Imagine it’s late March of 2018. Someone comes up to you and says that entering July 8th of this year’s baseball season, the Philadelphia Phillies and the Atlanta Braves would be tied atop the NL East division, five games above the struggling Nationals. Is there any chance that statement was believable back in March?
Although it was a possibility, no expert would have expected, the Phillies and the Braves have made it a reality thanks largely due to their talented young players. Ozzie Albies and Rhys Hoskins have led their respective teams to what is looking like a tight and exciting finish to a once again strong division. Despite their fantastic first three months, is it possible to trust both the Phillies and the Braves to finish strong and make the postseason?
The Braves have held first place for the majority of the season, coming out stronger than the Phillies or even the expected division champion Nationals. The narrative of Atlanta’s season has been getting surprise production from many positions. Second baseman Ozzie Albies is hitting .282 with 18 home runs and a .837 OPS. His play at second base has been a boost for Atlanta where they did not expect this type of production. Right Fielder Nick Markakis is hitting a shocking .324 with 59 RBIs and a .886 OPS. Ace Mike Foltynewicz has proven himself as a true number one starter with a 2.37 ERA, a 1.11 WHIP, and 114 strikeouts. Thankfully for the Braves, their surprise players have been anchored by the always consistent Freddie Freeman. The lifetime Brave is hitting .310 with 58 RBIs and has a .938 OPS and brings playoff experience to a young Atlanta team.
The Phillies have much of the same qualities of rival Atlanta. A six-game winning streak has propelled them into a tie with the Braves who they have been chasing the majority of the year. Aaron Nola has proven to be the ace of a strong Phillies staff as he leads the team with 11 wins, a 2.41 ERA, and 116 strikeouts. Veteran starter Jake Arrieta has been a valuable number two starter. The free agent acquisition has posted a 3.47 ERA and been a leader in the clubhouse with playoff experience. Center Fielder Odubel Herrera leads the team with a .280 average and 15 home runs while left fielder Rhys Hoskins leads the Phillies with 55 RBIs and a .855 OPS. The Phillies stars line up nicely with those of the Braves in what makes each team a possible contender.
Atlanta and Philadelphia have had an easier time conquering the NL East thanks to the struggling Washington Nationals. The majority of experts picked Washington to win their division easily and possibly take their season to November. Outside of Max Scherzer though, the rest of the team has been somewhat disappointing at times. All-Star Bryce Harper has hit under .200 for the better part of the last two months and despite leading the NL in home runs, isn’t getting on base nearly enough. Utility man Daniel Murphy had his hot bad on the shelf for the first part of the season, as he was sidelined until June with an injury. Gio Gonzalez has seen his ERA rise over a point during the last month and a half as his season has taken a turn for the worst. Although there is a lot of baseball left to play, Washington has easily been one of the most surprisingly disappointing teams of the year.
Out of the three NL East contenders, the Braves will be the division champions come October. Their run differential of +75 is far superior to the Phillies +23 and the Nationals +38. The Braves veterans, Freeman and Markakis particularly along with starter Julio Teheran, have playoff experience and are big-time players. Out of all the Phillies position players, just Carlos Santana has ever had a role on a contending team. The Nationals aren’t done yet and the Phillies will continue to battle but the Braves are too good to not crown division champs.