Braves, Nationals set sights on upending Phillies in NL East

As the major league season resumes, the question looms: Can the inconsistent Nationals overtake the Phillies and Braves to win another National League East championship?

The Nationals, who have lost in the NL Division Series in four different seasons, will have all they can do to get back to the postseason. They start tonight at home against the Braves.

The Nationals, who have been bounced from the postseason in the first round in four different seasons by four different teams, are season sitting in third place, 5 1/2 games behind the Phillies. They beat the Mets on Sunday to climb back to 48-48.

Even though rookie manager Dave Martinez says he's not disappointed, the Nationals are disappointing. They have been slowed by injuries, an inconsistent offense (especially with runners in scoring position), a thin bullpen, and questionable defense and baserunning.

In the rotation, Stephen Strasburg, on the disabled list since June 8 with an inflamed shoulder, returns tonight against Atlanta. Tanner Roark is battling the worst slump of his career and Gio Gonzalez pitched well in his last start, shaking off a string of bad pitching. Joe Ross, coming back from Tommy John surgery, could be a factor in late August, but the Nationals need rotation depth.

With 66 games remaining, there is time and a schedule that allows them to make up ground quickly. The Nationals have three series against the Braves, one in each of the last three months. The Nats play the Phillies nine times and the Marlins 12 times.

The Marlins are a last-place team, but they aren't playing as if they are. The Marlins, who traded all their big-name players in the offseason to rebuild their farm system, started 5-17, but they are 21-18 in their last 39 games. They have won eight of their last 12 series, including wins against the Brewers and Phillies in their final two series before the All-Star break.

The Phillies and Braves are running on similar tracks. Each team is rebuilding and each is ahead of schedule, baseball lingo for being a surprise contender.

Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos said that as the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline arrives, he's going to take a conservative approach on trades. He doesn't want to interrupt his long-term plan for a shot at the postseason.

The Braves' season is about young players. Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, Ender Inciarte and Ronald Acuña are the growing core.

Lefty Sean Newcomb and Mike Foltynewicz have grown into rotation staples. The Braves are hoping the same course for pitching prospects Luiz Gohara, Touki Toussiant, Mike Soroko and Kyle Wright.

If the Braves are going stay in contention, they need a deeper bullpen, but relief pitchers - gold in the postseason - are expensive in late July. Third baseman Johan Carmago has done a fine job, so there is no need for an upgrade there.

"Yes, our team is young, but we know we still have to go through the Nationals to win the division,'' Braves All-Star first baseman Freddie Freeman said. "The thing about our division is that there is so much pitching. The Nationals are hard to beat because of their pitching. The Mets have Jacob de Grom and Noah Syndergaard.''

But, for how long those dominating starters will be with the Mets is a hot question. The Mets started 11-1, but now they are 39-55. The team's front office has said it will consider trading Syndergaard or de Grom to beef up a thin farm system.

Matt Klentak, the Phillies general manager, is balancing long-term rebuilding plans versus getting the team into the postseason. If the Phillies go 34-34 the rest of the way, they'll have 87 wins, the same number of wins NL wild card teams have had in three of the last four seasons.

Their rotation has Jake Arrieta, All-Star Aaron Nola and Nick Pivetta, who is getting stronger. They could use an experienced bat and have two young shortstops that aren't hitting, so hence the trade speculation about the Orioles' Manny Machado before he was dealt to the Dodgers.

The Phillies are interested in Twins third baseman Eduardo Escobar and Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas, but with their own third baseman, Makail Franco, hitting well in the last three weeks, the Phillies need a shortstop more.

The Phillies are interested in Orioles closer Zach Britton because rookie manager Gabe Kapler is going to with a bullpen by committee with Seranthony Dominquez the Phillies best reliever. He's got nasty stuff, but his inexperience could hurt in the final two months.

The Phillies are looking at Toronto starter J.A. Happ and Texas pitcher Cole Hamels, 34, whom they traded to the Rangers in July 2015 to get their rebuilding plan underway. Hamels, who pitched for the Phillies' 2008 World Series title team, would love to come back to Philly because he still has a home there.

But his ERA with the Rangers is 4.36 in 19 starts. Yet, in five of his last eight starts, he's gone at least six innings, including seven innings twice.

Hamels is an experienced postseason pitcher. The Phillies are honoring their 2008 World Series championship team on Aug. 5. Will Hamels be there in a Phillies uniform?

The Phillies, who play San Diego this weekend, haven't won a division title since 2011, a season that completed a run of five consecutive trips to the postseason. The Braves haven't won a title since 2013.

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