ATLANTA — It's becoming increasingly clear the Atlanta Braves' best, and perhaps only, path to the playoffs will be through winning the National League East.
And somehow, despite one of the most maddening seasons in recent Braves history, the team is still within striking distance in the division. The Braves sat five games out during Monday's off day, with a three-game series against the first-place Mets looming Tuesday.
It will be an important two weeks for the Braves, who have 12 games remaining before the All-Star break. It could even be a defining stretch. Just ask starter Charlie Morton, a 14-year veteran.
"From an organizational strategy, going forward into the break and at the end of July (the trade deadline), if we can't close the gap or maintain a closeness in the standings, the reality is [general manager] Alex [Anthopoulos] will have some tough decisions to make," Morton said last week.
Looking at the rest of the division, the Mets, who are coming to Atlanta for three games beginning Tuesday, are getting healthier. The Mets have dealt with a remarkable amount of injuries in the first half, especially to their lineup, though veteran starters Carlos Carrasco and Noah Syndergaard haven't yet pitched. New York has led the NL East most of the season and should improve as players return.
Under new owner Steve Cohen, the Mets are expected to be aggressive at the trade deadline as well. Their offense could certainly use a jolt, so they'll likely be in the mix for any top bat available. Even if the Braves start playing better, it will be an uphill climb to meet the Mets atop the division.
The rest of the NL East, like the Braves, is mediocre. Kyle Schwarber led Washington's revival, and a hot stretch has them in second place at 37-38 (four games back). The Phillies (36-39) have been subpar, keeping with their theme of recent seasons, but could also get aggressive at the deadline if they're close enough to a postseason spot.
The Marlins (33-44) remain a frisky rebuilding team and they've certainly hurt the Braves, who are just 2-5 against them. Miami split with Washington over the weekend, somewhat cooling off the Nationals.
This is one area where the Braves must be better in the second half (and this week) if they're going to climb back into the mix. They've been pedestrian against the NL East, a division they've mostly dominated during the past three seasons.
In addition to their lackluster results against Miami, the Braves are 3-5 with the Mets after splitting a four-game series in Queens last week. They're 5-7 against the Phillies, including 1-5 at Citizens Bank Park. They are 7-3 against the Nationals, though they caught Washington during its uninspiring start.
Meanwhile, around the rest of the NL, the wild card race seems destined for the West. The surprising Giants were the first team to 50 wins and still lead the NL West, with the powerhouse Dodgers and Padres behind them. The Dodgers and Padres are still trying to hit their stride, but there's an argument that they possess the two best rosters in the sport.
Each of the three western teams has at least 46 wins. While the Brewers and Cubs are in that same conversation, it will take a strong second half for one of the NL East teams to pass one of the West clubs for a wild-card spot.
That's not to rule it out — MLB is the ultimate marathon league — but it will be a major challenge, making a divisional crown the Braves' clearest path. The Braves were 8 1/2 games out of the second wild card (San Diego) before Monday's games.
Whether the Braves can get back in the postseason discussion, or even make it interesting, remains to be seen. But having a strong homestand against the Mets and Marlins, then finishing the first half well against the last-place Pirates and Marlins again, would go a long way.