WASHINGTON >> They were never expected to be where they were in the N.L. East at the All-Star break. They were too young. They were not ready. They would be nowhere near the top.
“Obviously not a lot of people picked us,” one player said. “But we’re here 94 games in and playing great baseball.”
So they are, those Atlanta Braves. And so, Freddie Freeman’s comments and attitude would provide a siren effect to the first-place Phillies: Do not arrange for an Art Museum steps parade permit just yet.
Though the Phils had the right to enjoy the All-Star break in a state of well-earned, first-place bliss, the Braves and the Nationals were hardly rehearsing their throw-in-the-towel motions.
“At the beginning of the season, if you’d have said we would be a half-game out of first place going into the All-Star break, everybody would have been ecstatic,” Freeman said. “Obviously, we didn’t play the way we wanted to in the last couple weeks. But it is a much-needed break for our whole team.
“It’s a great division. I think we’re going to come down to the wire for all three teams, because you know the Nationals are going to pick up. So this is going to be a tough division I’ve always said that the N.L. East is one of the toughest divisions in baseball, and it is starting to show again.”
The N.L. East was one of two divisions with at least three teams within five and a half games of first place at the break. The N.L. West had four. So if that doesn’t automatically make it among the toughest division, it does mean it will invite a crowded scramble for the championship and any wild-card leftovers.
As for the past-performances, only one of those contenders has a relevant knowledge of how it is to be done: The two-time defending champion Nationals, who have won the division four times since 2012.
Their plan: Be themselves.
“It’s going to come down to all those cliché things that are really cliché for a reason,” Nats All-Star relief pitcher Sean Doolittle was saying. “It’s going to be playing for each other, coming together, not worrying about what the Braves and Phillies are doing and really just focusing on each day and what we can do to win that day.
“I think we can probably do a better job of playing as a cohesive unit and really picking each other up, doing the little things like having productive outs on offense, relievers getting shut-down innings after we’re able to score some runs, relievers picking each other up coming out of the bullpen. Those little things are going to be that much more magnified now that we are going to have to make up some ground.”
The Phillies and Braves may think they are ready for a pennant race. The Nationals, who are expecting some relief from injury troubles, know they are.
“We have to play with a sense of urgency,” Doolittle said. “There is not one thing that we can put our finger on, so it is really going to take a group effort. But with such a veteran group and the experience we have, we definitely don’t feel out of it. So we are going to come out of the break playing with some energy.”
With that, the challenge was on. Then again, it has been on all season for the Phillies, whose over-achievement was reflected in their lack of representation this week in Nationals Park. The Braves had four All-Stars, with Freeman and Nick Markakis in the starting lineup. The Nats had three, with Bryce Harper and Max Scherzer starting. Not including Rhys Hoskins, who was hanging in the clubhouse Monday for the Home Run Derby, the Phillies had one.
That left it up to Aaron Nola, his own self, to walk the first-place walk.
“What stands out to me about our team is the guys coming through in the clutch,” he said. “Sometimes, you see one guy or two guys coming through in the clutch. But for our team, a lot of guys are clutch. A guy you don’t expect to get a big hit in a situation will. So I think right there, it is playing as a team, not just depending on one or two guys. Everybody is contributing.”
Nola believes the trend will continue, for with Jake Arrieta and Carlos Santana, it’s not like the Phils don’t have anyone new to September pressure.
“It started in spring training,” said Nola, who worked one shutout inning in the All-Star Game. “I don’t think anybody was expecting us to be at the top of our division But we added some veteran guys, guys who have been in the playoffs and pennant races, who have been in a World Series and have won a World Series. And following their lead has really helped us out.”
The Phillies will resume play Friday against the visiting San Diego Padres. They were hoping to have been bolstered by then with a trade for All-Star Manny Machado. The Baltimore shortstop, however, is reportedly headed to the Dodgers.
Either way, the Nationals and the Braves would be stalking.
“We have a chance to win,” Freeman said. “This is fun.”
Jake Arrieta will pitch Friday, Vince Velasquez Saturday and Nick Pivetta Sunday against San Diego.