What's going on with the Braves?
With the Nationals finally turning into the world-beaters they were always destined to become, the Braves don't have much of a shot at the division crown anymore. Atlanta is eight games back in the loss column and doesn't appear to have the talent to catch up to Washington, whose run differential has recently peaked into triple-digit range.
Thank goodness for that second Wild Card slot, though. Although the Braves are four losses behind the Cardinals for the lead in the Wild Card standings, they stand only one loss behind San Francisco for a chance to take part in a one-game playoff at the end of the season.
To do that, though, the southern club is going to have to keep winning. After a brutal stretch to begin the month of August, the Braves somehow got back on track against Oakland and Pittsburgh before splitting four games with Cincinnati last weekend. That sets up the Braves for 15 straight games within the National League East, six of which are against the Marlins, whom Atlanta is just barely holding off for second place in the division.
So can Atlanta survive the gauntlet of September and make the playoffs? Fans are not very confident.
Who are these guys?
Emilio Bonifacio was acquired by Atlanta right before the trade deadline alongside lefty reliever James Russell from the Cubs. The Braves gave up catching prospect Victor Caratini in the deal. He's far away from the majors and is blocked by another catcher in Christian Bethancourt, but it's a little strange for a smart team like Atlanta to give up a prospect in exchange for a utility piece like Bonifacio. He got off to a hot start this season with the Cubs, and he can play shortstop as well as the outfield, but Bonifacio is a player who doesn't get on base or hit for power regularly enough to be considered a regular. Speed and versatility are his calling cards.
Another player who is giving the Braves some help down the stretch is infielder/outfielder Phil Gosselin. The former fifth-round draft pick out of Virginia was never much of a hitter in the minor leagues... until this season when he ripped off a .344/.379/.487 line at Triple-A Gwinnett to put himself in the promotion conversation. Gosselin has been up and down this season between the minors and the majors, but his recent streak of solid hitting could make his current big league stint much more than a cup of coffee.
Who's on the mound?
Tuesday: Alex Wood vs. Dillon Gee
Considering the way he has pitched recently, it's hard to believe that Wood was once shifted to the bullpen in the middle of this season. The 23-year-old lefty is now up to five starts in a row with at least six innings pitched and two earned runs allowed or fewer. His strikeout rate has bounced around a little bit, but given Wood's youth and consistency this season, he looks like a future rotation piece for sure.
Gee was roughed up in Oakland during his last outing, but now he has the chance to go back-to-back starts without allowing a home run for the first time since April. Other than that fun tidbit, the main reason to watch Gee is to see whether he can help the Mets hang around with an Atlanta team in the middle of a playoff push. Gee has struggled against strong offenses lately, but his one performance against the Braves in 2014 was a very solid one.
Wednesday: Julio Teheran vs. Zack Wheeler
Teheran was the clear ace of Atlanta's rotation in the first half of the season, but he's pitched like a mere mortal for the past two months. Back on July 8, even the Mets were able to score five runs on Teheran, lighting him up for 11 hits in less than four innings. He hasn't nearly been that bad in August, but even after six shutout innings against the Reds last week, Teheran's ERA is 4.62 for the month.
Wheeler's start in Oakland was a little worse than his recent string of solid outings. He let up four runs, failed to finish the sixth inning, and once again was not efficient with his pitch count. Wheeler is still young and still has the potential to be a high-end starter, but it now looks like we'll have to wait until 2014 or later to see him consistently pitch seven innings with two walks or fewer.
Thursday: Mike Minor vs. Jon Niese
With the way Minor has pitched this season, it's no wonder that Wood has replaced him as Atlanta's most intriguing young left-handed pitcher. Minor's strikeout and walk rates aren't too far off from where they were during his breakout 2013 campaign, but he is giving up more hits and home runs than before. The Mets are coming off of a four-homer game and hit three dingers off of Minor across two July matchups, so it might be time to warm up that apple in center field.
Since Niese came back from the disabled list in late July, he's allowed less than three runs in just one of seven starts. That's pretty sad for what was once the world's most consistent pitcher. Niese is 27 years old and should be peaking this year, but instead Niese is starting to look more like an extra arm than a solid middle-of-the-rotation asset. Hopefully he can get back to posting quality starts on the regular next month.
Prediction: The Mets drop two of three to the strong-armed Braves.