) vs. Wild Card Round Winner
No. 2 Washington Nationals (92-59) vs. No. 3 Chicago Cubs (84-67)

Wild Card Race:

Arizona Diamondbacks:  +5.5
Colorado Rockies:             ---
Milwaukee Brewers:         -1.0
St. Louis Cardinals:          -2.5
Miami Marlins:                -10.0

AMERICAN LEAGUE:

Both the Indians (AL Central Division Winner) and the Astros (AL West Division Winner) continue to win so there is not much change among the top teams in the American League. The lead for Cleveland for the top seed is 1.5 games. This upcoming weekend, Houston does face their division rivals, the Los Angeles Angels who are battling for one of the two Wild Card spots. Likely it is the chance for Cleveland to pull away.

The New York Yankees completed a dominant sweep of the Minnesota Twins in a battle of potential Wild Card teams. However, the Boston Red Sox also swept the Orioles preventing the Yankees from gaining any ground in the AL East race. Still back three games, New York still has the advantage of playing lesser opponents (combined .478 winning percentage) at home. Surprisingly there will not be an end-of-season series between the two to decide the division.

Boston’s sweep earned them a post-season berth but their magic number for the division is eight games.

With the Twins getting swept, ten teams remain in contention for the final Wild Card spot. Again, New York/ Boston has all but locked up the top Wild Card. The Texas Rangers (2.5 games back) have taken two straight in Seattle, vaulting the Rangers into contention but dropping the Mariners (4.0 games back). Facing the Indians, the Los Angeles Angels have barely moved (1.5 games back). Creeping in after being after-thoughts are the Kansas City Royals (3.5 games back) and Tampa Bay Rays (4.0 games back).

MORE ORIOLES: TIM BECKHAM WAS A MLB TRADE DEADLINE STEAL

Fortunately for the Twins, they get the chance for a rebound series against the Detroit Tigers this weekend.  Los Angeles travels to Houston for three games, New York heads to Toronto, Texas continues their West Coast road trip with the Athletics, while the Royals host the lowly White Sox.

If the season were to end today, here is how the American League bracket would look:

Wild Card Round (Winner-take-all):

No. 5 Minnesota Twins (78-74) at No. 4 New York Yankees (85-67)

American League Divisional Series (Best-of-5):

No. 1 Cleveland Indians (95-57) vs. Wild Card Round Winner
No. 2 Houston Astros (93-58) vs. No. 3 Boston Red Sox (88-64)

Wild Card Race:

New York Yankees:     +7.0
Minnesota Twins:           ---
Los Angeles Angels:     -1.5
Texas Rangers:             -2.5
Kansas City Royals:      -3.5
Seattle Mariners:           -4.0
Tampa Bay Rays:          -4.0
Baltimore Orioles:          -5.5
Toronto Blue Jays:        -7.0
Oakland Athletics:         -9.0

All records and standings are as of Thursday morning at 9:00 am, check back next Monday and Thursday for MLB bracket updates.

MORE MLB NEWS: WHEN WILL BRYCE HARPER RETURN TO THE NATS?

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Nationals vs. Braves Preview: Gonzalez looks to rebound

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USA TODAY Sports

Nationals vs. Braves Preview: Gonzalez looks to rebound

ATLANTA -- One of the questions the Atlanta Braves brass must answer during the offseason is whether right-handed pitching prospect Lucas Sims belongs in the rotation or the bullpen.

Sims (2-5, 5.52 ERA) will make another start Wednesday against the Washington Nationals, who send veteran left-hander Gio Gonzalez (14-7, 2.68) to oppose him in the second contest of a three-game series at SunTrust Park.

The Nationals won the series opener 4-2 on Tuesday to take a 9-8 lead in the season series. The loss guaranteed Atlanta (67-82) would have a losing record for the fourth consecutive season.

RELATED: WHEN WILL BRYCE HARPER RETURN?

Gonzalez, like teammate Max Scherzer, is a candidate for the National League Cy Young Award. The southpaw is coming off a poor showing against Atlanta on Sept. 12, when he allowed five runs in five innings despite eight strikeouts.

"You get the strikeouts and then all of a sudden, the hits came in," Gonzalez said. "It was just one of those games. You take it for what it was, sweep it up the rug and get ready for tomorrow. It was one of those games you can't really understand what happened, just pick up where you can and go from there."

The Braves have fared well against Gonzalez. In 20 career starts against Atlanta, he is 4-11 with a 5.27 ERA. This season, Gonzalez is 0-2 with a 6.48 ERA in three starts vs. the Braves.

Sims, a rookie who was the team's first-round draft choice in 2012, has made 11 appearances (seven starts). He has made it clear that he prefers to be a starting pitcher.

The Braves moved Sims to the bullpen after his Sept. 2 start against the Chicago Cubs, when he allowed seven runs in three innings. Because he was stretched out, Sims had the ability to throw multiple innings out of the 'pen, which he did in two of his subsequent four relief appearances.

However, on Sunday, the Braves announced Sims as the starter for the Wednesday game and moved left-hander Max Fried to the bullpen. Fried is another rookie who will be under consideration to join the rotation in 2018.

"The kid never quits," Braves manager Brian Snitker said of Sims. "He keeps pitching. He competes."

In seven starts, Sims has averaged 5 1/3 innings per outing. In 44 innings overall, he has recorded 31 strikeouts and 15 walks.

Sims has made only one appearance against Washington, that a perfect one-inning stint on Sept. 13.

Atlanta has had trouble scoring runs of late. Over the past five games, the Braves managed only 11 runs.

The Braves likely will be without catalyst Ender Inciarte on Wednesday. The center fielder left the game early Tuesday with right thumb soreness. Snitker said there was no structural damage and that Inciarte needs a day of rest.

"We just have to back off," Snitker said. "It's just sore."

Inciarte doesn't like to take a day off under normal circumstances, must less when he is chasing 200 hits. He was 0-for-2 on Tuesday, leaving him with 190 hits. He is trying to become the first Atlanta player to reach the milestone since Marquis Grissom in 1996.

Washington is close to getting its injured players back.

Outfielder Bryce Harper (hyperextended left knee) and infielder Stephen Drew (left abdominal strain) ran before the Tuesday game. Both are eligible to come off the disabled list whenever they are deemed healthy.

RELATED: MLB POSTSEASON 2017 BRACKET PROJECTION