2017 MLB Playoffs

Potential Dark Horse Teams for 2017 MLB Playoffs

Just as the leaves change each fall, so do MLB’s playoff teams. Each year there are a number of surprise contenders looking to make a run at the World Series. Whether they come out of the gate strong or turn it on late, you can almost guarantee that one team will fit the Cinderella Story narrative.

So with the season fast approaching, which teams are primed to be this year’s Cinderella? Let’s take a look at four teams who might be able to fit into the glass slipper for the 2017 MLB Playoffs.

Colorado Rockies-NL West

Nolan Arenado looks to provide the power in a deep lineup. (Photo by Ben Margot/AP Photo)

The Colorado Rockies finished 2016 at 75-87, good for third in the NL West. While they were 12 games under .500, don’t let last years results fool you. They received strong contributions from home grown starting pitchers Tyler Anderson and Jon Gray. Both were in their first full seasons in the majors, and performed well; Gray struck out 185 batters over 168 innings pitched while Anderson posted a solid 3.54 ERA. With the offseason addition of Ian Desmond to play first base and the continued growth of Gray and Anderson, the Rockies could look to turn some heads in 2017.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim- AL West

The Los Angeles Angels have one of, if not the best player on the planet. Automatic playoff berth, right? Not so much. In Mike Trout’s tenure with the Angels, they have only made the playoffs once, while Trout has won two MVPs in that time. The Angels are hoping to provide Trout with more support in 2017. With the acquisition of disgruntled second baseman Danny Espinosa from Washington, the Angels have added more pop to their lineup. Couple Espinosa with prime Trout and past-his-prime-but-still-dangerous Albert Pujols, and you have the core of a pretty good lineup. Couple in the additions of outfield speedster Ben Revere and Cameron Maybin and the Angels have a lineup that can compete with most any in baseball. If Pujols and Espinosa can take some pressure off Trout, the Angels could make a surprise run to the 2017 MLB Playoffs.

Miami Marlins- NL East

2017 MLB Playoffs

Giancarlo Stanton looks to send plenty of balls into orbit in 2017.(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

With the loss of pitcher Jose Fernandez in 2016, the Miami Marlins lost more than an ace; they lost the soul of their team. With heavy hearts, the Marlins were able to go 79-82 in 2016, finishing third in the NL East. It was an inspiring finish to the season, and one I believe will carry over to 2017. The Marlins will look for Giancarlo Stanton to improve on his lackluster 2016 season, in which he posted a slugging percentage of .489, the lowest of his career. Stanton won’t have to carry the Marlin’s offense on his own though. Dynamic second baseman Dee Gordon will be back to start the season and will be joined by steady outfielder Christian Yelich and power hitting Marcell Ozuna. If starting pitcher Adam Conley can build upon his solid 3.85 ERA and Wei-Yin Chen can get back to his career average 3.90 ERA, the Marlins will have two good starting pitchers to build their staff around. If Giancarlo Stanton can deliver on his 40+ homer potential and the pitching staff can stay near league average, this team could mash it’s way to a playoff berth.

Tampa Bay Rays- AL East

Out of the previous three teams, this team will have the most difficult time of making it to the playoffs. The Tampa Bay Rays finished the 2016 season at 68-94, 25 games back of first place in the AL East. The AL East is one of the most stacked divisions in baseball, with three out of the five teams making the postseason in 2016. But the Rays have one thing that every team covets; young, good starting pitching. The Rays have one of the deepest and youngest starting rotations in all of baseball, with five starting pitchers logging more than 100 innings pitched, and those same starters averaging 27 years old. With the addition of slugging catcher Wilson Ramos and the resurgence of third baseman Evan Longoria, the Rays will look for their offense to help carry them to the 2017 MLB Postseason.

The MLB season is full of surprises. Players and teams alike will burst onto the national stage, defying expectations. But while players look to their cleats to propel them from base to base, some teams will be looking for more dainty footwear. Maybe a glass slipper?

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How Rob Manfred Can Build on the Game 7 Hype

Game 7 of the World Series between the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians was the most viewed game in the past twenty-five years. The storyline was too good to be true for Rob Manfred, the commissioner of the MLB. The big market Cubs and the beloved Indians were facing the longest World Series droughts in the MLB. Either way, one team was going to break their curse. It was the series that everybody was talking about as the series was unorthodox, but still emotionally gripping. In the end, it was the Cubs that survived victorious.

The hype surrounding the game had even the most casual of sports fans watching. Baseball is a sport often seen as stagnating with the young audience. One of Rob Manfred’s biggest issues is how to help grow a sport often seen as stale and slow. Often referred to as America’s pastime, the game truly does not feel like it has done everything it can to keep up with modern times to help reach an audience that will need to be captivated in order for baseball to flourish over the next couple of decades. This article will provide just a couple things that could be done to help modernize the game.

First off, it is hard for millennials to watch their favorite team play without having to go to a bar. The MLB has been making strides to make the games more accessible for cord-cutters, but truthfully, their efforts have not been enough. MLB.TV was a good first step to providing the entertainment, as $85 to have the ability to watch all or your team’s 162 games is a bargain. Local blackouts, however, hinder the fans who are in their team’s regional TV coverage. For example, if a fan of Cincinnati, Cleveland, or Pittsburgh lives in Columbus, Ohio, they would not be able to watch their team play on MLB.TV due to these blackout rules unless they had a cable subscription (defeating the purpose of buying MLB.TV).

 

 

mlb_blackout_areas

Above is the blackout map for each state. Poor Iowans have up to six teams in their blackout zone, hurting cord cutters in the state. Photo courtesy of wikimedia.

Now, the reason why these blackout rules exist is because cable companies know the only chance to survive the cord cutting trend is to save their sports channels. Of course, their are ways to circumvent the blackout rules through shady means, but truthfully, the casual viewer does not want to go to that length just to watch their local team.  Team owners, Manfred, and cable companies need to come to some agreement to avoid these blackouts. Sadly, this may never be the case, as baseball owners make a ton of money off all these regional sports channel agreements . Oftentimes, these agreements make up a significant portion of the money used to fund the roster of many small market teams. If Manfred is serious about making baseball more appealing to the millennials, he needs to find a way to make baseball more accessible to the fans. He also needs to find a way for an individual to stream their local team.

The second step revolves around a debate that has been surrounding baseball for years now. On one side of the aisle is the viewpoint of baseball as a gentleman’s game, where celebrations are mild and respect is shown by a player to the opposing team. More recently, however, has been a slowly growing movement of players that are not afraid to step out of that zone and celebrate a big hit. Jose Bautista may have received the most venom for his 2015 ALCS Game 6 bat flip, but it is moments like that that resonate with the young fans. Obviously there should be limits to the celebration. I’m not talking about letting a man break dance on home plate after hitting a monster home run, but let the hitter slowly walk out of the box as he hits his moonshot. Maybe, just maybe, let the hitter flip his bat back to his dugout in excitement without being afraid of getting belted by a fastball his next time up to bat.

MLB: Spring Training-Oakland Athletics at Los Angeles Dodgers

Jose Bautista is not the only player with a legitimate bat flip. Yasiel Puig, often mired in controversy, has been flipping bats after home runs ever since he started in the majors. Photo courtesy of cbssports.com

It does not stop with the hitters. Pitchers have their fair share of celebrating already. Fist bumps are very common among relievers and closers who pitch out of a jam. The issue is that pitchers normally go unpunished for celebrating, unlike the hitters who may have to go up later in the game and get hit on purpose for celebrating a little too much. Baseball should be promoting these moments of personality, not letting hitters get crushed by both opposing pitchers and media pundits that are stuck in the “old ways” of baseball. Baseball needs personality out on the field, not robots.

Last, but not least, surrounds the World Baseball Classic. The hype machine needs to start today on getting America prepared for it. A rather new tradition, the WBC is the World Cup of Baseball, which is played every four years. Players should be honored to represent their teams, especially as the sport is strong in not just America, but Asia and the Caribbean as well. Most importantly, however, is that baseball needs the best Americans representing the United States. Manfred then needs to get the WBC accessible to all kinds of fans and not try to make people watch the games on FS1 or other weird channels very few people actually utilize.

The last WBC Team USA squad in 2013 definitely had some recognizable names, featuring a young Giancarlo Stanton, prime Ryan Braun and Adam Jones, and Captain America himself, David Wright. Frankly, the rest of the roster was full of players adored in their personal market and team fandom, but often unrecognized on the bigger stages. Think of an infield of Buster Posey, Paul Goldschmidt, Jose Altuve, Manny Machado, and Kris Bryant. Now couple that infield with an outfield of Giancarlo Stanton, Mike Trout, and Bryce Harper. Not only does that give you one of the best teams truly ever assembled in baseball (better than most fan voted all-star teams even), but also gives plenty of young personalities from many different markets all across the US that can get each area to rally around the team.

The downside of the WBC has always been the fear of overuse on the players before the season starts. An understandable fear, and one faced by many sports who have the same international competition. Injuries are avoided as much as possible, but they are also natural and going to occur regardless of players participating in this tournament, or in just regular spring training. Have MLB promote this as truly a world tournament and get people interested, even if it is 1/10th as popular as the FIFA World Cup, and that momentum could carry over into the regular season.

In the end, baseball is such a different sport for viewers than many of the other popular sports. Football, Hockey, and Basketball are all fast paced and timed. Baseball is both untimed and slower moving, with each pitch taking as long as a football play. Josh Burris outlined here why baseball is a fun sport to watch, as many casual fans experienced this World Series. Making local teams more accessible for cord-cutters in the team’s region would be a valuable first step to let younger fans enjoy the sport. Letting the players exhibit more flair and style into their play can make the game more fun and exciting for a group of fans that spend their time watching vines and memes on the internet daily. Finally, sell the crap out of the World Baseball Classic to not only expose the brand on an international market, but also help casual and new American fans meet the biggest American players on a competitive squad. Rob Manfred has a lot on his plate for the future. Only time will tell how baseball’s popularity will transition from here.

 

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Why Baseball is the Greatest Sport

Baseball has been dying. America’s pastime is not as popular as it once was. Football and Basketball have risen above it because they are faster and “more” exciting sports. The faster pace is definitely true and nobody would argue that. However, baseball is definitely exciting. In fact, baseball is the best sport.

No Clock

In football, basketball, hockey, soccer, and basically every sport, you have a clock. This allows fans to know how much time is left in the game and when they can expect it to be over. With the clock, teams can also manage it to their advantage. Teams with a small lead can kill the clock to help them win.

SCOREBOARD

Photo: ESPN

In baseball, there is no clock. Baseball has innings. Fans and teams have no idea how long a game can last. It could last two and a half hours, or it could last four hours. Baseball does not let a clock dictate how much time is left in a game. As a result, teams can’t kill clock. Baseball teams can’t take the easy way out. They have to play hard all the way through. They can’t let up and take it easy.

All-Star Game

The MLB All-Star game is better than any other All-Star game in sports. The league that wins the MLB’s All-Star game gets to host the World Series. This gives both teams a reason to play hard.

The NFL’s All-Star game, which is the Pro Bowl, is a joke. The best players rarely play. They are worried about getting hurt. The Super Bowl is also the week after, meaning no one from the two best teams in football will be playing.

Last year, the six quarterbacks on the rosters were Russell Wilson, Jameis Winston, Teddy Bridgewater, Eli Manning, Derek Carr, and Tyrod Taylor. Those guys are decent quarterbacks, but they are nowhere near the best in the NFL. Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Cam Newton, and Aaron Rodgers were all absent.

allstar_chicagotribune

Photo: Chicago Tribune

The NBA’s All-Star game is filled with entertainment. There is a lot of exciting offense, but that is mostly because zero defense is played. It just becomes guys shooting wide-open threes and throwing alley-oops from all across the court. The best players play, but it is not a hard fought game and the guys mess around more than anything else.

In the MLB’s All-Star game, the best players play. They play hard and they play to win. Home field advantage for the World Series is on the line. Baseball is also not a violent game and no one is worried about getting injured.

Player Rings

NFL players, quarterbacks specifically, and NBA stars get overrated and underrated based on the amount of championships they have won. Dan Marino is hardly ever talked about as a top 5 all-time quarterback, but John Elway is. Fans say Tom Brady is better than Peyton Manning because he has more Super Bowls. Bill Russell is actually considered an all-time great because he won 11 championships in an era where the NBA was small and slow. Elgin Baylor doesn’t get the credit he deserves because his NBA finals record is 0-8.

Seattle Mariners

Photo: Huffington Post

Championships are team accomplishments, and baseball fans seem to understand that better than any other sports fans. No one thinks less of Ken Griffey Jr. or Tony Gwynn for never winning a ring. Griffey and Gwynn were some of the greatest hitters of all time and they get that credit despite not winning a title. Nobody thinks Yogi Berra is the greatest player of all-time due to the fact he has won more World Series than any other player. In baseball, players put up the numbers and get the credit they deserve.

Team Sport

Baseball is more of a team sport than any other. Lebron James lead the 2007 Cavs to the NBA Finals with his best teammates being Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Daniel Gibson. In basketball, one player can lead a team a long way, even to the championship like Lebron. There is no way they are going to win it all though. That season the Spurs swept the Cavs in the Finals 4-0.

Football is more of a team sport. You need a lot more than one star player to lead a team to the championship. Both the offense and defense need to do well. Tom Brady couldn’t save the Cleveland Browns’ season with how bad their team has been.

unpredictability_espn

Photo: ESPN

In baseball, you don’t really need a superstar to win the World Series. Take a look at the 2010 San Francisco Giants. Buster Posey was their only 300 hitter. No one on their team hit 30 home runs. They didn’t even have a batter get 90 RBI’s. They didn’t have a starting pitcher with an ERA below 3. Tim Lincecum lead the starters in wins with 16.

This Giants team beat the star-powered Texas Rangers. Josh Hamilton was the best hitter in the league with a 359 batting average, 32 home runs, and 100 RBI’s. Vladimir Guerrero hit 300 with 29 home runs and 115 RBI’s. Nelson Cruz joined the team late, but hit 318 with 22 home runs and 78 RBI’s. They had two great starting pitchers in CJ Wilson and Cliff Lee and the hottest closer in the league in Neftali Feliz.

The Giants victory over the Rangers proved that baseball is a team game. Championships are a team accomplishment and every position is important.

Unpredictability

clay_bostonglobe

Photo: Boston Globe

The Giants 2010 World Series proves just how unpredictable baseball can be. Last place teams can beat first place teams in the regular season. The Cubs overcame a 3-1 deficit to win the World Series. The 2004 Boston Red Sox overcame a 3-0 deficit against the Yankees in the ALCS and went on to sweep the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. Clay Buchholz threw a no-hitter in his second career start. Josh Hamilton, Lou Gehrig, and 14 others once hit four home runs in a single game. You never know what is going to happen. No lead is safe in baseball either. Baseball may be low scoring, but it just takes one swing to put one run on the board.

It is difficult to predict the playoff teams in the MLB at the beginning of the season. Almost everyone can predict most of the NBA playoff teams and almost everyone predicted a Cavs/Warriors rematch in the finals. In the NFL, it is also not too difficult to predict playoff teams. In baseball, it is much more challenging. The season is long. Teams can go hot and cold so quickly. There are always teams that breakout.

Playoffs

padres_sportslogos-net

Photo: SportsLogos.net

You won’t see any team below 500 in the MLB playoffs. The worst team to make the playoffs in baseball was the 2005 San Diego Padres, who finished with an 82-80 record. The 1981 Kansas City Royals made it with a 50-53 record in a strike-shortened season and different system. The bottom line is only the best teams in baseball make the playoffs.

Each league now allows five postseason teams. There are three division winners and two wildcards. The NFL allows six teams from each conference and the NBA allows eight. Teams below 500 have also made the playoffs in these leagues. It is fairly common to happen in the NBA. The Carolina Panthers recently won their division with a 7-8-1 record and the Seattle Seahawks won with a 7-9 record. You would never see this in baseball and you should never see it in any sport.

Contracts

In baseball, there are no max-contracts or even a salary cap. Max contracts put a maximum on how much players can make based on their years of experience in the league. Max contracts have allowed the NBA to form the “super team” culture that traditional basketball fans hate because teams don’t have to necessarily break the bank to sign a top free agent. For example, Lebron James could have signed with any team he wanted to in free agency. The offer he received from each team would be essentially the same because each team could only offer him a certain maximum amount of money to come play for their team. Money does not talk in situations like this. Instead, the team’s success and location does.

Giancarlo Stanton recently signed a 13-year contract with the Marlins for $325,000,000. This is the largest in baseball history. Before him, Alex Rodriguez had the richest contract of 10 years for $275,000,000. The free market determined the value of these players and not a max-contract. The free market allows talent to be distributed evenly among baseball teams. It is difficult to build a super team in baseball.

stanton_cbssports

Photo: CBS Sports

The NBA, along with the NFL, has a salary cap. A salary cap puts a limit on the amount a team can spend to put together its roster. The MLB does not have a salary cap. This forces teams to make money so they can afford to buy players. Some people may argue and say it is unfair that only the rich can win. This is not always the case. Big-name free agent signings don’t always work out. The 2016 champion Cubs were 14th in payroll. The 2015 champion Kansas City Royals were 16th. The Dodgers and Yankees, who were the top paying teams in both of those seasons, were no where to be found in the World Series. Spending money can make a roster look good on paper, but it does not always guarantee success.

Some fans will say that a salary cap is necessary because it will keep competitive balance. Well, lets look at the NBA as an example. Since the NBA implemented the salary cap for the 1984-85 season, only ten different teams have won the NBA Finals. That is just ten teams in 32 years. Three of those teams, the Cavaliers, Warriors, and Mavericks, have only won the Finals once. Then there are teams like the Lakers, who have won eight. The Bulls have won six. The Spurs have won five. If you are going to make the competitive balance argument, the NBA is not the league to look at. 

Baseball, which does not have a salary cap, has had a much more even spread of world champions. Since 1985 (the same year the NBA added their salary cap), 18 different teams have been crowned world champs. Compare that to the 10 in the NBA. Only eight of those teams have won more than once. The MLB proves that a salary cap does not bring competitive balance.

 

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Miami Suffers Critical Injuries to Stanton, Conley

The Marlins race for the postseason just got significantly tougher, as they will be making it without right fielder, Giancarlo Stanton. Stanton left Saturday’s game against the Chicago White Sox with a groin injury, and will miss the rest of the season. Stanton hit .244 with a team-leading 25 home runs and 70 RBIs in 103 games played this year. He’d been on the upswing, however, after a rough May and June. He’d hit 12 homers and driven in 38 RBIs in his last 41 games, and taken over as the Marlins top run producer during Marcell Ozuna’s slump.

Stanton will be missed at the plate, suffering his second major injury in as many years, but I don’t think losing him knocks Miami out of playoff contention entirely. While they will be missing Stanton’s power at the plate, his replacement, Ichiro Suzuki still offers plenty of Big League experience, and has looked solid at the plate this year, despite being 42 years old. Suzuki knocked his 3,000th Major League hit against the Rockies last Sunday, and has since passed Roberto Clemente on the career hits list. Ichiro doesn’t have the same stamina that he did when he entered the League 15 years ago, however, and won’t be able to start every game. Luckily, Marlins third baseman Martin Prado has over 200 career games of outfield experience, according to ESPN’s David Schoenfield. So, Prado can fill in at outfield and third base can be picked up by Derek Dietrich, who has been a bench player since Dee Gordon’s return from suspension.

While the offense has looked decent in some categories, ranking third in the MLB in batting average and sixth in OBP, it has struggled to bring home runs, averaging 4.28 runs-per-game (21st in the MLB). The team has seen different guys take on the bulk of the run production this season, with Marcell Ozuna leading the team into the All-Star Break, and Stanton taking over during Ozuna’s slump afterwards. Christian Yelich looks to be taking up the mantle now, batting .320 in his last 30 games with 5 homers and 23 RBIs. He’s currently second on the team with 67 RBIS this year.

There have also been rumors that this injury opens up doorways for Alex Rodriguez, who Miami is reportedly interested in pursuing. A-Rod played his last game in New York on Friday, but he never said he was retiring. If Rodriguez is interested, Miami may be too good of a story for him to pass up. He’d come to a team that’s in contention for a playoff spot, and have a chance to hit his 700th career homer (he currently has 696) in his hometown. He would probably share time with current first baseman, Chris Johnson, since there’s no reason to take out Martin Prado, who leads the team in BA at .320. Rodriguez has been flexible with his defensive position in the past, transitioning to third base when joining the Yankees, and Johnson is hitting just .227 with four homers and 19 RBIs this year.

Adam Conley has shown vast improvement over the past months, but now finds himself on the 15-day DL with finger tendinitis. Photo courtesy of fishstripes.com

No matter what happens on the offensive side of things, the Marlins also have to find a way to cope with the loss of Adam Conley, who is on the 15-day DL with finger tendinitis. While his injury may not remove him for the rest of 2016, the Marlins will have to find a way to survive with already slim pickings on the rotation after Jose Fernandez. Conley had a red hot July, posting a 3-0 record and a 1.82 ERA in five starts. In August, he’s struggled, mainly due to the tendinitis, which was reported as hand soreness over his past three starts.

The Marlins rotation has been their weaker spot in 2016, even with the acquisition of Andrew Cashner at the trade deadline, but Conley had shown remarkable improvement over the course of this year. Hopefully, this injury is just a bump in the road for Conley, and doesn’t hinder his long-term growth as a pitcher. In the meantime, the rest of Miami’s rotation will have to step up, because Jose Fernandez can only pitch so many games between now and the end of the regular season.

 

 

 

Information from ESPN.com was used in this report.

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NL East Weekly: 6/20-6/26

Remember that lead I said the Nationals could grow last week? That’s gone now, and the NL East is once again a tight race through the top three spots. Washington saw its divisional lead shrink to just three games over the course of last week, on the back of some light offensive production and mediocre pitching performances. It gets worse for Washington, too, as they saw one of their best arms in Stephen Strasburg end up on the DL for the first time in 2016.

Meanwhile the Mets and Marlins were able to take advantage of the Nats’ off week, with the Marlins taking three games out of four from the World Series favorite, the Cubs. The Marlins bats have been heating up at the right time, and I honestly they might be the contenders atop the NL East at the All-Star break.

Meanwhile the Braves continue to make the Mets’ life difficult, splitting the four game series vs. New York this week, making them 5-2 in their last seven meetings. Then there’s the Phillies, who continue to make their own life difficult, dropping two of three to the Twins, despite actually putting up a decent number of runs throughout the week.

This division just continues to get more difficult to predict as we near the home stretch of the first half of the 2016 season. Injuries, massive slumps, and Minor/Major League reassignments continue to play a factor in a division that struggles with consistency in the first place. Now we’ll take a closer look at the (once again) tight NL East.

1. Washington Nationals (44-32)

The Nationals had arguably their worst week of baseball last week, winning just one of their six games. As if this wasn’t hard enough for the Nats and their fans to swallow, throw in Stephen Strasburg ending up on the DL with an upper-back strain and you’ve got a living nightmare for Washington.

Last week the only guy who was giving Washington hope was Wilson Ramos, who continues to have a phenomenal year at the plate. Ramos hit .409, hitting a homer and driving in three RBIs. Ramos spilled the beans on his success a few weeks ago, telling ESPN that he had Lasik surgery in the offseason. I’m just saying, if Lasik can take a guy who hit .229 last year and turn him into a .342 hitter, I think Ramos should introduce the rest of his team to his surgeon, because some of them need it currently. The two that need it most are the current guys splitting time in center field, Michael Taylor and Ben Revere. Taylor hit .143 while Revere hit just .111 last week, with Taylor only coming around to score once (which was still more than Revere). When your two players who are supposed to be splitting time at the leadoff position are going a combined .125, your offense is going to struggle.

Even if Taylor and Revere were able to get on base, it’s hard to tell if the middle of this order could even bring them home. Daniel Murphy is by far the most consistent hitter here, but even he’s fallen from grace as of late, hitting .254 in his last 15 games, causing his average to drop from .376 to .349. He still leads the team in RBIs, driving in two more last week to give him a season total of 48. I’m sure Bryce Harper was wishing he could complain about his batting average “only” being .349 this year, as he continues to battle a mid-season slump. Harper did hit a solo homer last week, but otherwise hit just .214 on the week and is now batting .236 in his past 30 games.

Last week was not a good week to be a Nationals pitcher, because they were all getting hurt or suffering losses, with Tanner Roark being the sole arm with a W last week. Roark looked solid in both of his outings, giving up three runs in 7.1 innings against the Dodgers on Tuesday, before shutting out the Brewers through seven to secure Washington’s only victory on the week. Joe Ross turned in a quality 6.1 innings of two run ball against the Dodgers on Wednesday, but aside from that it was fairly ugly for the Nats’ staff. Max Scherzer and Gio Gonzalez both had rough times, with Scherzer allowing five runs in six innings against Milwaukee on Friday and Gonzalez lasting just three innings and surrendering six runs on Saturday. If Gonzalez keeps up this pace, he’s 0-4 in five starts this month, don’t be surprised to see him being optioned to Minor League ball to find his stuff again soon.

It wasn’t a much better time for the Nats bullpen. Yusmeiro Petit was moved up to fill in for Stephen Strasburg with a start against the Dodgers on Monday. It was a tall task for Petit, facing off against LA ace Clayton Kershaw, but he didn’t do poorly by any stretch of the mind, giving up three runs in six innings, but ultimately took the loss. Interim closer Shawn Kelly blew a save opportunity in game three of the Dodgers series and also took a loss because of it, but was able to convert his second opportunity of the week against Milwaukee on Sunday.

The Nationals start up another key three-game series against the Mets this week, looking to re-extend their now three game divisional lead. They then remain at home to play the Cincinnati Reds in a four game bout beginning Thursday.

2. New York Mets (40-34) 3 GB

The Mets started off the week well, sweeping their World Series rivals from 2015 two games to none. Then they headed to Atlanta, looking to exact revenge for the sweep dealt to them the weekend prior. They didn’t exactly do that, but they were able to at least take a couple of games this time around.

James Loney has quietly produced in the absence of Lucas Duda. Photo courtesy of nj.com

Yoenis Cespedes suffered some slight left wrist discomfort in the middle of the week. Mercifully for the Mets, this discomfort only cost him one start, but we’ll see if the issue persists throughout the year, or alters his plate approach. Cespedes went 3-for-13 in three games following Thursday’s missed start, driving in one RBI. He was 4-for-6 in the two games prior, against the Royals, hitting a solo homer in Tuesday’s win. James Loney remains a consistent bat in place of Lucas Duda, hitting .364 with a homer and four RBIs last week. Meanwhile Travis D’Arnaud, who returned from the DL on Tuesday, recorded just two hits last week, but still turned in quality ABs, notching three RBIs. Hopefully, D’Arnaud is able to turn his season around, as he was hitting just .196 before heading to the DL in April. The three RBIs are a good start, however, as he had just one before his injury.

The Mets also executed some high profile transactions last week, involving outfielder Michael Conforto, along with former (and now current) Met Jose Reyes. Conforto was optioned to triple-A Las Vegas on Saturday, recalling Brandon Nimmo, who went 0-for-4 in his debut on Sunday. Prior to Sunday, Nimmo had no previous MLB at-bats; but the Mets felt that Conforto, who was hitting .135 in his last 30 games, wasn’t producing at the level the Mets needed him to, and needed time to re-focus with Las Vegas. Meanwhile Reyes made his debut with the single-A Brooklyn Cyclones at third base on Sunday. Reyes has no significant experience at the position, but wouldn’t be the first shortstop to convert to the hot corner. Current third baseman, Wilmer Flores, is batting .240 with three homers, 12 RBIs, and a steal on the year. Reyes’ most valuable attribute would be his speed, as Sandy Alderson wants to use him as a leadoff man. This allows the Mets to move Curtis Granderson out of the top spot and put him somewhere where his power can drive in more runs. It also means the Mets should be able to manufacture more runs with speed; their current top base stealer is David Wright (the same on who has been on the DL for a month) with three steals this year.

On the mound, Steven Matz continues to struggle while Jacob deGrom continues to operate with little to no run support. Matz lasted just 4.1 innings and surrendered six runs against the Braves on Friday. He’s now 0-2 in June, with a 5.91 ERA; he was 4-0 with a 1.31 ERA last month. Let’s not forget that the Mets didn’t option starter Matt Harvey when he was struggling earlier this year, so they’ll handle Matz the same way, and let him work out his problems on his own. Meanwhile, deGrom turned in a gem with eight shutout innings against the Braves, but didn’t factor in the decision due to a lack of offense. DeGrom hasn’t looked horrible this year, but certainly appeared to be on a lower level than he was in 2015. Hopefully this start is a sign of good things to come from the Mets starter, who hasn’t won a start since April 30th. Closer Jeurys Familia continues to be a rock when given the opportunity, converting all four of his save opportunities this week. He now leads the MLB with 26 saves.

The Mets play some of their most critical games of the year before the All-Star break. They begin this stretch on Monday, with a three game series in Washington. They then host the Cubs for four games at Citi Field.

3. Miami Marlins (41-35) 3 GB

The Marlins are picking up speed in the division, splitting a two-game set with the Braves before taking a four game series against arguably the best team in baseball, the Chicago Cubs. This week finally saw the power trio of Ozuna, Stanton, and Bour all produce this week, and shows just how scary this lineup is when all three of them are on.

Justin Bour cranked three homers and drove in nine runs last week. Photo courtesy of foxsports.com

Marcell Ozuna has been the most consistent of Miami’s big three this year. Ozuna hit .333 and belted three solo homers last week. Justin Bour also had a killer week at the plate, also smoking three home runs en route to a nine RBI week. Bour has really begun to turn it on in the past couple of weeks, batting .372 with five homers and recording 17 RBIs. Giancarlo Stanton has had the roughest 2016 out of Miami’s big three, but looked to get things back on track last week. He hit his first two homers of the month last week, and drove in six RBIs.

Adam Conley had another good outing on the mound last week, this time looking much more in control of his pitches. Conley, who had five walks in 5.2 innings against the Rockies a couple of weeks ago, walked just one man, and shut the Braves out through eight innings of work on Wednesday. Conley has been the best starter not named Jose Fernandez for the Marlins this year, and if he’s able to continue developing and maintaining control of his pitches on the mound, the Marlins staff may not look like as much of a hindrance as it did in the first two months of the season.

Speaking of Jose Fernandez: he had not one, but two masterful outings, despite only picking up one win last week. He went seven innings in starts against both the Braves and the Cubs. He allowed one hit and no runs against Atlanta, then struck out 13 and allowed just one run against the Cubs on Sunday.

Starter Paul Clemens, who replaced Justin Nicolino in the rotation this week, made his first two appearances of 2016 last week. While neither performance was jaw-dropping, he was able to pick up the win on Saturday against the Cubs. The offense won’t be able to bail him out of every start, however, as his 6.30 ERA last week was offset by Miami’s average of nine runs per game in his starts. Still, as a whole this rotation seems to be getting better, and if the Marlins are able to snag a quality starter before the trade deadline, they could make some serious noise in the playoff picture this year.

The Marlins play two games in Detroit beginning Tuesday before heading to Atlanta for four games.

4. Philadelphia Phillies (32-45) 12.5 GB

The Phillies actually saw their bats come together and create some runs last week, after an abysmal showing in weeks prior. Unfortunately, the Phils arms continue to struggle, causing Philadelphia to pick up just a couple of wins last week.

Freddy Galvis led the way in the RBI category, notching seven last week. Galvis is looking to get back on the right foot, hitting .280 last week after hitting just .083 the week prior. Tommy Joseph also had a rough go of things a couple weeks ago, but was able to knock a homer and bring in three RBIs last week. Cameron Rupp slugged three home runs last week and had four RBIs.

Peter Bourjos and Cody Asche had the most consistent weeks at the plate last week, both hitting above .400. Bourjos hit .478 with a homer and four RBIs, while Asche hit .400 with a pair of runs driven in. The Phillies had an uncharacteristically good week at the plate overall, but just haven’t been able to put the offense and pitching together most nights, causing them to drop more and more games.

The pitching has been the primary concern as of late in Philly. After carrying the team through the first 41 games, the last 36 have been rough. Aaron Nola continues to slump on the mound, allowing 13 runs in his two starts last week. Seven of those runs came in three innings against the Twins, handing Nola his seventh loss of 2016. Nola has had a disastrous June, going 1-3 with a 10.42 ERA in contrast to a 3-2 May with a 2.31 ERA.

Jeremy Hellickson also had two starts last week, but neither were quite as bad as Nola’s. Hellickson picked up his first win of June on Saturday against the Giants, but also took the loss in Monday’s start against the D-Backs after allowing three runs in seven innings of work.

Jerad Eickhoff remains the one bastion of hope in this current Phils rotation, getting the win after tossing six innings of two-run ball against the Twins on Thursday. Eickhoff is 3-2 in June, with a 2.01 ERA and hasn’t allowed more than three runs in a start since May 28th.

The Phillies play three games in Arizona before returning home for a three game series against the Royals over the weekend.

5. Atlanta Braves (26-49) 17.5 GB

This season hasn’t been great for the Braves and their fans, but honestly, they’ve looked a lot better in June than they did in May or April. The Braves have actually looked competitive the past couple of weeks, splitting both series last week against two of the top teams in the division.

Adonis Garcia only recorded three hits last week in 17 at-bats. But two of those hits were big home runs against the Mets, one of them being the game winner off of Addison Reed in the eighth inning on Thursday. It’s hard to see where exactly Garcia fits in this Braves team, he’s a decent bat with some good pop, but he isn’t one of the several young guys that the Braves are relying on to build the franchise over the next couple of years. Still, he remains to be a decent bat, and may continue to prove a valuable asset to Atlanta. Another older guy who has been getting things done at the plate recently is Nick Markakis. He hit .417 last week and came around to score four times, as well as notching his team-leading 40th RBI. He, like Garcia, is still proving to be a valuable asset, despite not being as young as the majority of this Braves roster.

Of course, Atlanta’ s most valuable asset continues to be Freddie Freeman, who hit his 13th homer of the year last week, and drove in two runs. Along with Freeman, Jace Peterson hit .308 with a homer and three RBIs last week. The Braves are starting to show a solid mix of older and younger guys both producing, as this offense continues to trend in the right direction, despite its poor start to the year.

On the mound, Julio Teheran continues to lead the way for these Braves arms. He tossed another scoreless gem through eight innings against the Mets on Saturday. Teheran’s June looked very similar to May: hosting a record that doesn’t reflect how good he’s pitched. He’s gone just 2-2 over his five starts this month, but has posted a 1.91 ERA, struck out 37 batters, and surrendered just eight runs in total. I still think Teheran has the biggest chance of ending up in another jersey this year, as the trade deadline approaches.

Aside from Teheran, this staff still needs some work. But Bud Norris has looked a lot better since returning from the bullpen earlier this month. He’s picked up a couple of wins and is 2-1 with a 2.08 ERA in six appearances, five of them starts, this month. Norris made two starts last week, including seven shutout innings vs. the Mets on Sunday.

The remaining young arms continue to struggle. Matt Wisler had some control issues on Thursday against the Mets, walking four men in 6.2 innings. John Gant didn’t walk a man in his 5.2 innings, but surrendered three runs in his loss against the Marlins on Wednesday. Aaron Blair failed to make it five innings against the Mets on Friday, giving up eight runs on seven hits through 4.1 innings of work. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Braves continued to ferry guys throughout the organization until they have a suitable fifth-slot starter. Gant and Wisler have shown some potential this year, but Blair may just need more time and confidence with triple-A Gwinnett.

The Braves play seven games at home this week, starting with three against the Marlins. They then host the red hot Indians for four games.

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NL East Weekly: 6/13-6/19

Another week went by in the East, and it was another week full of surprises, fantastic pitching outings, and Braves win streaks. Alright, the last one is the first time that’s happened, but the Braves season-high five game win streak came at the expense of a divisional rival with a lot more to lose, the New York Mets. The Mets have struggled in back-to-back weeks now, and have dropped into third place in the East for the first time since April.

Meanwhile the Marlins find themselves in second place for the first time in what feels like forever. The Marlins look to complete a four-game sweep of the Rockies tonight that would make them winners of six of their last seven games. The Marlins still have some work to do chasing Washington, who is currently 5.5 games ahead of them, but the Marlins seem to be putting things together, while New York continues to sputter.

And while the Mets may be sputtering, the Phillies are in absolute free fall at this point. They have won just one of their last 11 games, the last five of which have come at home. While a fall from the near-top was to be expected, the dramatic and sudden fashion in which it happened has really taken the wind out of the team’s and fans’ sails.

Then there’s the Nats, who were able to get their revenge on the Cubs for the four-game sweep that was handed to them earlier in the year. Max Scherzer, in particular, had to exact his toll on a Cubs offense that drilled in seven runs off of him in his first outing against the team, and had a perfect game going for over five innings. While they fell short in the final two days against the Padres, the week was still a net positive for Washington, who maintained the comfortable gap between them and second place.

1. Washington Nationals (43-27)

The Nats continued their pursuit of 50 wins last week, and dashed the Cubs hopes of doing so by taking the series against Chicago. After being swept in four games against the Cubs earlier in the year, it was reassuring to see that Nationals bats and arms are plenty capable to contend with the MLB’s best. While Daniel Murphy’s batting average may be falling back down to Earth, he and his team’s run production continues to be an encouraging sign. Murphy, Anthony Rendon, and Bryce Harper all drove in four men apiece last week. Harper was able to get a couple of RBIs on a two-run homer against the Padres on Thursday, his first in 52 at-bats, an encouraging sign for Nats fans. While Harper hasn’t been the machine he was in 2015, or in April of this year he has begun to turn things around, hitting .291 with a homer and eight RBIs in his last 15 games.

Wilson Ramos continues to make his case for the best hitting catcher this season. He has the highest batting average and RBI total of any qualified player at the position, and is second in the MLB among catchers, with 11 homers this year. The guy looks like a shoo-in for the All-Star game at this rate. Michael Taylor continues to make is difficult for Dusty Baker to take him out of the lineup, belting two homers on Sunday against the Padres. Taylor also swiped three bags last week; and while he will continue to swap time with Ben Revere in center, if he continues to produce like this he may see more playtime come his way.

On the mound for the Nats, Max Scherzer continues to dial up the Ks, with 11 against the Cubs and ten against the Padres in two starts last week. He now has 128 strikeouts on the year, second in the MLB behind only Clayton Kershaw. Stephen Strasburg is right behind him, tied for third in the MLB in Ks with 118. Strasburg went seven innings of one run ball against the Cubs on Wednesday, but did not factor in the decision. Strasburg remains one of just two unbeaten starters in the MLB with at least 14 starts. Tanner Roark and Joe Ross both lasted six innings in winning efforts against the Padres on Thursday and Friday, while Gio Gonzalez continues to struggle. Gonzalez has now lost five of his last six starts, and hasn’t won a game since May 18. The bullpen also looks for a suitable replacement for Jonathan Papelbon, who is on the DL for the first time in his career. Shawn Kelly was two-for-two in converting saves, while Yusmeiro Petit was one-for-one. Felipe Rivero and Oliver Perez were also given save opportunities, but both were unable to close the game out, and Rivero ended up shouldering a loss.

The Nats stay on the road with three games in LA against the Dodgers before a three game set against the Brewers over the weekend.

2. Miami Marlins (37-32) 5.5 GB

The Marlins have continued their slow climb up the NL East ladder. From fourth in April to second in June, the Marlins have been the beneficiaries of some of the better hitting in the division. J.T. Realmuto and Christian Yelich led the way for Miami this week, with six RBIs apiece. Yelich seems to be taking a San Francisco Giant approach to batting, turning in big numbers every other week.

Giancarlo Stanton, while only driving in two RBIs, finally started seeing the ball again amidst a horrible slump, batting .438 last week. Justin Bour, now swapping time with Chris Johnson at first base, made the most of his now limited ABs, driving in four runs and batting .538. Derek Dietrich returned to the lineup, after missing time with a bone bruise on his foot sustained Monday, and put up a quality .412 average on the week. Dietrich has been a magnet for baseballs this year, but has continued to miraculously avoid any major injuries. Marcell Ozuna and Martin Prado both had four RBIs and a big fly last week, with Ozuna’s three-run shot being the only runs in Sunday’s 3-0 win over the Rockies.

Tom Koehler was effectively wild on Sunday, shutting out the Mets through six innings despite walking six batters. Photo courtesy of foxsports.com

Tom Koehler went 2-0 on the mound for Miami this week, despite walking six batters in Sunday’s win. Koehler, after a 1-3 May, is 3-1 to start June, with Sunday’s start being the only start where he walked multiple hitters. Despite the control issues, Koehler turned in a scoreless six innings, and allowed just two runs in Tuesday’s win against the Padres. Adam Conley also struggled with control in an otherwise good outing. Conley surrendered just one hit, a solo homer, on Friday against the Rockies, but walked five men over 5.2 innings.

Jose Fernandez saw his start skipped this week. Manager Don Mattingly says the skip was just a part of Miami’s plan for Fernandez this year, and this will not be the only time it happens this year. Wei-Yin Chen was the other arm who had to make multiple starts for Miami this week due to Fernandez being skipped. Chen continues to struggle a decent bit, he surrendered four runs in six innings against the Padres on Monday before getting shelled on Saturday against the Rockies, lasting just 2.1 innings and surrendering six runs. Despite a couple of poor outings, Chen went 1-0 on the week. Justin Nicolino again struggled last week, and has been optioned to triple-A. Paul Clemens was brought up to replace Nicolino, who is 2-4 with a 5.17 ERA in ten starts. He’s 0-4 with a 6.44 ERA in his last seven outings.

Miami is home all week this week. They finish up their series against the Rockies tonight, looking for the sweep. The Braves then come to town for two games, before the Cubs arrive for a four-game set, beginning on Thursday.

3. New York Mets (36-32) 6 GB

The Mets continue to struggle to find their form in June, getting swept by the Braves over the weekend. While manager Terry Collins says he isn’t concerned with the current gap between New York and Washington in the division, I think the Mets definitely want to nip whatever this current issue is in the bud before things get too out of hand as the All-Star break approaches.

The Mets must have used up all of their runs for the week in Wednesday’s 11-2 win against the Pirates. They scored just ten runs in the other five games, being shutout in two of them. Wilmer Flores drove in five of those 21 runs last week with a couple of homers. Yoenis Cespedes also had a homer and totaled three RBIs on the week, just like teammate Neil Walker. James Loney continues to get on base, with a .333 average, but the Mets still have to be missing Lucas Duda’s pop and run production at the plate: Loney had just a lone RBI.

Noah Syndergaard and Bartolo Colon were the only starters to pick up wins this week. Syndergaard fanned 11 men in 8.1 innings on Wednesday, while Colon lasted a surprising 7.2 innings and only surrendered two runs. Colon may have just 56 strikeouts in 13 starts, but the 42 year old is still 6-3 on the year and continues to stick it to Father Time in the most entertaining of fashions.

Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom continued to struggle this year. DeGrom lasted six innings in both outings, and turned in a quality start against the Pirates, giving up just two runs and striking out nine, but took the loss in both appearances. He surrendered four runs in six innings on Sunday against Atlanta. Harvey, after inspiring some hope with his previous starts, gave up four runs in six innings on Friday against the Braves. He’s now 0-2 in June, but his last start was the first this month where he had surrendered multiple runs.

The Mets host the second two-game set of the World Series rematch against the Royals on Tuesday and Wednesday, before looking to get some payback in Atlanta, with a four game series starting on Thursday.

4. Philadelphia Phillies (30-40) 13 GB

The Phillies continued their downward spiral, having now lost six straight. While the lack of offense continues to stand out, the pitching has also looked a lot more worrisome as of late. The Phils never managed more than three runs after beating the Blue Jays 7-0 in the series opener on Monday.

Odubel Herrera drove in three of those runs on Monday, along with a couple more throughout the week to lead the team with five RBIs last week. No other Philly hitter managed more than two RBIs on the week. A couple of guys who had performed in weeks past had abysmal times at the plate last week; Tommy Joseph and Freddy Galvis combined for just one hit. Cody Asche and Cesar Hernandez both had a homer and a couple of RBIs on the week, but the Phillies bats as a whole were as silent last week as they have been all season.

On the mound is where things have really turned sour for Phildelphia in recent weeks. The same squad that had the Phillies sitting above .500 in May yielded 50 runs in seven games last week. Jerad Eickhoff was responsible for holding a very potent Jays offense to no runs over six innings on Monday, but that’s where the good news ends. Eickhoff didn’t do so well in his second start on the week, giving up three runs on nine hits in 5.2 against the D-Backs on Saturday. Zach Eflin made his first two professional starts last week, neither of which will be memorable in the way he would have liked them to be. Eflin gave up eight runs in just 2.2 innings against the Jays on Tuesday. Although he had a more reasonable 5.2 innings of two run ball against the Diamondbacks on Sunday, he ultimately took the loss in that performance as well.

Jeremy Hellickson also pitched a losing effort last week, and even Aaron Nola, who had been the Phils beacon of consistency in May, had a very poor June continue in his last start. Hellickson managed to last six innings, giving up four runs to Toronto on Wednesday. Nola lasted just three innings and gave up six runs. He’s now lasted just 6.2 innings and given up ten earned runs in his past two starts, after starting June off with a shutout against the Brewers.

The Phillies finish off their series at home against the Diamondbacks on Monday, before heading to Minnesota for a three game series starting Tuesday. They then head further west for three games against the Giants over the weekend.

5. Atlanta Braves (23-46) 19.5 GB

Freddie Freeman hit for the cycle against the Reds last week. Photo courtesy of espn.com

In some sort of upside-down universe, the Braves go undefeated this year. We’re not in that one, but it definitely feels strange to see Atlanta currently holding the division’s current longest win streak, having won their last five games. I guess that just goes to show what can happen when your franchise player has, arguably, the best week of any batter in the NL. Freddie Freeman hit .538, homered twice, drove in five runs, stole a base, and hit for the cycle against the Reds last week. It doesn’t matter that the game went into extras, getting four hits in a Big League game is a feat within itself, especially with the pitching talent prevalent in the MLB.

Nick Markakis also drove in five runs last week, including one on a solo homer: just his second bomb of the season. Erick Aybar and Jace Peterson had three RBIs apiece, Peterson also stole a base while hitting .286 on the week.

On a more somber note for Braves fans, rookie outfield talent Mallex Smith wound up with a broken thumb over the weekend, when he was hit by an Antonio Bastardo pitch. He will be further evalutated on Monday, but all time he loses hurts the Braves. Smith is hitting .237 this year, and while he hasn’t homered since his two home run game against the Pirates on May 17, he still has 21 RBIs and leads the team with 14 stolen bases this year. The Braves second-place base stealer, Ender Inciarte had a couple of swiped bags last week. His season total now sits at five on the year.

The Braves performances on the mound this week were highlighted by a Julio Teheran gem on Sunday against the Mets. Teheran took the loss earlier in the week, going six innings against the Reds and giving up three runs. But he went the full nine on Sunday against a struggling Mets offense, and gave up just one hit. Teheran became the first Braves pitcher to allow one hit or less in a road start since Kent Mercker in 1994, when he no-hit the Dodgers.

Matt Wisler rebounded from a series of unfortunate outings to nab his first win in his last five starts. Wisler held the Reds to a pair of runs over 6.2 innings on Thursday, despite Cincy scattering in eight hits on him. Rookie start John Gant picked up his first Major League win last week, as well, holding the Mets to one run in 6.2 innings on Friday. Aaron Blair and Bud Norris didn’t have great starts, but benefited from the Braves outpouring of offense last week to wind up with no decisions.

The Braves head to Miami for a two-game series beginning on Tuesday before heading home for a four game series against the Mets. They have the potential to help the Nats and Marlins further bury the struggling Mets, already having swept the Mets this past weekend.

 

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NL East Weekly: 5/16-5/22

For the first time in two weeks, there was no lead change in the NL East. The Nationals remain atop the division. They didn’t gain too much headway in the division, as every team won at least three games last week, aside from Miami.

One of the bigger news stories from the East last week was the Braves firing manager Fredi Gonzalez. The move was inevitable with the way the Braves had been playing, and with the plans have for the future, but it’s always hard to gauge exactly when a manager is going to bite the dust. The Braves did win their second series on the year, their first since April 17th, under interim manager Brian Snitker against the Phillies over the weekend. While I doubt there was a whole lot of correlation between the two events, it is good to see the Braves young pitching is starting to show more life.

Jose Fernandez ended up in handcuffs last week. That’s right, the young Marlins ace stole the keys to Phillie Phanatic’s ATV prior to Wednesday’s game, and ended up being cuffed by the Phanatic and led back to the Miami dugout. One thing’s for certain, guys need to stop messing with the Phanatic’s ATV. Another guy in Miami that may as well be batting with handcuffs on is Giancarlo Stanton. Stanton recorded just one hit in 21 at-bats last week, striking out 17 times. Stanton became just the second batter in the modern era to strike out 15 times over a five game span, and the first position player to do so.

I guess the bright side (if you’re one of those optimists who absolutely has to find one) was that Stanton’s one hit came off of Nats ace Max Scherzer, who has looked extremely dominant in his last three starts, combining for 38 strikeouts over that time. Scherzer wasn’t the only one looking dominant on the mound for Washington, as the entire bullpen combined to post a 0.00 ERA last week. Any fans would be ecstatic to see those kind of numbers put up by their bullpen, Nats fans particularly so, given how the bullpen has been one of their sore spots over the past years.

Since we’re already on the topic of the Nats, let’s dive a bit deeper into them as we take a closer look at how the NL East teams fared last week.

1. Washington Nationals 27-17 

Max Scherzer was great, the bullpen was great, and the offense also looked very strong for Washington last week. The Nationals outscored their opponents 30-8 over sox games last week, whose offensive production compared to the rest of the division is why they’re still my favorites in the East (injuries not withstanding). The Nationals bats were hot last week, and they’re continuing to show that they aren’t a one-man Bryce Harper show like some were claiming them to be in April. While Harper continues to pile up the walks, Wilson Ramos continues to drive in runs, totaling six RBI on the week. Ramos is having a standout season through the first two months, and while there’s still a long way to go, Ramos is on the way to having a career year if he continues producing at this rate. The career .264 hitter is almost .100 points higher in 2016, hitting .347.

Anthony Rendon led the team in hitting last week, batting an even .500 and bringing in seven runs in six games. Coming into the year, the biggest problem concerning Rendon was his health, after missing extended time in 2015. Weeks like this show why: it’s obvious that Rendon has the tools necessary to provide in this Nationals lineup if he can stay healthy. A guy who has already spent time on the DL in 2016, Ben Revere, is beginning to turn into the weapon Dusty Baker wanted him to be before his injury. He stole his first two bases and drove in four runs last week. Revere has still been recovering from an oblique injury suffered on Opening Day, but this week’s performance looked reassuring as he looks to return to full form as the Nats leadoff man.

While Max Scherzer struck out 18 men in his two outings last week, he still took the loss in a 2-0 pitcher’s duel against Noah Syndergaard and the Mets on Tuesday. Scherzer allowed just four runs over two starts, with all of them coming off of homers. Solo shots by Curtis Granderson and the hot hitting Michael Conforto were enough to down the Nats, who couldn’t get anything going against Noah Syndergaard. The offense made it up to him on Sunday, however, giving him eight runs of support against the Marlins in the rubber match of that series.

Another guy who (finally) found success vs. Miami was Tanner Roark. Roark was 0-3 against Miami before Friday’s start in which he went 6.2 innings and allowed just one run. Gio Gonzalez continues to fly under the radar on the mound for the Nats. While he is just 3-1 in eight starts, Gonzalez has struck out 40 men in 48.1 innings and posted an impressive 1.86 ERA. Gonzalez picked up his third win in a strong 6.1 inning, one run start against the Mets on Wednesday.

The bullpen deserves a lot of credit on the mound this week as well. Seven men combined for zero earned runs allowed in 13 innings of work last week. Jonathan Papelbon had been looking more suspect than Nats fans had hoped in the past weeks, but he was able to convert his only save opportunity flawlessly on Thursday.

The Nationals are at home all week, with three games against New York before a four game set against the Cards beginning on Thursday.

2. New York Mets (25-18) 1.5 GB

While Noah Syndergaard was able to out-duel Max Scherzer on Tuesday, the rest of the Mets arms were overwhelmed by Washington’s offense in games two and three of the series. The Mets were able to rebound, however, with a sweep of the Brewers over the weekend to keep things interesting in the East.

The Mets offense, while still producing with the long ball, looked much more dormant last week compared to weeks prior. Obviously, the Mets strong pitching staff can make up for some lack of offense, but Syndergaard cannot pitch every game, and even if he did he can’t be expected to put up double-digit strikeouts and give up two runs or less in every start. While Michael Conforto has been fantastic for the Mets offense in recent weeks, belting some balls that still haven’t landed, the Mets appear to have lost first baseman Lucas Duda right before a key series against the Nats. Duda currently has seven homers and 19 RBI on the season, but had to see a doctor on Sunday in regards to an ailing back.

Curtis Granderson is still in the midst of a May slump, hitting just .151 with an OBP of .235. While he did hit two more home runs last week, Granderson is going to need to find himself on base more frequently, and provide opportunities for the men behind him to bring him in. Yoenis Cespedes has proven himself more than capable of doing so. While he didn’t homer last week, his 3 RBI increased his season total to 35, which leads the National League. If Granderson is able to get on base more often, Michael Conforto can begin turning those solo shots into multi-run homers, which can both solidify leads and spark comebacks.

When you look at the Mets’ starting pitcher performances this week, we’re reminded that everybody is human. Except Noah Syndergaard, who is making a very strong case for actually being a demigod. He posted 21 Ks in two scoreless outings, improving his season line to 5-2 with a 1.94 ERA and 76 strikeouts. Thor doesn’t even have the best record on the Mets staff, however. That honor belongs to Steven Matz, who is now 6-1 in seven starts (6-0 in his last six). While he isn’t striking out as many guys as Syndergaard, he’s been just as productive on the hill.

The surprising troubles for the Mets have come from their one and two spots in the rotation, Jacob deGrom and Matt Harvey, both of which were hit well in their appearances last week. Harvey lasted just 2.2 innings against the Nationals. Harvey threw a simulated game at Citi Field Saturday in hopes he can work his way out of the worst slump of his young career. He’ll get a shot at redemption against the Nats on Tuesday. DeGrom didn’t suffer a loss in his five innings against the Brewers, and still struck out seven men, but he, admittedly, still isn’t quite back to the form he was in 2015.

The Mets won a number of close game this week, in large part to the efforts of closer, Jeurys Familia. Familia converted three of three save opportunities and notched himself a win last week, all without surrendering a single run. Familia ranks second in the MLB in saves, only behind Jeanmar Gomez of the Phillies. Logan Verrett, after being roughed up in a start filling in for Steven Matz, continues to look more at home in the bullpen, not allowing a run through 2.2 innings of work.

The Mets plays three games in Washington before hosting the Dodgers for three games over the weekend.

3. Philadelphia Phillies (25-19) 2 GB

The Phils missed an opportunity to take second place in the division last week, dropping two of three games to the Braves over the weekend. Despite that, they’re still very much in the conversation in the division. The offense continues to show that it needs some serious help, however, as the Braves young arms held the Phils to just one run in the first two games of the series in Philly.

Tommy Joseph NL East

Tommy Joseph is finally seeing Big League action in Philly, hitting his first homer off of Wei-Yin Chen last week. Photo courtesy of articles.philly.com

We’ll start with the positives surrounding the offense. New first baseman Tommy Joseph is looking primed to produce at the plate. While he is currently splitting starts with Ryan Howard, Joseph hit his first big league homer on Tuesday against the Marlins. Joseph is currently hitting .250 in 2016, and while that isn’t earth shattering, it’s a step up from Howard’s .161. One other thing I like about the Phils is their gameplan at catcher. Both Cameron Rupp and Carlos Ruiz started three games behind the plate last week. Alternating catchers ensures that both remain fresh when it’s their turn to start, which has really paid dividends for Rupp, who hit .545 with a homer and three RBI last week.

What Philadelphia really isn’t doing at the plate is getting on base and manufacturing runs. They’re 13th in the NL in on-base percentage, with a team .292; 14th in walks, with just 111; and dead last in stolen base percentage, converting a steal just 50% of the time. When you have a young, developing offense like the Phils, small ball is usually the more conducive way to produce runs, especially when you have talented pitching. That isn’t saying the Phillies should forego the long ball entirely, they have some guys, like Maikel Franco, who can produce in that category. But they also have guys like Freddy Galvis, who can fly on the basepaths, and I feel that Philadelphia isn’t really taking advantage of that.

None of the Phils arms looked particularly bad this week, despite their starters suffering three losses. Aaron Nola suffered from three unearned runs in what would have otherwise been a quality, two-run start in seven innings against the Braves. The loss ends Nola’s streak of unbeaten starts at five. Jerad Eickhoff had to make two starts this week, and looked strong in both. The lack of run support hurt in his six inning, three run loss to Miami on Monday. But he returned with a strong seven scoreless innings against the Braves on Sunday. Jeanmar Gomez continues to lead the MLB in saves, converting numbers 15 and 16 last week.

The Phillies begin a road trip on Monday in Detroit for three games, before playing the Cubs in Chicago for three more over the weekend.

4. Miami Marlins (22-21) 4.5 GB

The Marlins lost the most ground last week, but they’re still within striking distance in the East. With that in mind, they have to find a way to help slugger Giancarlo Stanton out of one of the worst slumps in baseball. Stanton struck out 15 times in five games last week, before finally recording a hit in Sunday’s game against Washington.

Christian Yelich, despite missing two games for back spasms, posted a strong .412 batting average last week. But the real surprise came from his replacement, Ichiro Suzuki. The 42 year old showed he’s still got it, going hitting .667 in the weekend series against Washington, hitting from the three-hole. Justin Bour was able to pick up some of Stanton’s slack in the power department, hitting three homers and notching five RBI. Marcell Ozuna hit the only other two homers for the Marlins last week, and brought home three runners himself.

Jose Fernandez delivered another strong outing against the Nationals on Saturday, striking out nine in six innings of work and allowing just one run. Hernandez was the Nats’ worst nightmare in his starts. In three starts against them, he allowed just three runs combined while striking out 29. Fernandez is also 4-0 in the month of May and hasn’t lost a game in over a month, since April 23 against the Giants.

The only other Marlins starter to pick up a win last week was Adam Conley, who tossed six innings of one run ball against the Phils, before being hit hard by Washington on Sunday. Tom Koehler and Wei-Yin Chen both were stiffed offensively, allowing just two earned runs in seven and six innings respectively, but ending up being dealt the loss. While Koehler is 0-1 in his past three starts, he has surrendered just four earned runs over 19.2 innings of work, and has struck out 16 men. Hopefully for Marlins fans, he’ll continue to trend in this direction while Adam Conley tries to work out of his consistency issues at the bottom of the rotation.

The Marlins play a four game series against the Rays, two games at home before heading to Tampa for the last two. They then head to Atlanta for three games over the weekend.

5. Atlanta Braves (12-31) 14.5 GB

While the firing of Fredi Gonzalez cast a shadow over the Braves this week, it was a good week for them overall. They picked up their first series win in over a month against the Phillies over the weekend, and more guys are starting to relax and find their power swings. Mallex Smith, Jeff Francoeur, and Freddie Freeman all turned in multi-homer weeks; meanwhile Nick Markakis, Kelly Johnson, and Tyler Flowers all hit their first dingers of 2016.

This is a good sign for the Braves, not because it means they’re going to miraculously turn their season around and make a postseason run, but because it means their young pitchers can finally start playing with some run support. When pitchers have run support, they’re able to be more relaxed on the mound and throw their game. Particularly for younger guys, this can play a huge role in a pitcher’s confidence when they take the mound. When pitchers know they will get some run support, they won’t put so much pressure on themselves when they’re on the mound, which can lead to more quality outings. That’s not to say that Braves starters are going to begin routinely throwing seven scoreless innings every time they take the hill, but it will help further their development and maturation on the mound.

Freddie Freeman continues, as expected, to be the top producer for this Atlanta offense, while Mallex Smith continues to solidify his position as a promising player down the road. Jeff Francoeur came out of nowhere last week, with two homers and four RBI. Francoeur is another guy who can provide a lot of veteran knowledge to some of the younger players around him on this Braves roster. The Braves are finally starting to get back into the groove on the basepaths as well, as new third baseman Chase D’Arnaud and Ender Inciarte both swiped two bags last week. D’Arnaud hit a loud .412, and looks to be another strong candidate in the Braves leadoff spot.

Julio Teheran pitching NL East

Julio Teheran finally got a win in 2016. He tossed a 7.2 inning shutout against the Pirates. Photo courtesy of totalprosports.com

Julio Teheran finally snagged his first win of 2016, turning in 7.2 scoreless innings against the Pirates on Wednesday. Teheran has allowed just two earned runs in four starts this month, but is still just 1-1 over that period. Matt Wisler also turned in another strong start, surrendering just one run to the Phillies in 6.2 innings of work. Wisler, also, has been strong in the month of May; he’s allowed just six runs in four starts and has a 2-1 record. Aaron Blair continues to struggle the most of any of the young Braves starters, getting roughed up in Pittsburgh. Blair lasted just 1.1 innings and gave up nine earned runs over that time. The silver lining for Blair is that there’s nowhere to go but up from here, as he’ll have some time to recover some confidence with triple-A Gwinnett.

NL East Weekly Recap: 5/9-5/15

The NL East continues to heat up with four teams within 2.5 games of the division lead. While the East may not have a bench clearing brawl last week, it did see some dominant pitching (namely Max Scherzer), and is shaping up to be one of the most exciting in the long run of division races. Aside from arguably the NL West, the NL East is probably the tightest division race throughout the bulk of its teams.

The Mets showed that the Nationals aren’t the only team that can lose the division due to a bad week of play; the really surprising consequence of the Mets’ 2-5 trip out west, however, is that the Phillies are now not just hanging around in the divisional race, they’re right in the thick of it in the #2 spot. The Phils admittedly had one of the easier schedules this week, getting to enjoy beating up on poor Atlanta just like every other team in the division has up to this point.

While offenses in the division continue to be below average in the runs category, the pitching continues to be leaned on as the real workhorse in the division. While none of the staffs were as dominant as we’ve come to expect, there were some surprising starts (both good and bad) for a lot of guys in the division.

Without further ado, let’s take a closer look at each team in the NL East.

1. Washington Nationals (23-15)

The Nationals finally find themselves on the positive side of a divisional lead change. Washington found themselves on both ends of some bizarre fielding in their game against Miami on Sunday, but Washington ended up on the losing end of the trade, resulting in the four game set being split at two wins apiece. Ryan Zimmerman was the beneficiary of one of those Sunday plays, notching himself an inside the park home run when Giancarlo Stanton and Marcell Ozuna collided in the outfield. Both Ozuna and Stanton appear to be fine despite being shaken up on the play. That homer was one of Zimmerman’s surprising three home runs last week, which led the team. Unforfunately for the Nats, Stephen Drew, who started in place of a sick Daniel Murphy on Sunday, gifted the Marlins two runs earlier in the game when he lost a pop up in the sun in the Nats 5-1 loss.

Zimmerman may have led the team in homers last week because their usual suspect at the dish, Bryce Harper, continues to adhere to the lyrics of Unk and Walk it Out. Harper hit just .267 last week with four hits, one of them a homer, but he walked 11 times, giving his OBP a .310 point boost on the week to .577. At this rate, according to ESPN’s Dave Schoenfield, Harper is on par for being the second most-walked player in a season, only behind Barry Bonds. What Harper is doing more than Bonds is starting controversies with home plate umpires. Harper game two of Washington’s doubleheader against Miami on Saturday due to a one-game suspension for his actions towards the home plate umpire in game one of the Detroit series on Monday. Harper continues to let his emotions dominate his play, and manager Dusty Baker continues to acknowledge that, but I feel brief episodes like this will continue for Harper. So long as he doesn’t put himself at risk by inducing an all-out brawl on the diamond, I think the Nationals are not going to force Harper to undergo any dramatic changes behaviorally.

The Nats arms have plenty of stories surrounding them as well. We’ll start with the good: Max Scherzer struck out 20 against his former team on Wednesday. Scherzer joins Kerry Wood, Roger Clemens, Tom Cheney, and Randy Johnson as the only pitchers to strike out 20 or more players in a game. What’s almost more impressive is that he did it without walking a single Tiger in the appearance. Scherzer actually threw the least amount of balls in any 20+ K performance (119 pitches, 93 strikes, 26 balls). Scherzer still has some room to go if he wants to put up numbers similar to last season, his ERA is currently 4.15, and his walk total through his first eight starts (15) is nearly half of what it was through all of 2015 (34). Scherzer will start on game one of the series against New York starting Tuesday against Noah Syndergaard. Scherzer struggled the last time he faced a projected playoff team, giving up seven runs in five innings against the Cubs. While New York’s offense isn’t quite as explosive, they have shown an affinity for the long ball this year, and Scherzer will have to avoid missing his spots.

Stephen Strasburg received a huge seven-year, $175 million contract last week. He’s currently 6-0 for the Nats in 2016. Photo courtesy of finance.yahoo.com

Stephen Strasburg signed a $175 million extension, and he rewarded the Nationals with his 6th win on the season against Miami. Strasburg now sits at 6-0 on the year with a 2.95 ERA. His start is the second-best in franchise history through eight games, only behind Pedro Martinez’s 8-0 start in 1997. If Strasburg is able to remain healthy throughout the majority of his new 7-year, $175 million deal and continue to deal like this, then GM Mike Rizzo will show that he earned the extension he received shortly after Strasburg this week.

The bad news is, Tanner Roark continues to struggle against the Marins, and Joe Ross is now 0-3 in the month of May. Roark is currently 2-3 on the year, with all three of his losses coming against the Marlins. Roark’s season ERA sits at just 3.10, but is 8.40 in his three starts against the Marlins. Whatever the cause is for his woes, the good news for Roark is that the Nats only play Miami once more before the All-Star Break. Meanwhile, Ross had an ERA of 0.79 in four April starts. In three May starts, his ERA is sitting just below five at 4.91. This may be due, in part, to Washington’s tougher schedule in May, but the Nationals still need to see Ross recover from the slump he’s in right now.

The Nationals begin their long-awaited, three game set with the Mets on Tuesday, before playing Miami for three games.

2. Philadelphia Phillies (22-16) 1 GB

Every week, we’ve been waiting for the Phillies to fall to where they were expected to be in the NL East, and every week we’ve seen the opposite, with Philadelphia moving closer and closer to a top two spot in the division. Well, now it’s finally happened. The Phillies took advantage of the Mets bad week to jump to #2 in the standings and are just a game back of Washington.

While pitching has been the catalyst of the Phils successes, the young guys at the plate continue to step up for Philadelphia. Odubel Herrera is proving to be a very effective leadoff hitter, hitting .333 on the season with six stolen bases and four homers. He also leads the team in walks by a wide margin, with 29. Maikel Franco is shaping up to be a very strong three-hole hitter, with 22 RBI on the year and seven HRs, just one behind Ryan Howard, who leads the team. According to ESPN’s Doug Mittler, the Phillies may be considering moving up Minor League first baseman, Tommy Joseph, in hopes of yielding more consistent results from their first baseman. Joseph is currently hitting .368 with Triple-A Lehigh Valley. With the way some of these other young guys have hit for the Phillies, Joseph could make this offense even more promising for the future.

Pitching was more of the same in Philadelphia, Aaron Nola allowed just one earned run in a seven inning win against the Reds. Nola tied his career high in that start, with nine punch outs. Nola ranks 3rd in the NL in WHIP, sitting at 0.85. Nola has really blossomed this season after a rough opening three starts. He’s turned in quality starts in four of his last five appearances, and averages just one walk per start in the month of May.

Jeanmar Gomez now leads the MLB in saves with 14. While having a weak offense that wins a lot of close games helps inflate this number, there’s no denying that Gomez has been key to a lot of Philadelphia’s success this year. The Phils are now 14-3 on the year in one-run ballgames, a team can’t have numbers like that without a great closer. The rest of the Phils bullpen is no slouch either, four set-up men allowed no runs over 11.1 innings of work. The highlights there being Brett Oberholtzer, who threw five scoreless innings of relief in two outings, and Hector Nerris, who had three shutout innings over three games last week.

The Phillies have a real shot to move into first place this week with three game sets at home against both Miami and Atlanta.

3. New York Mets (21-16) 1.5 GB

The Mets had a pretty rough trip out west, scraping together just two wins in seven games. Both the offense and the pitching looked a little more docile than it had over the past few weeks. The good news is that catcher Kevin Plawecki is beginning to look sharper at the plate, driving in a team high five runs last week. While the Mets were victim to some controversial calls over the course of the week, they also have fallen victim to some mistakes in areas they have control over. Curtis Granderson is having a rough time in the leadoff spot this month, and when the leadoff man is struggling to get on base, runs are that much harder to get. Granderson has just a .179 OBP with a .132 batting average this month. He’s also struck out 18 times through the first half of May; he had just 19 Ks throughout all of April.

Perhaps the most interesting story in New York was Noah Syndergaard, and not just because of his performance on the mound. Thor may as well have been hitting with his hammer, hitting two thunderous homers, and providing himself with all of his run support on the day. It’s pretty rare to see a pitcher hit one homer in a game, let alone two. Syndergaard became the first pitcher to hit two dingers in a game since  Micah Owings in 2007, and the first Mets pitcher to do so since Walt Terrell in 1983. Syndergaard’s four RBI were the second most for any Met last week.

Syndergaard also got it done on the bump in his start against the Dodgers. He tied a career high with eight innings of work, in which he gave up six hits, two of them solo homers, and picked up his 3rd win of the year. Steven Matz was the other Met to get a win last week, although he did miss his second start on Saturday with forearm soreness. It is unknown yet if Matz will remain in the Mets rotation or end up on the DL, but he did throw long toss on Thursday and has a doctor’s exam upcoming.

Matz’s replacement in the rotation, Logan Verrett got roughed up by Colorado. He lasted just 2.2 innings and gave up seven runs on 10 hits in that timespan. Verrett is the same guy who filled in for Jacob deGrom when he was out of the rotation earlier this season, however. During that time Verrett went 2-0 in two starts, so the ability is there. Speaking of deGrom, he claims he still doesn’t feel as comfortable on the mound as he did in 2015. He did not factor into the decision in either of his two starts last week, despite turning in a quality seven innings of two run ball against the Dodgers on Tuesday. Matt Harvey also continues to have a rough run at returning to form, giving up five runs on 11 hits through 5.2 against the Rockies on Friday. Colorado hit .407 off of the Mets ace.

New York looks to end their four game skid at home on Tuesday against the Nationals, before squaring off with the Brewers on Friday for a second three game set at home.

4. Miami Marlins

Miami went 4-3 last week to remain in the thick of the action in the East. Their batting averages continue to be sky high, with four starters hitting .300 or above last week. They have four starters on the season hitting at that same level, with Derek Dietrich, Dee Gordon’s replacement, hitting .298. With Giancarlo Stanton having an off week, hitting just .154, some other Marlins bats came out to help the offense last week. Justin Bour had two homers and three RBI, while J.T. Realmuto hit .348 and led the team with four RBI. Marcell Ozuna hit .500 last week and provides a strong bridge between the middle and the bottom of this Marlins lineup. While the offense did not look quite as impressive with Yelich and Stanton both having off weeks, it still proved last week that it has the talent and the potential to get wins, especially when its pitchers deliver like they did last week.

Jose Fernandez went seven innings with 11 strikeouts in both of his starts last week. Thumbs up, Photo courtesy of gardygoesyardy.com

Jose Fernandez showed last week why he’s still considered a fantastic starter for the Marlins. He allowed just one run in his two starts combined, a total of 14 innings, and struck out 22 batters, 11 in each start. Fernandez’s lines were nearly identical  in each start, surrendering four hits over seven innings and striking out 11 men. One thing he’ll still want to improve on is his accuracy, as he also issued seven free passes over those two starts.

Wei-Yin Chen also put up some impressive numbers in the K column, fanning 12 hitters in 6.1 innings Wednesday against Milwaukee. Chen is 3-0 in his last four starts, and hasn’t suffered a loss since April 20 against Washington. Tom Koehler was stiffed a decision despite providing a strong 5.2 innings of one run ball against Washington. Koehler’s biggest problem remains to be control, he walked five Nats hitters and struck out just four. He has 27 Ks to 20 BBs on the year, but has looked strong in his last two starts.  The Marlins biggest concern on the mound continues to be walks, they’re 3rd in the NL with 154 free passes issued. If they can cut down on the free base runners, they might save themselves a few runs here and there, which can add up at the end of a ballgame.

Miami plays three games in Philly starting Monday before hosting Washington for the final time before the All-Star Break over the weekend.

5. Atlanta Braves (9-27) 13 GB

The Braves now have the only rotation in baseball made up entirely of players 25 years old or younger. They traded Jhoulys Chacin to the Angels on Wednesday and will now be showing off nothing but young guns from this point onward in the rotation. Atlanta got two wins over the week, which, all things considered, isn’t terrible for them. At this point it really isn’t about wins and losses either, it’s about getting experience to the now entirely young pitching staff. Whether this experience will be used for the Braves or to establish trade pieces as the deadline approaches is yet to be seen.

While Freddie Freeman might be one of the most tantalizing pieces of trade bait the Braves have, the organization has repeatedly announced that they have no interest in trading their staple at first base. That may due, in part, to the fact that he’s providing more power for that team than the rest of the players combined. Then doubled. Freeman’s two homers last week moves his season total up to six. The rest of the Atlanta bats had an off week, even by their standards. Nick Markakis hit just .087 on the week. Recently activated Gordon Beckham did well; he tied for a team best three RBI last week and hit .316.

The pitching should be the main focus for Atlanta right now, and not just because they’re in a division that’s been so reliant on it this season. With nothing but young guys starting for the foreseeable future, the team has the potential to weed out those they want to keep and those they want to trade. The bulk of the rotation did look stronger last week: Mike Foltynewicz turned in his best outing of the season, and notched his first win of the year last week. He went eight shutout innings in Kansas City against the Royals. After a rough first start against the Mets, Foltynewicz’s last two starts have both been quality outings, and have looked impressive.

Williams Perez made his first start in nearly a month against the Phillies on Wednesday, and it was by far his best. He went eight innings and allowed just two hits, one of them a solo homer. Julio Teheran picked up another loss on Friday at Kansas City, but it was due to both a lack of offense, and an error by the right fielder Jeff Francoeur. With Freeman supposedly off the table, Teheran may be the Braves most valuable trade piece right now. While his record is an ugly 0-4, he’s looked very good in the month of May, allowing just two earned runs in three starts, including a shutout seven innings against the World Series favorite Cubs.

Matt Wisler continued to look strong, despite going 0-1 in two starts last week. He went eight innings in a losing effort to the Phillies and another 7.1 of two run ball against the Royals on Sunday, but didn’t factor in the decision. Aaron Blair is still experiencing some growing pains in his first year in The Bigs, lasting just 3.2 against the Phillies on Thursday. This rotation is young, however, and even the most veteran of pitchers have rough outings every now and then, so as long as the Braves are able to turn these outings into quality learning experiences for their young starters, then the results don’t hurt quite as much.

NL East: Week 5 Recap

Four teams are within three games of the owning top spot in NL East after the first week in May. It may not have been exactly what a lot of people were expecting to happen, but this division is looking more exciting by the week. The East has gone from a team with four teams below .500 to four teams now being over .500.

Despite these successes in the win column, the East still has four of the bottom six teams in the National League in regards to run production. That just shows how crucial the pitching is for the top four teams in this division.

The Atlanta Braves notwithstanding, the Nationals are probably the team in the biggest slump right now. This is the first time since the season started that they haven’t been atop the division. They just suffered a four-game sweep at the hands of the Cubs despite winning the series against the reigning World Series champions. Ryan Zimmerman is really in the doghouse after a very rough game on Sunday, stranding 14 guys on base batting after Harper, who got seven free passes.

While the Mets, who led the division with four wins last week, may still be around the bottom in the runs scored column in the NL, they actually lead the entire MLB in home runs. They continued their power surge, even getting some help from, in my opinion, one of the most entertaining guys to watch in the MLB when Bartolo Colon hit his first career home run at age 42.

The Marlins also won four games last week, and they’re also succeeding in the offensive category, at least everywhere except the scoring department. The Marlins are third in the MLB in batting average, with a .277 average. The trick for Miami is finding a way to get those runners home once they find their way on base.

Now, let’s take a closer look at each of the teams in the East.

1. New York Mets (19-11)

The Mets have settled in quite nicely after looking a little shaky in early April. They find themselves atop the East for the first time in 2016, and it’s looking like the rest of the division will be hard-pressed to find a slip up in New York to take advantage of. As I already said, the Mets lead the MLB in home runs, and Yoenis Cespedes hit four more home runs, and now has surpassed Neil Walker as the team’s homer leader on the year. Cespedes is also producing hits for average as well, hitting .320 over the past week. Lucas Duda also provided three homers, all of them solo shots, in the past week. Duda is hitting just .240 on the year, but the Mets haven’t needed him to be a contact hitter throughout his time in New York. Asdrubal Cabrera has been that average guy, bringing in four RBI last week and leading the team with a .306 average so far this year.

Bartolo Colon hit his first ever home run at age 42 against the Padres over the weekend. Photo courtesy of news-herald.com

The starter of the week in New York had to be Bartolo Colon. He went 2-0, allowing just three runs in his two starts and striking out 12 batters to just one walk in that time. On top of that, Colon broke the internet with his first career home run on Sunday. Colon continues to be a consistent pitcher in the five-hole in the rotation. He’s not a guy who is going to blow hitters away with his stuff, but he’ll provide workable starts and let the Mets offense do their job.

Noah Syndergaard suffered another loss and seemed to be in a minor slump, but it’s nothing to worry about. Matt Harvey continues to work himself out his own slump, with a win and a loss. The loss wasn’t bad by any stretch of the mind, but the Mets offense ended up being shut out by the Braves pitching staff. Steven Matz turned in another gem and continued to look sharp as well. With the majority of this Mets squad seeming to be on the up and up, this team could be tough to surpass in the upcoming weeks.

The Mets are on the road this week, with four games in Los Angeles against the Dodgers before going to Colorado for three games against the Rockies.

2. Washington Nationals (19-12) 0.5 GB

Bryce Harper didn’t get a lot of swings like this in on Sunday, walking six times. Harper walked more Sunday than MLB batting leader Martin Prado has all season. Photo courtesy of nbcwashington.com

The Nationals continue to be trending in the wrong direction with another sub-.500 week. They started off with two wins in a three-game stretch against the returning World Series champs, but the Cubbies then swept the Nats in a four-game series. The Cubs also seem to have figured out a plan for Bryce Harper. Harper was walked six times on Sunday, three times intentionally, along with a hit-by-pitch to not record an official at-bat for a record 12th straight plate appearance.

Ryan Zimmerman was the real victim of Chicago’s plan, stranding 14 men on base by himself, going one for seven on Sunday. There may need to be a reconstruction of the Nats batting order to put someone who has had more success at the plate, someone like Daniel Murphy, behind Harper to ensure opposition can’t just walk him to get to a “weaker” hitter.

The problem with this is, aside from Murphy, most of the Nats bats have been pretty inconsistent at the plate. Jayson Werth steps from time to time at the plate, leading the team with six RBI for the week, but he also hit less than .200 over that time. Wilson Ramos is looking better at the plate, now at .358 on the year, so he’s another potential candidate. But catchers often don’t see themselves playing as frequently as other position players, meaning Ramos may not always be in the lineup to back up Harper if that route is taken.

The Nationals arms didn’t have the best week. Max Scherzer got roughed up again and is having a hard time getting into a groove here in 2016. Joe Ross suffered his first loss of the year, but it wasn’t a bad start by any measure, two runs in 6.2 innings. A lot of the struggles came from the bullpen this week, like Jonathan Papelbon, Blake Treinen, and Sammy Solis all suffered losses. A lot of games were in rough spots when they were handed off to the bullpen, but the pen didn’t do the best job of keeping those games in winnable positions, so Nats fans have to be hoping that the arms can pick up the slack in the next week, and the offense can find a way to stop teams from pitching around Bryce Harper.

The Nationals host the Tigers for three games before playing host to the Marlins for four more games.

3. Philadelphia Phillies (18-14) 2 GB

The Phillies had a rough series against a struggling Cardinals before rebounding against the Marlins. The offense continued to be the difference in the games. It struck late in the last two games of the Marlins to secure the series against the Marlins. In other games, however, it proved lackluster. The Phillies put up just eight runs in the four-game series against St. Louis.

The usual suspects continued to be at work for the Phils this week. Ryan Howard, Maikel Franco, and Freddy Galvis were top three in RBI on the week but continue to struggle in the batting average category. Odubel Herrera continues to step it up in that category, hitting .393 on the week and bringing his season average up to .324. The good news for the Phillies offense is that it looked better in the Marlins series, topping its season average of a little more than 3 runs per game in 2 of the three games. The offense can take advantage of some of the struggling and weaker pitching as the Marlins bullpen proved to be in the series.

The Phillies pitching had a rougher week but still saw a solid outing from Aaron Nola. Nola seems to be settling in as the season rolls on, which is good to see for Phillies fans. The bullpen, after dominating in week 4, had a tough go of things in week 5. Jeanmar Gomez blew his first save of the season (but also picked up another 3) while Andrew Bailey and Brett Oberholtzer had trouble getting outs in their appearances on the week. The Phils offense saw a step in the right direction this week, which helped make up for the pitching’s step down (being fair to them it’s hard to go much higher than they were). If Philly can find a happy medium, then it could continue to lurk around in the division.

The Phillies play three games in Atlanta before coming home for a three game set against the Reds.

4. Miami Marlins (16-14) 3 GB

The Marlins were a couple of bad bullpen outings from a perfect 6-0 on the week and sitting just a game back of New York. That said, a four-win week still helps the Marlins a good bit in the division, as three games back in May is nothing to worry about.

The Marlins saw Christian Yelich hit three homers last week after having just 1 in the previous 4. Yelich had been quiet after getting off to the hot start, but he’s still producing very efficiently in the middle of the lineup, and with Giancarlo Stanton continuing to hit homers, now at 10 on the year, the Marlins offense could continue to see better production. Marcell Ozuna also had two homers, along with hitting .417. Ozuna had a very impressive week and is a testament to the strong young hitters the Marlins have in their organization.

The pitching was the opposite of what was expected this week, with the bottom of the rotation turning in strong starts, and the first two in the rotation having a rough time. Adam Conley had a heck of an outing for the second straight time and is solidifying himself as a solid arm at the bottom of the rotation. Tom Koehler was snuffed a win despite pitching seven innings of 1 run ball. The real problem for the Marlins arms this week was the bullpen, which surrendered six runs and took two losses on Saturday and Sunday against the Phillies.

The Marlins play three games at home against the Brewers before going to Washington for a three-game series.

Atlanta Braves (7-23) 12 GB

The Braves only grabbed one win on the week. Freddie Freeman continues to work out of his slump, but the rest of the team is unable to produce any runs. Freeman hit another homer, along with young outfielder Malex Smith. At this point the Braves are just looking to find more guys like Smith who will be able to provide a base for this team in a few seasons.

Matt Wisler was the only Braves arm to stand out, throwing eight innings of 1-hit shutout ball against the Mets. Other than that is was a pretty dismal week for Braves arms. Jhoulys Chacin gave up four homers in his start, and Jim Johnson lasted just 2.1 innings in his. I guess the other small victory was Julio Teheran. Teheran gave up just one run through 5 innings in a no-decision effort against the D-Backs.

The Braves play three at home against the Phils before three games in Kansas City against the Royals.

NL East: Week 4 Recap

What a crazy week this was for the NL East. The Phillies of all teams went unbeaten, the Nationals got swept, there was almost a no-hitter, and Dee Gordon was suspended for PED usage. This division has seen the rift that the Nationals had formed just 2 weeks ago all but evaporate, as the Mets are looking to be in prime form. May is shaping up to be a lot more competitive than might have been predicted a month ago, and the Phillies may be more of a contender than some people (myself included) gave them credit for at the start of the year.

It’s hard to gauge what will happen as the season rolls on. The deeper teams go into the season, the more likely players (especially young pitchers) are to suffer critical injuries, players may begin to start slumping or streaking, and teams may begin to start making trades to fill vacancies that have become apparent.

I think the biggest surprise for me was the Phillies this week. They swept (record-wise), the best team in the National League on the road, and pitched two straight shutouts. The bullpen in particular stepped up for Philadelphia this week, and it will be interesting to see if they can continue to build on this momentum on their 10 game road streak, starting Monday in St. Louis.

On the other side of that sweep, I think the Nationals offense must have forgotten they had to come home before heading to St. Louis. They put up three runs in three games, all of them in game one. Luckily for them, they were able to rebound with a sweep of their own in St. Louis and keep the division lead, but they lost a lot of ground this week to both New York and Philly, raising the stakes for their first series of 2016 against the Mets later this month. Without further ado, let’s continue to break down these teams more in depth, continuing with Washington.

1. Washington Nationals (17-7) 

The Nationals bats were silent at home when the Phillies came to town to start the week. Bryce Harper’s bat was silent all week, hitting just .105 (but drawing 7 seven walks, giving him a .346 OBP). Danny Espinosa finally had a standout series in St. Louis, hitting two big home runs in two straight games against the Cards. Hopefully this leads to bigger things from his bat in May, as he hit just .188 through the month of April. Other than that, it was a plethora of Nationals stepping up to provide run support. Jayson Werth led the way with five on the week and he’s again showing that, despite his inconsistencies, he can provide at times when the Nats need him to.

The pitching was the real source of the wins this week. With the way their offense had been playing, the Nationals very easily could have gone undefeated this week. Despite going 0-3 in the Phillies series, the Nats arms held them to no more than four runs a game. All five of the starters had a sub-3.00 ERA on the week. Max Scherzer’s outing vs. the Phillies wasn’t what Nats fans were hoping for to break Scherzer out of his funk, but his seven innings of four hit ball against the Cardinals showed that he still has the potential to be as good as he was last season. Gio Gonzalez was the tough luck loser against the Phils, allowing just one earned run, but not getting any runs of support.

Joe Ross and Tanner Roark continue to impress. While Roark didn’t get the win, he didn’t allow any runs through seven innings in game three against the Phillies. Roark is just 2-2 on the season, but is sporting an ERA of just 2.03. Ross is even more impressive numerically, a 3-0 record and a 0.79 ERA. A lot of people mention the depth that the New York Mets have in their rotation, but I honestly think that this Nats rotation has the potential to go toe-to-toe with them.

The bullpen suffered two of the three losses against the Phillies, but the game can’t stay 0-0 forever, and the Nationals bats just couldn’t get it going in time that series. Overall on the week, however, they bounced back quite impressively against the Cardinals, sweeping them in St. Louis. They do need to be careful, as their once four-game lead has shrunk to just 1.5 games over two weeks.

The Nationals play a very tough schedule this week, with three games in Kansas City before playing four games in Chicago against the Cubbies.

2. New York Mets (15-8) 1.5 GB

The Mets are now 13-3 after opening the 2016 season off with a 2-5 record. They had a near-perfect week yet again, with a hiccup against the Giants on Sunday being the only blemish. Yoenis Cespedes led the team with nine RBI, three of them on a game-tying, three-run, pinch hit homer in the 7th inning of game two against the Reds. The Mets offense continues to churn out runs, which has proven invaluable for an ace still trying to find his footing in Matt Harvey. Three different Mets had multi-homer weeks, as left fielder Michael Conforto and second baseman Neil Walker continue to produce at the plate, along with Cespedes. Conforto, Cespedes, and Walker combined for 24 RBI over the past week, the rest of the team had just nine. With those three producing the way they are, and Curtis Granderson getting on base more often (he’s hitting .316 in his last 15 games after going .097 in his first eight) this Mets offense is looking very good.

The pitching is also looking better. Jacob deGrom seems to be pitching just fine now that he’s back on a regular rotation, posting a big fat goose egg in 6 innings against the Giants. Steven Matz has now turned in three straight quality starts after also going six scoreless against the Giants. Matz allowed seven runs in his season opener against the Marlins; he’s allowed just two in his three starts since then. Matt Harvey continues to trend in the right direction with a quality start against the Reds along with seven Ks: he now has two wins in his last two starts. It was Thor who proved mortal this week, as Bruce Bochy turned on the green light for base runners against Noah Syndergaard this week. Brandon Crawford stole second once, while Matt Duffy took it twice. Syndergaard’s biggest weakness thus far has been holding runners, who are 12 for 13 stealing on him so far. The outing itself isn’t anything to be concerned with, nobody is going to go unbeaten on the mound, and the Giants just got the better of Syndergaard that night.

The Mets host the Braves for three games before heading to San Diego for a four-game series against the Padres, so the Mets have a real shot to be atop the NL East by the end of next week.

3. Philadelphia Phillies (15-10) 2.5 GB

Jeanmar Gomez was one of many in the Phillies bullpen to not surrender a run this week. He also had 4 saves. Photo courtesy of csnphilly.com

The Phillies offense is bottom five in the MLB in runs scored. Yet they’ve been one of the biggest surprises in all of the MLB this year with a 15-10 record after a month of play. The Phillies went 6-0 last week, sweeping the Nationals and the Indians behind some great stuff from the starters and the bullpen. Only four guys on the staff allowed a run this week, and three of them were starters (one of those being Vince Velazquez, who still went 2-0 with a 2.25 ERA). The bullpen posted a 0.47 ERA in 19 innings of work this week and opponents his just .160 off of them. That’s remarkable, and a huge part in why this team went unbeaten despite some lackluster performances offensively. Jeanmar Gomez recorded four saves on the week, and David Hernandez picked up one win while throwing five innings over three games and allowing just two hits.

While I don’t believe a “fluke” is the right term for what is happening in Philly, (they’ve certainly played good baseball and earned every single one of those wins) I do think that it won’t continue unless the Phillies’ offense gets things sorted out. They remain one of the weakest offenses in the game with just 82 runs scored so far. They’re in the top third of the league when it comes to strikeouts (top meaning most strikeouts) and bottom third when it comes to walks, so their approaches at the plate just aren’t what they need to be. It probably isn’t the best influence for the young guys when your team’s most experienced hitter, Ryan Howard, is hitting below the Mendoza line, but this team needs to take better approaches at the plate (averaging just 2.64 walks a game as well).

With all of that said, this team still deserves kudos for going undefeated in week four, especially sweeping one of the top teams in the National League and holding their offense to basically nothing. Some of the young hitters had good weeks, Odubel Herrera now has a batting average of over .300, and Freddy Galvis drove in another four RBI this week. I think it would be great if this team can keep shocking people and playing good baseball. The pitching very strong, and if the offense can find its stride, they could surprise some people this year.

The Phillies play four games at St. Louis before a three-game set in Miami.

4. Miami Marlins (12-12) 5 GB

Despite Dee Gordon’s suspension hanging casting a shadow over the Marlins right now, they had a heck of a week. They swept the Dodgers on the road before taking two of three in Milwaukee to turn in a 5-1 performance. Martin Prado is one guy I haven’t given nearly enough kudos to this year. He hit .536 this week and his batting average is sitting at a whopping .410 right now. Prado has never been a guy who is going to blow people away with his power, but baseball isn’t all about the long ball. Having a guy hitting .410 at the top half of your lineup sets your offense up for success when you have guys hitting as well as Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich behind him. Stanton crushed four homers last week and now has five (as in, the amount that the Braves have hit all year) in his last seven games. This entire Marlins club hit very well in the month of April, sitting at 3rd in the MLB with a .277 team average. The trick for them has been finding ways to get guys home, but they did a much better job of that last week.

Adam Conley had a no-hitter through 7.2 innings before being taken out of the game on Friday. Photo courtesy of fishstripes.com

The pitching has also been a tricky spot for the Marlins. I said this weekend series could be a confidence builder for some of these Marlins starters who were struggling. I was halfway correct there. Adam Conley threw a no-hitter in his 7.2 innings against the Brewers, but I guess manager Don Mattingly saw that ESPN’s social media mentioned it, so he pulled him before he could get jinxed. In all seriousness, Conley was the guy at the back of this Marlins rotation who had really impressed me up to this point in the season, and that outing just showed why. While he did tie a season high four walks, he also struck out seven Brewers in 7.2 innings. Tom Koehler didn’t have such a smooth go of things on Sunday, getting shelled for eight runs in just 2.1 innings. He had a much better outing against the Dodgers earlier in the week, though, so consistency remains the name of the game for the back of this Marlins rotation. Justin Nicolino made his first start of 2016, replacing Jared Cosart in the rotation, and he looked stellar against the Dodgers, giving up two hits and no runs in 7.1 innings against the Dodgers.
Also, if you’re looking for a guy to replace Dee Gordon with at second base, look no further than Derek Dietrich (and yes, as a Georgia Tech student, this is a completely biased choice). But in all seriousness, Dietrich is hitting .325 on the year and has en route to what could very easily be his best year statistically. While he doesn’t have the same type of speed that Dee Gordon had (to be fair, very few in all the MLB do) he’s been just as consistent at the plate so far.

The Marlins are at home all week, with a three-game set against the D-Backs before hosting the Phillies over the weekend for three games.

5. Atlanta Braves (6-18) 11 GB

Well, at least Saturday’s game against the Cubs got postponed so Braves fans can say that didn’t lose the series over the weekend. Other than that it was more of the same from Atlanta, losses. They managed to scrape game four from the Red Sox and game two from the Cubs to go 2-4 on the week. It’s a wonder I’m able to type this article up with the apparent power outage still going on in Atlanta, hitting just five homers in the month of April. On the bright side, Freddie Freeman turned in his best week by far, hitting two homers and batting .455. Malex Smith was six for 10 on the week with three doubles, and is showing that there are some potential stars in Atlanta if they’re given some time to develop. Smith was off to a slow start, but is now hitting .389 in his last seven games. Other than that, it was more of the same from Nick Markakis, who continues to rack up the RBI. He is 6th in the NL with 20 on the season. Markakis is really the only source of RBI this season for the Braves, unfortunately, his 20 almost outscores the next three combined (Freeman, Garcia, and Smith combine for 21).

Unlike the Phillies, the Braves don’t have the pitching to salvage an under-performing offense. Julio Teheran turned in, arguably, his best two outings of the year, however, allowing one run in seven innings against Boston (but taking the hard-luck loss) and shutting out an explosive Cubs offense through seven innings (no decision). Aaron Blair made his second career start against the Cubs this weekend, and turned in a strong six innings of one-run ball. Blair is just one of the plethora of young arms the Braves have available to them, and will begin to groom over the next few seasons. Bud Norris continues to be a liability on the mound (putting it mildly), giving up six runs in 1.1 innings in Boston. His season ERA now sits at a whopping 8.74 on the year. Don’t be surprised if Norris gets bumped down to the bullpen soon and another young guy comes up for some big league action.

The Braves play three games in New York against the Mets and then host the Diamondbacks for a three-game series.

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