Real or Not: Are the Mets the team to beat in the NL East?

Wilmer Flores dug in against Matt Albers, the New York Mets and Milwaukee Brewers tied in the bottom of the ninth with two outs, the count 1-2. It certainly seemed like Sunday's game was headed for extra innings. Flores plays mostly against lefties these days and has never done much against righties in his career, with a sub-.300 OBP and sub-.400 slugging percentage. With two strikes, those numbers are even worse.

Albers threw a 92-mph sinker, but it backed up over the plate, not quite dead center but center enough, and Flores did this:

It was Flores’ third career walk-off home run and pushed the Mets’ record to 12-2. What looked like one of those games in which a good Noah Syndergaard start would be wasted -- he fanned 11 in 5⅓ innings, including eight in a row at one point, and induced 25 swing-and-misses, the second most of his career -- instead turned into a dramatic 3-2 victory. Yes, it’s only 14 games, but there’s no doubt the Mets feel like they have “it” right now ... while the Washington Nationals most definitely don’t.

In D.C., the Nationals scored five runs for Stephen Strasburg against the Rockies, which should be enough for a win, but Charlie Blackmon homered and doubled in two more runs and the Rockies scored four runs off Strasburg. They added two more off the Washington bullpen, including Ian Desmond’s two-out home run in the ninth off Sean Doolittle to haunt his old team and give the Rockies a 6-5 win.

That loss dropped the Nationals to a lackluster 7-9, even though Bryce Harper mashed his MLB-leading seventh home run -- and keep in mind that Strasburg and Max Scherzer have started half the team’s 16 games. After opening the season with a sweep over the hapless Reds, the Nationals have gone just 4-9, with some obvious issues to worry about. Daniel Murphy has yet to return after offseason knee surgery, Adam Eaton is back on the DL with a bone bruise in his ankle, Ryan Zimmerman has looked terrible with his average down to .122 and Trea Turner hasn’t done much at the plate (although he’s at least drawing some walks at a much-improved rate).

The hot start/cold start has propelled the Mets to much better odds of winning the National League East, up to 39.3 percent compared with 18.3 percent on Opening Day (via FanGraphs). The Mets can match Scherzer and Strasburg with Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom, they have a bench that compares with the Nationals' as one of the best in the National League and their bullpen may be even deeper, leading the majors with a 1.51 ERA, including 10 scoreless innings from closer Jeurys Familia.

Are the Mets the team to beat in the NL East? I wouldn’t say that just yet, but they’ve dealt with not only a tough early schedule, but some tough weather conditions too. They took two of three from the Cardinals, swept two games against the Phillies, swept the Marlins and Nationals, then took two of three in this series against the Brewers. Next up: a three-game set at home against the Nationals starting Monday. They even luck out by missing Scherzer and Strasburg.

Another thing to consider about the Nationals: They’ve spent years beating up on what has mostly been a lousy NL East. Since the Nationals broke out in 2012, the division hasn't had three winning teams in a single season. There have been more times when a team lost 90-plus games (10) than when a team other than the Nationals finished above .500 (4). Against those four teams with a winning record -- the 2012 and '13 Braves and the 2015 and '16 Mets -- the Nationals went 38-39. In fact, since 2012 they’ve played .602 baseball against the NL East and .542 against the rest of the majors.

Well, not only do the Mets look better than they did last year, but so do the Phillies and Braves. The Phillies beat the Rays 10-4 on Sunday for their sixth straight win to improve to 9-5. The Braves have been pounding the baseball and are 8-6 after getting postponed on Sunday. Keep in mind: The last time the Nationals were challenged for the division title, in 2015, they folded, going 8-11 against the Mets, memorably getting swept in two big series in August and September.

Red Sox keep rolling: Speaking of dealing with some cold weather, the Red Sox have shrugged off near-freezing temperatures on several occasions to start 13-2, the first team to do that since the 2013 Braves. It's the best start for an American League team since the 1987 Brewers started 14-1.

On Sunday, Chris Sale lasted just five innings as the game-time temperature was 34 degrees, with a 23-mph wind. It was so miserable the Red Sox gave way free hot chocolate to fans at Fenway. If you ever wondered what it would be like to play baseball in January in New England, this game provided evidence.

Anyway, Sale gave up one run and got a no-decision in the 3-1 win over the Orioles as the bullpen allowed one hit over four scoreless innings. It has been about the pitching for the Red Sox, as the rotation leads the majors with a 2.06 ERA and has allowed just six home runs.

One guy to keep an eye on: A slimmed-down Hanley Ramirez, off to a .333/.386/.569 start. I wasn’t counting on much from Ramirez as two of his three seasons in Boston have provided below-average offense, including a .242/.320/.429 line in 2017, and he’s now 34. If he hits, watch out. He’s also channeling David Ortiz in other ways:

The Dodgers seem a lot better when Clayton Kershaw pitches: Kershaw finally got his first win, allowing one run in seven innings while striking out 12 as the Dodgers beat the Diamondbacks 7-2 to salvage the final game of the series. From researcher Sarah Langs of ESPN Stats & Information: Kershaw had 10 strikeouts on his slider, matching the most for any game in his career. (He also had 10 on June 20, 2011 against the Tigers.)

Here’s another fun list from Sarah, the most 10-plus K/0 BB games since 1893:

Randy Johnson: 36

Curt Schilling: 27

Clayton Kershaw: 22

Roger Clemens: 21

Now, about the rest of the team ...

The Reds are a mess: I didn’t think any team would be bad enough to challenge the Marlins for the worst record, but the Reds have been an ugly disaster so far. They’re 2-13 after a 3-2 loss to the Cardinals. There’s no need to get into the particulars. When you’re 2-13, you’re not hitting and you’re not pitching.

I do, however, want to take a moment to discuss Joey Votto. That usually means we’re discussing good things. Not right now. Votto is hitting an empty .236 -- no extra-base hits and just three walks. It saddens me just to type those numbers. That’s 14 games without an extra-base hit and a walk rate that has dropped from 19.0 percent in 2017 to 5.0 percent this season. God forbid, could Votto go from MVP runner-up to washed-up overnight?

The good news: Probably not. Consider these items:

  • Votto once went 19 games without an extra-base hit, back in 2015. For further context, he had a 16-game streak last season.

  • Via Statcast, Votto’s average exit velocity last year was 87.9 mph; including Sunday’s game, it’s 88.3 mph this year.

  • The walk rate is a little weird, but Votto also started last season not walking much (11 times in April compared to a monthly high of 35 in August).

More bad weather: On Jackie Robinson Day, bad weather in the Midwest canceled six games, including a Yankees-Tigers doubleheader. It also pushed Shohei Ohtani’s next start to Tuesday against the Red Sox.

It’s impossible to analyze what the poor weather has meant. It’s ironic, however, that the players negotiated to have extra off days in the schedule, only now so many games have been postponed that teams will be spending some of those days playing makeup games. The White Sox have played 12 games in 18 calendar days. It’s obviously affected attendance. Bottom line: No excuses. If there’s bad weather, both teams have to play in it.