Is it time to admit that the New York Mets just may be a better baseball team - at least at the MLB All-Star break - than the Atlanta Braves?
Is it time for Braves Country to set its sights on clinching a wild-card bid for the postseason rather than winning the National League East? And if so, does it really matter?
We ask these questions after a week in which the second-place Braves started 1 1/2 games in back of the Mets in the division race and ended one game further back after losing 7-3 to the host Washington Nationals on Sunday. The main culprit for that lost game in the East standings was dropping two of three to New York at Atlanta's Truist Park this past Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.
If anything should worry the Braves moving forward, it's that the Mets' Max Scherzer looked a fair bit more imposing than Atlanta's Max Fried on Monday, what with Fried walking five batters in that loss. What should also concern the Braves is that New York starter Jacob deGrom is expected to return after the All-Star break from a lengthy rehab for a shoulder injury. If the Mets can play as well as they have without Scherzer and deGrom for much of the summer, bringing those pitchers back for the season's final nine or 10 weeks is likely to end much serious talk of Atlanta overtaking them to win its fifth straight division crown.
That said, this isn't about the East. The wild-card round is a best two-out-of-three format. Assuming the Braves can post the best record among those who fail to win a division crown - and they currently have a comfortable edge in that department - they would own home field for that opening round.
And once past that, there's no reason to think they can't win a seven-game series against the Mets if they can find a way to beat either Scherzer or deGrom at least one of the four games they'd probably face them. Also, despite Fried's struggles last Monday, don't expect a repeat come the playoffs, at least not in the walk department.
After Saturday's 6-3 win over the Nationals gave him his 10th victory of the season and 50th overall since reaching the majors, Fried told MLB.com: "I just wanted to go out there and challenge the hitters. If you walk a guy, you have zero chance of getting him out. But at least if they put the ball in play, there's a chance of getting them out. Wanted to make it a point that I was going to go on the attack and didn't want to have any free bases."
If Mike Soroka ever returns from his injury issues - and there was a time when Soroka, not Fried, was considered the ace of the Braves staff - Atlanta might have more than enough pitching power to challenge the Mets, the NL West-leading Los Angeles Dodgers or anyone else who currently appears to have an edge on the mound.
And perhaps no one has an edge at the plate on the Braves when everyone's healthy, which Atlanta won't be until injured second baseman Ozzie Albies returns.
In fact, even with Albies likely out until mid-September, Atlanta has still amassed the third highest-scoring offense in the major leagues behind the American League's New York Yankees (497) and the NL's Dodgers (462), the Braves heading to the All-Star break with 446 runs scored. Returning Albies to the mix is almost sure to strengthen that.
So where does Atlanta need help? Another quality starter is always nice. As for a lockdown closer in case Kenley Jansen's heart issues return, rookie flamethrower Spencer Strider, who started Sunday's game, would seem to be perfect for that job if he's needed.
Everywhere else, the Braves would appear to have it all, though there are still times when it seems they're a little too in love with the longball, whether the chicks dig it or not.
Then again, they do lead the NL in home runs and have the best bullpen of any NL team, at least statistically. Their staff ERA is second, as are the number of starter innings pitched. They are also the first NL team not to have suffered at least a three-game losing streak this deep into the season since the 2009 Dodgers.
In many ways, other than the Dodgers, Atlanta looks better top to bottom than any team in the league, and maybe any other team in the majors other than the Yankees.
It certainly looks good enough for Braves manager Brian Snitker to have observed on Sunday before heading to L.A. to manage the NL in the All-Star Game on Tuesday night: "We're doing real good. We're another championship team in my mind."
Just maybe not quite good enough become the NL East champs for a fifth straight year.