At first glance, those present at Nationals Park on Sunday had to believe that Davey Johnson was giggling behind his straight face when he said that his Nationals are better than the Braves. Surely, he wasn't serious. To paraphrase the country singer Tammy Wynette, this old-school manager simply was trying to (ahem) stand by his men.
Upon further review, maybe ...
Well, let Johnson speak first.
"We played [the Braves] a lot of close games, but we didn't hold our own with them," Johnson told reporters, referring to a Braves bunch that came to Washington this week after taking 16 of the last 20 games against the Nationals (with a 1.86 ERA) during a stretch that goes back to last year.
It all has contributed to the Braves not only having the best record in the National League this year, but to leading the Nationals by double digits in the NL East for most of the summer.
Entering Tuesday's day-night doubleheader in Washington, the Nationals trailed the Braves by 10 games, and that was despite the Nationals sprinting from nowhere to enter the league's Wild Card race after winning eight of nine and 25 of their last 35.
The Nationals better than the Braves? I mean, the Braves' magic number was just four before Tuesday's first pitch, which means all they needed to do to take the division was sweep the Nationals by the end of the night. (They didn't, though, losing both games of the twin bill.) Even so, this was interesting.
When the questioning continued on Sunday as to whether Johnson really thinks the Nationals are superior to the Braves, he added, "I always believed we're better than them."
Maybe Johnson isn't Wynette. Maybe he is correct.
Well, in part.
Just last season, the Nationals ranked as the next great team in baseball, and that designation happened in a flash. They already had the young and talented likes of third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, then came pitching sensation Stephen Strasburg in 2010, with his actions matching his hype. They added Bryce Harper last year, and the all-everything rookie outfielder joined Zimmerman, Strasburg and other nice pieces to do things that hadn't been done by a Washington Major League team in decades -- or ever.
For one, the 2012 Nationals finished with a winning record for the first time since the franchise moved from Montreal eight years ago. Soon after eclipsing the .500 mark, they officially became the first Major League team from Washington to reach the postseason since the old Senators captured the 1933 pennant. Then the Nationals won the division, and in the process, they finished with baseball's best record.
The fact that the Nationals were eventually crushed by the Cardinals in the NL Division Series was secondary to this: Johnson's young squad retained all of those nice pieces, then it acquired several more during the offseason to become the team to beat in the NL East.
Actually, the Nationals became just one of the teams to beat, because the Braves have a lot of nice pieces, too. These range from perennial All-Star catcher Brian McCann to Gold Glove right fielder Jason Heyward and sensational closer Craig Kimbrel. Which makes you wonder: Who gets the edge when you compare and contrast these gifted rosters, especially when you study their everyday lineups?
The answer? Somewhere Johnson is smiling and nodding. You'll see why after reading the next few paragraphs that break down each position by team.
Catcher: Draw. Although the Braves have the clutch-hitting McCann and his five Silver Slugger Awards, Wilson Ramos doesn't exactly vanish at the plate when the Nationals need offense the most. Ramos also thrives in the clutch, and he and his sizzling bat have rarely left the lineup during the Nationals' current playoff push. Both McCann and Ramos have 55 RBIs, and even though McCann has the slight edge in homers (20 to Ramos' 15), Ramos has the wide edge in batting average (.286 to McCann's .257).
First base: Braves. Atlanta's Freddie Freeman is in the middle of the NL's MVP chase thanks his .313 batting average, 21 homers and 100 RBIs, and when it comes to offense, Adam LaRoche is just waiting for the season to end after slumping most of the year at the plate (.239). He still has managed 20 homers, but he's no Freeman.
Second base: Draw. The Braves' Dan Uggla has hit below .200 for most of the season, and he has been benched often because of his offensive woes. That said, he has 21 homers and 54 RBIs. In contrast, Anthony Rendon has seven homers and 33 RBIs, but he is hitting significantly better than Uggla overall, at .258.
Shortstop: Nationals. Nobody is better defensively than the Braves' Andrelton Simmons, but Ian Desmond isn't shabby, and his offensive numbers are superior -- .285 batting average, 20 homers and 79 RBIs to Simmons' .247, 15 and 52.
Third base: Nationals. Chris Johnson's .327 batting average is second best in the NL. By comparison, Zimmerman is only hitting .281. It's just that the composition of Zimmerman's batting average is solid, and he has 25 homers to Johnson's 10, 74 RBIs to Johnson's 64 and a Gold Glove to Johnson's none.
Outfield: Nationals. And it's not close. Even with a healthy Heyward, who continues to recover from a broken jaw, the Braves' outfield of the Upton brothers (Justin in left and B.J. in center) can't match the firepower of the Nationals' Harper, Denard Span and Jayson Werth. B.J. Upton has joined Uggla in hitting below .200 for most of the season, and Justin Upton and Heyward are hitting .259 and .253, respectively.
That's all good for the Nationals, but then there's that huge category called pitching. Although the Nationals are pretty good, with the ninth-best ERA in the Major Leagues, the Braves are No. 1. Not only that, Kimbrel is the game's top closer, part of the game's top bullpen.
As for defense, going into the doubleheader, the Nationals were 24th in fielding percentage. The Braves were ninth.
Plus, the Braves have that huge lead over the Nationals.
End of debate.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com.