When Juan Soto homered in the top of the ninth inning on Monday night to give the Nationals a 6-3 lead over the Braves, he admired his blast and enjoyed a slow trot around the bases — the seventh time in his 12 Major League Baseball games he has made such a trot, so he’s been on the frequent flyer tour. Braves reliever Will Smith did not like Soto’s reaction, however, and shouted a few choice words at the young phenom.
Soto’s blast appeared to be the exclamation point on an important win for the struggling Nationals, but the Braves got the last word thanks to Dansby Swanson’s two-run walk-off home run that capped a four-run rally in the bottom of the ninth off Nationals closer Daniel Hudson. It was a dramatic two-game swing in the National League East, a division mired in mediocrity of late.
For Swanson, it was his first career walk-off home run — at least in the majors. “I think I did it once when I was 8,” he laughed after the game. “The mental piece has become such a big part for me, especially this year. Those are just scenarios you envision yourself in. The brain’s a powerful muscle, so just trying to put it to good use.”
Swanson, by the way, is developing a nice clutch reputation. Entering the game, he was a career .326 hitter in “late and close” situations, compared to his overall average of .247.
The other NL East contest wasn’t so inspired. At one point during the Mets-Marlins game, Mets announcer Gary Cohen says, in mild disgust, “We have three teams playing a bad game tonight.” He was referring to the two teams on the field as well as the umpires, who had three calls reversed in the early innings of the game. The Mets would go on to rout the Marlins 11-4 behind two home runs apiece from Robinson Cano and Pete Alonso.
It occurs to me that Cohen’s comment combines nicely with the Mets’ victory as a perfect summation of the NL East race so far. The Mets entered the game reeling a bit after the Phillies swept them over the weekend, but in this division, one game like this one feels like all the momentum a team needs to turn things around, especially if it is a sign Alonso is going to heat up.
Here’s one way to look at what is going on there. Each team’s record over its past 10 games:
Meh. The Braves remain the favorite — according to FanGraphs, their odds of winning the division increased from 50.9% to 56.7% after Monday’s victory — but theirs is not a team without issues. Atlanta’s rotation is currently in tatters, Ronald Acuna Jr. is on the injured list with a sore left wrist and may not return until next week and Ozzie Albies has been out since August 5 with a right bone contusion. That’s why this loss stung like a Mike Tyson-in-1986 punch for the Nationals. You can’t lose these games, especially when the opposing starter struggles.
Indeed, Atlanta starter Touki Toussaint allowed four runs in three innings thanks to six walks and two home runs allowed. Really, the damage should have been worse but the Nationals would go 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position. Since August 3, the game Mike Soroka went down for the season, Braves starters have a 5.98 ERA while averaging less than four innings per start; Max Fried is the only reliable option they have going right now. The saving grace for Atlanta is that during that same time period Nationals starters have a 5.93 ERA and Mets starters a 6.11 ERA.
The Braves aren’t the only team with rotation issues. Just look at Monday’s two games. Anibal Sanchez struggled through his five innings for the Nationals, allowing three runs and seven hits while walking three and striking out just one batter — and that was his best outing of the season. Marlins starter Jordan Yamamoto got knocked out in the second inning and has made it through just 8 ⅔ innings in his three starts. The Mets, lacking any other options, used a bullpen game.
That’s on top of the all the injuries — Soroka and Cole Hamels for the Braves; Noah Syndergaard and Marcus Stroman for the Mets (with Stroman subsequently opting out of the season); Stephen Strasburg for the Nationals, who can’t get over the nerve issue in his hand and has returned to the injured list. The Phillies’ rotation has actually been decent so far with a 3.59 ERA, but due to the games missed because of the Marlins’ COVID breakout Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler have started eight of their 17 game. Their bullpen, however? Last in the majors with an unspeakable 8.77 ERA.
This race could be a short-season reminder of the infamous 1973 NL East race. The Mets won the division that year with an 82-79 record — tied with 2005 Padres for the fewest wins for a division champ in a 162-game season — which was good enough to finish 1.5 games ahead of the Cardinals, 2.5 ahead of the Pirates, 3.5 ahead of the Expos and five ahead of Cubs. The Mets were actually in last place on August 30 that season, and four games under .500 with 11 to play before a seven-game winning streak pulled it out.
The teams have changed, but we could see a similar five-team race to .500, at least if the Marlins continue to play respectable baseball. The Nationals and Mets are four games behind the Braves, but one big week is all it takes. That’s what makes the Mets perhaps more interesting than the Nationals — they can score runs. Brandon Nimmo, Michael Conforto, J.D. Davis and Cano all have .400-plus on-base percentages. Alonso went 3-for-3 with two walks on Monday and is up to .241/.359/.448. Dominic Smith is hitting .310 and slugging .741.
The Nationals, meanwhile, may have the game’s best hitter in Soto, but their fourth and fifth hitters Monday were veterans Asdrubal Cabrera (who at least has been hitting well) and Kurt Suzuki. Outfielders Adam Eaton and Victor Robles are off to slow starts and rookie Carter Kieboom, replacing Anthony Rendon at third base, doesn’t have an extra-base hit yet. Soto has been spectacular but he can’t do it himself.
Who will take the NL East? The projections still favor the Braves, injuries and rotation warts notwithstanding. The Nats are going to be in trouble if they don’t get Strasburg back. The Mets had their own scare when Jacob deGrom had his last start pushed back a few days. The Phillies have a locked-in Bryce Harper and their bullpen can’t be this bad the rest of the way. The Marlins, well, you never know. Get ready for the first five-way division tie in MLB history.