With their win over the Brewers Friday night, the Washington Nationals pulled just 4.5 games behind the N.L. East-leading Atlanta Braves.
For the past few months, the Washington Nationals most realistic path to the postseason has been via the wild card. The Atlant Braves have held first place in the division since June, and for a better part of the past two months, they have been at least six or more games up on the Nats.
The past week, that all has changed. After losing two out of three in a tough series against the New York Mets, the Nationals have won five games in a row. Atlanta did win two out of three against the Mets earlier this week, but with their loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday night, Washington pulled to just 4.5 games back of the Braves.
This is the closest Washington has been to the Braves since the last weekend of July, where they lost two out of three at home to Atlanta. The good news for the Nationals is that they will get a shot at taking down the Braves in September. The two teams play eight more times down the stretch. Four times in Atlanta from September 5 to September 8, and then in Washington a week later from September 13 to September 15.
The two teams stack up very evenly. If Max Scherzer is healthy, Washington has a clear advantage in the starting pitching department. The Braves are currently without Dansby Swanson and Nick Markakis in their lineup, but when fully healthy they likely have a slight edge over the Nationals in overall lineup. Freddie Freeman kills every team, but the Nationals seem to be the one he victimizes the most.
That leaves the bullpens, and this is likely where this division will be decided. Atlanta went out and acquired big names Shane Greene and Mark Melancon at the deadline, but neither move has looked great so far. Greene was demoted from the closer’s role and has given up seven runs in 5.1 innings as a member of the Braves.
Washington went a different route, acquiring under-the-radar names at the deadline. So far, Daniel Hudson and Hunter Strickland have looked like the better investment. Strickland has allowed just one earned run in his first seven appearances as a National, and Hudson has been extremely valuable as a late-inning man working in many different roles.
Regardless of how it turns out, the Nationals and Braves are two extremely talented teams. In their eight remaining matchups, whichever bullpen steps up very likely may lead their team to a division title.