Yes, the college football is only three weeks off.
Yes, Alabama, Auburn and Georgia could all be in the mix for the national championship when the first College Football Playoff rankings are released.
Yes, when football season starts in the Southeast, little if anything else matters.
All of that may be true. But here’s something else that’s true.
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It’s mid-August, and we have ourselves a pennant race.
Who would have thought, right? Well … not to be so uppity, but me. I’m not at all surprised. OK, maybe a little surprised, but certainly not shocked. Friday night’s win over Milwaukee pushed the Braves’ record to 63-50. That .558 winning percentage projects to 90 wins. I thought mid-to-upper 80s in wins would be doable for reasons that I’ll get to in a bit. But here’s my assessment of the Braves right before Opening Day.
“I like this Braves team. Not that I think that the NL East title will be on the line 26 weeks from today, when the Braves play their regular season finale against Philadelphia. The Washington Nationals will have to play their way back to the field.”
The fact that the Nationals have done just that is really the biggest surprise in the National League East. Injuries aside, this Washington team has severely underachieved. They had won 95-98 games in four of the past six seasons coming into this year. They might win 85 games this year.
That’s their problem. The Braves are more than happy to benefit from the Nationals’ mediocrity.
Back to my spring optimism, you might recall I laid out five reasons:
▪ The presence of Ozzie Albies
▪ The maturation of Mike Foltynewicz
▪ The improvement of the bullpen
▪ Late-spring additions of Ryan Flaherty and Peter Bourjos
▪ Young help is on the way
So the bullpen has been a disappointment and Bourjos was a non-factor and is now in the Giants’ farm system. But Albies and Foltynewicz were All-Stars, Flaherty’s impact — especially in April — has exceeded his statistics. The infusion of young players such as Ronald Acuna Jr. and Johan Camargo (remember, he began the season on the disabled list), with occasional contributions from a wave of young arms has made the team better. Mike Soroka and Max Fried have a combined 3.04 ERA in 10 starts.
Sure, there have been some surprises.
Who knew that Charlie Culberson, who had six home runs in parts of five seasons with the Giants, Rockies and Dodgers, would hit eight home runs and become such an offensive catalyst that he simply has to be in the lineup somewhere?
No one expected Nick Markakis to challenge for a batting title. His .326 batting average going into Saturday’s game is 36 percentage points higher than his career average.
Sean Newcomb has developed into one of the toughest left-handed starters in the National League.
Anibal Sanchez was another one of those spring training veteran additions who has, when healthy, provided a big lift.
To all of that, the Braves have added four veterans who can make a difference. Jonny Venters and Brad Brach have provided stability to the bullpen. Kevin Gausman has added depth to the starting rotation. Adam Duvall gives Brian Snitker outfield flexibility with Ender Inciarte surprisingly struggling against left-handed pitchers. Duvall hasn’t done much yet, but Inciarte is suddenly rejuvenated. Duvall’s arrival and Inciarte’s resurgence might not be coincidental.
The regular season has seven weeks remaining. A lot will happen in seven weeks. The Nationals could finally wake up. But here’s one thing I wrote before the season that could be completely wrong. When the Braves visit the Phillies the final weekend of September, the NL East pennant might very well be at stake. Georgia, Auburn and Alabama will be at home against Tennessee, Southern Miss and Louisiana-Lafayette, respectively. You are allowed to multitask, you know.