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
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.
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.