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The Braves have to seize the NL East right here and now

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It was always going to come down to this, wasn’t it?

MLB: MAY 07 Phillies at Braves Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We all knew it was going to come down to this, huh? With the Braves having a soft schedule and the Phillies having an even softer schedule, it was almost as if it was pre-ordained by the baseball gods themselves that this late-September series between these two divisional foes was always going to be the series that more-than-likely decided who was going to the Postseason and who was going to the couch to watch the NFL until pitchers and catchers report in 2022.

With that being said, the way I feel about this upcoming series is the same way how I felt about Atlanta’s previous homestand. For the Braves, this should be a matter of taking care of business against the team that you’ve been up against all season. They’re currently two-and-a-half up on Philadelphia and this is a golden opportunity to finish off the division for the fourth season in a row and to do it in front of your fans at home.

August 1, 2021 is an important date and I’m going to keep mentioning it as we go forward. Ever since the first day of August, these teams have been somewhat evenly matched when you look at their stats as collectives. The Braves as a team have hit for 100 wRC+ and the Phillies are at 101. The Braves have hit for more power as their .202 Isolated Power suggests, but .190 for Philadelphia ain’t shabby at all. The Phillies have done a better job of drawing walks (9.2 percent to Atlanta’s 8.3 percent) and avoiding strikeouts (19.9 percent compared to Atlanta’s 22.4 percent), but the two teams have just about equaled each other in wOBA (Atlanta’s at .326, Philly’s at .325) and in BABIP (both are at .279). So these two teams have basically been running at the same clip at the plate since the first day of August.

It’s been the same when it comes to the mound action as well. Atlanta’s starters have put up an ERA of 3.70, a FIP of 4.19 and an xFIP of 3.69. Philadelphia’s rotation has had a 3.81 ERA, a 3.49 FIP and a 3.69 FIP. I’d imagine that the first few innings of these games are going to be very close and very nervy. Both teams may get their fair share of body blows in but unless one of these front-end starters for either one of these teams just has a bad day, it’s going to be close during the early goings of the game.

Where things could get really interesting is towards the end, and this is probably the main difference between these two clubs. Since the aforementioned date of August 1, the Braves bullpen has come together to produce a 3.39 ERA, a 3.82 FIP, and a 4.27 xFIP. Meanwhile, the Phillies are at 4.87 ERA, 4.57 FIP and xFIP. While Atlanta’s bullpen has been vulnerable at times (especially in the closing stages, in which Will Smith’s struggles since August 1 have been hastily documented elsewhere), they’ve been solid and have usually been more of a benefit to the Braves than a burden.

Philadelphia’s bullpen has been a different story. They’ve had bullpen issues for going on three straight seasons, now. In 2019, their relievers finished with a collective fWAR of 0.8 which was good for 23rd-best in all of baseball that year. During last year’s 60-game sprint they limped to a third-worst in all of baseball -0.9 fWAR finish (which wasn’t even the lowest number in the division (Miami’s bullpen was worth -1.4 fWAR!) and this year, it’s likely they’ll finish third-worst again as they’re currently on 0.5 fWAR for the season. They’ve already broken their franchise record for blown saves in a season and are still adding to it as they’re currently sitting on 34 blown saves — the most in all of baseball this season.

If the Braves are going to hold on to this divisional lead heading into the final weekend on the series, it’ll be imperative to keep piling on the misery to that bullpen. Again, Philadelphia’s rotation is solid and will likely do enough to keep them in the game. The Braves will have to punish any and all mistakes that they make and if that happens, the division will either be locked up or pretty close to being locked up by the end of this series. The Braves have done a solid job of hitting at home all season, as they’re currently sitting on 100 home wRC+ collectively, .195 Isolated Power in Cobb County and .329 wOBA in the state of Georgia. It hasn’t turned into a dominant home record — the Braves are only 37-37 at home this year, but if they finish this final homestand strong then division will likely be theirs once again.

MLB: SEP 09 Nationals at Braves
Some Soler Power would be greatly appreciated this week.
Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Comparatively, Philadelphia’s pitching numbers on the road are pretty similar to their overall number. They also haven’t been a particularly good hitting team away from Philly as well, as their road numbers (94 wRC+, .171 ISO, .313 wOBA) suggest that they aren’t exactly a murderer’s row on the road. Few teams are truly scary away from their home ballparks but the Phillies do not fall in that category. With that being said, they have done a pretty good job of winning since August 1, as they will be taking a 14-9 road record since that date into Truist Park this week. However, that has made up for what has been a rough season on the road for the Phillies, as they will be heading into this series with a 34-41 away record.

The caveat is that of those 23 road games during that span, they played a grand total of three (3) games against teams that are currently over .500 heading into this final week of the regular season — the NL Central-leading Milwaukee Brewers, who took two out of three from the Phillies earlier this month. If the Braves hadn’t (technically) swept the Padres this past weekend, San Diego would be on that list. Instead, that just adds to the league’s easiest strength-of-schedule that the Phillies have had to deal with down the stretch. Still, you can only play who’s on your schedule and the Phillies have been taking care of business in that department.

Philadelphia Phillies v Atlanta Braves
Keep Bryce Harper from going wild. Please.
Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

With all of that being said, the onus is still sitting squarely on Atlanta’s shoulders to either finish this thing off or get very close to finishing them off. The Braves may be down 7-9 in the season series so far, but there are a couple of reasons why I keep mentioning August 1. Firstly, the Braves have been a different team since then, as they’ve gone 31-19 since that date. Philadelphia hasn’t been that far behind the Braves since the start of August but there’s also another reason why I bring up that specific date: The Braves and Phillies haven’t played each other since late-July. Things have changed dramatically for the Braves since then.

Sure, everything that Kris mentioned in his three things to watch for could come into play, such as these two teams having such a disparity in their results in one-run games and Bryce Harper currently being the best version of Bryce Harper that we’ve seen in the bigs to date. However, if the version of the Braves that surged into the division lead in an effort to win it for the fourth year in a row shows up, then the biggest series of the season in the NL East could end up being a fruitful one for the Braves. They’ve played admirably to get back into the race and a golden opportunity is now in their hands. They absolutely can’t waste it — at least so we won’t have to hear about Alec Bohm’s phantom run back in April looming large in October.