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 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 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.