Braves, Nationals continue to lead NL East

Could the Braves keep up with Washington and Philadelphia all summer? This blogger says yes. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

This might not come as a surprise to their fans, but the Atlanta Braves have started hot this season, sitting within striking distance of first place in the National League East.

The team they’re chasing, however, might be a little surprising.

It isn’t the Philadelphia Phillies that have set the pace this season — it’s the Washington Nationals. A young, exciting team that sort of resembles the Oklahoma City Thunder on the baseball field has been stockpiling young talent over the last few years, and it’s finally starting to come to fruition for the Nats.

They’re going to be dangerous for a long time, folks.

So it might come as a small surprise that Washington has succeeded so quickly, but it’s nowhere near as shocking as the Braves’ early success, at least in the eyes of the rest of the baseball world (who, largely, saw the Braves finishing fourth in the NL East this season). 2012 was supposed to be the year that the Braves were still stuck in the mud because of their 2011 meltdown, and the Phillies were supposed to run away with the division while the Nationals snagged one of the Wild Card spots.

Were we wrong about the Phillies? Was it their meltdown, in last year’s NLCS, that will be impossible to overcome?

As long as you don’t look at their disabled list, you’d be willing to believe that.

The fact is this: with Cliff Lee, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley out with injuries, the Phillies are only hovering around the .500 winning percentage mark because they aren’t healthy. When they get all of their stars back, they’re going to be as scary as ever.

In short, it’s probably going to be a real pain to be a visiting team in Philly this summer.

There’s a chance that the Braves will have to overtake the Nationals in the standings if they want to make the playoffs, but there’s also a possibility, in a weak National League, that the East could get three teams into the postseason with the extra Wild Card spot (each league will have five teams make the playoffs, starting this year). Don’t get me wrong — I’m not willing to concede the division to a Phillies team that has looked pretty weak so far. But I am willing to entertain the thought that they’be been so bad because they’re a shell of themselves, and when the big names get healthy, they’re going to make this division a lot tougher to win.

What I’ve seen so far from the Braves has been encouraging. There has been a lot of late-inning magic, and Chipper Jones has been leading that charge. If he stays healthy and his bat is reliable all season, the clutch hitting could be the difference.

Major League Baseball’s regular season is a marathon, not a sprint. But it has been exciting to see the Braves race out in front, along with a fun-to-watch Washington team.

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