WASHINGTON -- For four months now, the Braves have mashed, bashed and brawned their way up the National League East standings, playing at a .705 clip since June 1 to pull into a tie with the Mets atop the division on Tuesday night. Despite that juggernaut pace, only once did Atlanta gain sole possession of the top spot, and only briefly -- by a half-game on Sept. 9 -- before the calculus flipped again.
Given a chance to reclaim it Wednesday night, the Braves came out flat and suffered a 3-2 loss to the Nationals in 10 innings in the nation’s capital that, combined with the Mets' come-from-behind win over the Marlins, sank them a full game back of New York again with six to play. Jackson Stephens yielded CJ Abrams’ walk-off single 18 minutes before the Mets walked off Miami in the 10th, setting the stage for the division drama to come to a head beginning Friday, when Atlanta and New York open a three-game showdown at Truist Park (weather permitting).
“Every game is important,” manager Brian Snitker said. “This is just another one of them in line.”
That’s especially true given the Braves’ situation. Atlanta made up 2 1/2 games in the five days entering Wednesday, roughly tripling its chances, statistically, of winning the division (from 12.6% on Friday to 36.9% entering Wednesday, per FanGraphs odds). The disappointing turn of events in the series finale in D.C. diminishes those, and it makes the upcoming games even more important, given the tiebreaker implications. With no Game 163 this year, the Braves’ 7-9 record against the Mets means they need to win the division outright. Atlanta needs to sweep New York this weekend to steal that tiebreaker; even if the Braves do, they’d enter the season’s final series only two games up with three to play.
“It’ll be a really exciting series,” said Michael Harris II, whose leaping catch at the center-field wall and game-tying eighth-inning single were some of Wednesday's highlights. “Going into the series, we’re still feeling good, regardless of the loss. We’re trying to go in there, take the series and win the rest of the games so we can get first place in the East.”
Still, it’s less than a best-case scenario for the Braves, who were 10 1/2 games back on June 1 and rearranged their pitching plans so that their top three healthy starters lined up this weekend against the Mets. They almost got away with it, too, before Jake Odorizzi’s ill-timed 3 2/3-inning start Wednesday on a night the offense went quiet against Nats right-hander Josiah Gray.
As it stands, Atlanta is happy to line up Max Fried, Kyle Wright and Charlie Morton this weekend against Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer and Chris Bassitt, all on extra rest. As if the stakes and weather uncertainty didn’t give the series enough juice, those matchups further forecast it as a heavyweight clash.
“It’ll be fun -- this is why you play,” Snitker said. “It’s two really good teams going at it, and we’ll see what happens.”
Said Harris: “It’s two really chippy teams and two really good organizations going against each other.”
There are obvious advantages to winning the division. Winning the East would send the Braves straight to the NL Division Series and allow them to avoid the NL-best Dodgers until it came time to play for the pennant. Settling for the top Wild Card spot, meanwhile, would peg Atlanta in a potentially difficult matchup against either the Padres, Phillies or Brewers in a best-of-three Wild Card Series.
There are several ways the Braves can avoid that. But Wednesday’s loss guarantees all require more winning. Even if Atlanta took two of three from New York this weekend, for instance, it would lose the tiebreaker by virtue of the season-series record and would then enter the final regular-season series tied for first place with three to play. The Mets can only claim the East this weekend if they sweep.
Whatever happens, every permutation comes with the Wild Card as a guaranteed fallback for the Braves. But that would be less than ideal for several reasons, a big one being that there is a chance the Wild Card Series could come immediately following any rescheduled games from this weekend, if Hurricane Ian ends up becoming interruptive. The final regular-season games are scheduled for Oct. 5, with the Wild Card Series beginning on Oct. 7.
“I just think playing the games is the best thing, whenever we do it,” Snitker said. “I can think about it, but nothing is going to happen no matter how much I worry or how hard I think. I’m not going to control it. I just hope it plays itself out at some point, and we can play three games in the three games we are allotted.”
For how and when those games ultimately get played, all the Braves can do is wait. All they knew for certain boarding their flight home Wednesday night was that when they suit up again, it will more or less be for all the marbles -- and with their top starter on the mound.
“It’s not a bad thing when you’re playing down to the end and you need to stay on edge,” Snitker said. “That’s why in the past a lot of Wild Card teams have done so well, because they didn’t have any letdowns or time to relax. They had to stay on edge. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”