The narrative all season in the National League has essentially been the Los Angeles Dodgers and everybody else. It's hard to fight back against that statement, as the Dodgers own the largest run differential in the majors -- only the Houston Astros are close, and no NL team is within 100 runs of the Dodgers' margin.
Consider the Atlanta Braves, however, a team that might be starting to peak at the right time. The Braves went into Citi Field this weekend to face a red-hot New York Mets team that plays very well at home and had just swept the red-hot Cleveland Indians. The Braves swept the series to run their winning streak to eight games, and the three wins were each impressive in their own way:
Saturday: After Atlanta jumped to a 4-0 lead, the Mets rallied and took the lead on Pete Alonso's three-run blast in the fifth. But the Braves rallied with two runs in the eighth and two more in the ninth to win 9-5.
The Braves have won or tied nine consecutive series, including winning five of six games against the Mets and taking two of three from the Dodgers, Twins, Nationals and Phillies. They've been beating good teams to maintain their six-game lead over the Nationals in the NL East -- and that's important.
The weird thing about the Braves is that while their bullpen has drawn a lot of criticism all season, they've actually exceeded their Pythagorean record: The Braves are 80-52, compared to an expected record based on run differential of 74-58. That six-win difference is the biggest positive spread in the majors. Often when a team exceeds its expected record, it is due to a super clutch bullpen that helps a team win close games. Indeed, the Braves are 25-13 in one-run games and 11-5 in extra innings, but the bullpen has generally been average over the course of the season, ranking 12th in the majors in win probability added.
The hope, of course, is that the bullpen is improving. Until the Mets scored a run off Mark Melancon in the ninth inning on Sunday, the pen had thrown 25 consecutive scoreless innings. Although Melancon, Chris Martin and Shane Greene struggled initially after coming over at the trade deadline, all three have settled in and pitched better of late:
Melancon: Four saves and a win in his past five outings.
Martin: Five straight scoreless outings with just two hits allowed.
Greene: Six straight scoreless outings with three hits allowed, nine K's and no walks.
Also consider the two main holdovers:
Luke Jackson: One run in 11 innings in August with 15 K's and four walks.
Sean Newcomb: The hard-throwing lefty had a 1-2-3 eighth on Sunday, and he has a 3.16 ERA in relief.
That's five pretty good relievers, and only Jackson was in the Atlanta bullpen at the start of the season. Given that the Dodgers have their own concerns in relief -- Kenley Jansen has six blown saves and eight home runs allowed in 49⅔ innings -- one can reasonably project the Braves to have the better bullpen in the postseason. (As always, small-sample production will trump all projections.)
Another reason to like the Braves now more than two months ago is that Donaldson has quietly given them a third big bat alongside Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuna Jr. After a slow start (perhaps rusty after injury problems in 2018), Donaldson is up to 32 home runs and hitting .265/.379/.538. Since the middle of June, he is hitting .294/.409/.658. He has been bashing like an MVP candidate for more than two months now as the Braves' answer to Cody Bellinger.
Then there's Keuchel, who had his best start with the Braves on Sunday. He is 5-5 with a 3.78 ERA, and the top four of Mike Soroka, Julio Teheran, Max Fried and Keuchel gives Atlanta four above-average starters. A big reason the Braves' run differential is mediocre is because for much of the season, the back of the rotation was horrible; Foltynewicz, Kevin Gausman, Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson have a combined 6.33 ERA in 39 starts. Those guys won't be starting in October (though Foltynewicz has a chance to pitch himself back into the Braves' postseason plans).
The major takeaway: I think the Braves are better than their plus-78 run differential suggests. They'll get Dansby Swanson back soon, and Nick Markakis, Ender Inciarte, Brian McCann and Austin Riley are all on the injured list, so this win streak is a credit to the team's depth off the bench.
It's difficult to believe, but the Braves haven't won a playoff series since the 2001 NL Division Series. Since then, they've lost seven straight division series and a wild-card game. This might be the team to finally break that streak.
Nationals sweep Cubs: The other big sweep this weekend was the Nats going to Wrigley Field and winning 9-3, 7-2 and 7-5 in 11 innings on Sunday. The Cubs were 44-19 at home entering the series.
Sunday's game was fun, as Kyle Schwarber tied the game with a two-run homer in the eighth off Fernando Rodney, Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel worked out of a two-on jam in the ninth, and then the Nationals finally scored twice in the 11th off Tyler Chatwood, with Howie Kendrick and Trea Turner starting the rally with a single and double.
Anthony Rendon drove in the second run of the inning with his fourth hit of the game.
"I'll make a case for him right now, yeah," Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. "MVP, Gold Glove. My man, Anthony Rendon."
Rendon probably has some ground to make up, but a late surge could put him in the running:
Rendon: .329/.407/.617, 29 HRs, 104 RBIs, 94 runs, 5.2/5.6 WAR
Christian Yelich: .329/.421/.678, 41 HRs, 89 RBIs, 91 runs, 6.0/6.5 WAR
Bellinger: .312/.409/.655, 42 HRs, 100 RBIs, 101 runs, 7.9/6.8 WAR
Rendon has hit .348/.444/.652 with runners in scoring position, but get this: Entering Sunday, he was hitting .408/.452/.855 with nine home runs in 76 at-bats in high-leverage situations -- the biggest, most clutch moments of games. The only thing is Yelich also has been great in the clutch. (Rendon ranks third in OPS in medium- and high-leverage moments, and Yelich ranks fourth.)
Anyway, Rendon is having another terrific season. Maybe he is only a strong third in the MVP race (and Braves supporters will bring up Freeman and Acuna), but don't ignore Rendon's clutch numbers the rest of the season.
Indians lose Ramirez, then lose a tough game: Jose Ramirez fractured his right hamate bone on a swing in Saturday's win over the Royals, and he will undergo surgery on Monday. The timetable to return from such a procedure varies, but Joey Gallo had a similar surgery on July 23, and he is expected to be out until mid-September. Ramirez likely will be lost for the rest of the regular season, and even if he makes a miraculous comeback, hitters often take longer to regain their power after these injuries.
It's a devastating injury for the club, as Cleveland had rediscovered its mojo in part because Ramirez had bounced back from a dreadful start. As late as June 16, his OPS remained under .600. Since then, he had hit .313/.359/.654 with a 16 home runs and 51 RBIs in 56 games. Rookie Yu-Cheng Chang, with four career plate appearances, started at third on Sunday.
In that game, the Indians tied the Royals with four runs in the bottom of the ninth. Francisco Lindor homered off Ian Kennedy, and with two outs, Franmil Reyes blasted a towering, game-tying, three-run homer. It looked like Cleveland would find a miracle win and sweep the Royals, but Ryan O'Hearn homered in the top of the 10th, and the Royals won 9-8.
"There's two ways to look at it," Indians manager Terry Francona told reporters in Cleveland. "You can feel sorry for yourself, which probably doesn't end well. Or you can choose to fight back and feel like this is our time to shine. And I would choose No. 2. I'm aware that it got more difficult. We lost a great player."
The Indians have been resilient all season, fighting through injuries to the starting rotation and an 11½-game deficit in June to get back in the American League Central and wild-card races. Now, they're back to 3½ games behind the Twins, with 12 of their next 16 games on the road.
Quick weekend thoughts: Good to see Felix Hernandez put up a respectable effort in front of the Seattle fans on Saturday (two runs on two home runs in 5⅔ innings against the Blue Jays). I don't know how much he has left, but it would be nice if his final starts in a Mariners uniform aren't embarrassingly awful. ... Stunning stat of the year: Mariners catchers are hitting .302 with 35 home runs. ... Somebody who has been awful is Trevor Bauer, who gave up eight runs in three innings to the Pirates on Sunday. After yielding nine runs two starts ago, he has a 7.62 ERA with the Reds, and his season ERA is 4.34. For all the hype given Bauer's analytical approach to pitching, he has had an ERA under 4.00 just once in his career. ... One of the Twins sluggers who has flown under the radar is Miguel Sano, who has 26 home runs in 292 at-bats. The strikeout rate remains insane (35%), but he is mashing home runs and has played well enough at third base. ... It seems like we've skipped over Michael Brantley in this space this season, but he is riding an 18-game hitting streak in which he is batting .458/.519/.750. For all the attention the Yankees' DJ LeMahieu has received for his MVP-type season (non-Mike Trout division), Brantley has had the same type of season to little acclaim.