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Chance to run away with East escaping Braves

Atlanta has yet to take advantage of lackluster division after hot start @matthewhleach

NEW YORK -- The most powerful force in the race for the National League East title appears to be inertia.

The first-place Braves refuse to make the kind of run that would put the division away. All the while, the Nationals and Phillies refuse to make them pay for it.

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So in late July, the division stands almost exactly where it was in early June -- with Atlanta holding a seven-game lead while Washington and Philadelphia pursue. A 4-1 loss to the Mets on Tuesday kept the Braves from taking a season-high eight-game division lead, as the Phillies and Nats both lost.

"We missed an opportunity there," said starter Kris Medlen, who took the loss.

It's hard to know what to make of the division-leading Braves, a team that looked like a contender for best team in baseball not that long ago.

They're clearly in command of the NL East, with the only winning record and by far the best run differential. But they're still 12 games over .500, just like they were 48 games into the season. They've been spinning their wheels for nearly two months, not losing ground, but not gaining any, either.

"You go through your peaks and valleys," manager Fredi Gonzalez said, "and hopefully your peaks are a lot longer than your valleys. ... I think we still have a lot of good baseball left."

Gonzalez emphasized that the lull doesn't worry him. He pointed to the Dodgers, who struggled early before taking off in recent weeks. And it's true that very few teams go a full season without any uninspiring stretches. At some point, though, it's worth wondering when an uninspiring stretch is something more.

"You always want to play better," Gonzalez said. "That's just the way the game is at times. But I just look at it one game at a time. I don't get myself caught up in looking forward or looking back. You just put the blinders on and keep going."

Tuesday's loss followed an uplifting late-inning win on Monday, and thus it was emblematic of Atlanta's recent fortunes. The Braves have avoided lengthy freefalls, but since the beginning of June, they've been utterly unable to get any traction.

Atlanta is 6-6 in the past 12 games, 13-13 in the past 26. A four-game winning streak in late June and early July was immediately followed by four losses in five games.

With the way the Nationals and Phillies have played, Atlanta should have run away with the division already. Instead, the margin remains just close enough to allow those teams to dream -- and perhaps to add talent before the non-waiver Trade Deadline.

The question is which Braves team is the real thing: the one that stormed to a 37-22 record in early June, or the one that's been under .500 since. It's certainly worth noting that they've dealt with some significant injuries, especially on the offensive side. And they're getting a pitching infusion with the arrival of Alex Wood and the return of Brandon Beachy from injury.

All signs indicate that Atlanta should be about to get hot. Then again, the schedule set up perfectly for a hot streak in recent weeks, and it didn't happen. Thirty of the Braves' past 37 games came against teams currently below .500, and they went 17-20 in those games.

The natural tendency is to blame at least some of the inconsistency on Atlanta's all-or-nothing offensive style. Yet the Braves are actually fourth in the NL in on-base percentage, and a passable ninth in batting average. They don't just hit home runs.

It's a little bit of everything. On Monday they scored two runs and won. Two days earlier, they scored six runs and lost.

"We feel comfortable," said shortstop Andrelton Simmons, who homered on Tuesday. "We feel all right. We come to the field every day knowing how good we are. We know we're not a small-ball type of team, but at the same time we try to execute whenever we get a chance. But we've got to get better at it."

The upcoming schedule, like recent results, is a good news/bad news proposition. The Braves will have plenty of chances to step on the throats of their rivals over the season's final 10 weeks. Then again, that also means plenty of chances for those chasing teams to gain ground directly.

Of Atlanta's final 62 games, 13 come against the Phillies and nine against the Nationals. That's more than a third of the Braves' remaining games against the two teams closest to them in the standings. Get hot, and they win the division in the walk. Keep shuffling, and this race could yet get interesting.

For his part, Gonzalez continues to emphasize keeping things simple.

"I don't look at anything other than, our goal is to try to win series," he said. "I've been preaching that since day one. ... If you do that, I think at the end of the year you're in pretty good position. We'll leave it at that."

Matthew Leach is a national reporter for Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach.

Atlanta Braves