WASHINGTON -- For the second year in a row, the Washington Nationals were picked by many sports experts to make it to and even win the World Series this season. But unlike last year, they are in a much better position to take the first step down that road.
In 2013, the Nats hit the break at just 48-47, a full six games behind the Atlanta Braves, easily the largest deficit of any second-place team at the time. Not only is Washington in far better position this year, leading the Braves by percentage points in the NL East, but their peripheral numbers and health relative to their primary division competitor shine favorably upon the rest of the year.
Washington hits the second half with a +61 run differential, the best mark in the National League (the Los Angeles Dodgers are second at +50). The Braves, meanwhile, are just +12 on the season, a number that suggests an inability to continue to win at the pace they have thus far. This time last year, Atlanta was +78 and the Nationals were -14, on the way to the Braves winning the division by 10 games.
Fangraphs currently predicts a 40-29 finish out of the Nationals, which would leave them with 91 wins and a four-game cushion over the Braves. In fact, the +46 run differential that they predict for Washington the rest of the way far exceeds that of the next closest teams, the Dodgers and Tigers at +32. Atlanta is projected at +13.
But with Bryce Harper and Wilson Ramos both returning to health in the middle of the lineup, the offense may be even better than anticipated. Since 2012, Washington has won at a .567 clip when Harper has played, and a .586 mark when Ramos has.
The Nationals get a tough test from the Brewers at home right out of the break, but then play 41 of their final 65 games against teams with losing records. And nine of their 27 total games remaining against teams with winning records come against Atlanta.
Meanwhile, the Braves will get no reinforcements for their depleted starting rotation, with Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen each out for the year. Barring an upgrade via trade -- certainly not out of the realm of possibility -- they will continue to rely on a staff that has been consistently lucky so far. Atlanta's ERA+ of 110 as a staff is second best in the league, despite a WHIP of 1.25, eighth in the NL.
The Atlanta offense, which was tops in the National League with 181 home runs last season, has produced just 81 this year, tied for seventh. Braves hitters are on pace to hit just 138 this year.
It's funny to look at a division that is essentially tied and think that it really isn't that close, but that's exactly what this year's NL East appears to be. There are still plenty of games left, and plenty of twists and turns that could sour the outlook for Washington, but as things stand heading into Friday, the Nationals are well positioned for their second NL East title in three years.
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