What did you think about the Nats and the NL East when the seasons began? That the Nats were slightly better than the Braves and that there was enough talent in the division that someone might surprise, but you also wouldn't be surprised if at least one of those other teams tanked? Well Seventy games in (43% or so) and here we are.The Nats are a game and a half better than the Braves. The Marlins have surprised and kept pace while the Mets and Phillies take turns going after the worst record in the league. I'd argue that the whole division is about a half-step behind where I'd thought they'd be, but in comparison to eachother they are right on target.
Why are the Nats a half-step behind? Injuries are a big part of it. Offensively, the Nats were equipped to handle two big injuries, OF & C, and they've had three (OF, C, and 3B) and one important minor one (1B). The injury replacements have offered no surprises, and for each "success" (Lobaton, Espinosa) there is a no quote needed failure (McLouth, Frandsen). But injuries aren't all of it. While Adam LaRoche has performed shocking well, Ian Desmond has fallen off his pace of the past two years and Jayson Werth has seen a dramatic loss of power with no wrist injury to blame. The sum of these parts is an offense that has struggled to be average. That would normally be big trouble for a team looking to win a division, but the Nats have been bouyed by a remarkable performance by the pitching staff, which the majority of staff sporting ERAs in the low 3.00s or lower. A combination of one big surprise (Roark) and nearly everyone else performing at the high end of expectations has made this the best staff in the NL. The net effect has been to pull the Nats a few games over .500.
Why are the Braves an half-step behind? A somewhat similar scenario. Injuries bit the Braves hard too, but for them it was in the rotation. Unlike the Nats they did get some surprising injury replacement help in the form of an amazing start from Aaron Harang. The rest of the staff has been a mixed bag of performance but it's a talented staff and going forward like the Nats offense, they are expecting health to help this aspect of the team perform at a high level. Outside of a minor injury to Gattis the Braves offense has been relatively healthy, but mostly disappointing. Dan Uggla played his way out of a starting job while BJ Upton remains a lineup hole. Last season's miracle, Chris Johnson, is underperforming, while Jason Heyward remains unable to live up to his potential, and Simmons works through what they hope are growing pains. Even though Freeman, Justin Upton and Gattis have hit well, the total sum of the above is a team lucky to be .500.
Where does this leave these two teams? Well now that they are about as healthy as you can expect a team to be from their Opening Day rosters you have two teams trying desperately to prove they are who we thought they are. The Nats are trying to prove they belong in the "best team" discussion and looked to be trending in that direction with their impressive winning streak, but the St. Louis sweep keeps the old demons in play, the biggest one being their recent lack of success vs the Braves. The Braves want to show that despite the pre-season staff injuries they can compete for a playoff spot, but they are struggling to go anywhere flailing over the last 3+ weeks despite beginning to waive white flags on some expensive offensive pieces.
In short, this series could determine the Nats/Braves stories for the remainder of the pre-All-Star break season. Nats win 3+ games? They are looking to be crowned again with the Braves likely searching for external and internal answers to their offensive (and possibly pitching) issues. Braves win 3+ games? Atlanta probably feels confident enough to hope regression to mean cures most of their ills, while the Nats get caught up in silly off-field talk of leadership and heart and look to Bryce's return for another new starting point. Both teams need this series to go well for them or else the issues become ISSUES.