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The Strike Zone

NL East race gets murkier with Gavin Floyd injury and competitive second-tier teams

The Washington Nationals and Stephen Strasburg have their hands full with a competitive NL East. Photo: Al Tielemans/SI

The Washington Nationals and Stephen Strasburg have their hands full with a competitive NL East.

The Nationals and Braves are sputtering. The Phillies are surging. The Marlins and Mets, somehow, are hanging around. The NL East? It’s one big mess.

Thursday was a fascinating night in the division, and after it was over, no team in the NL East was more than three games over .500 (the division-leading Nationals were 37-34), and no team was more than five games out of first place (the last-place Mets, after a 1-0 win, were just five games behind Washington). The NL East wasn’t supposed to be the most crowded division in baseball. It was supposed to include two great teams (the Nationals and Braves) and three lousy ones. Instead, it’s become the most mediocre division in the majors.

In a battle of the division leaders, the Braves beat the Nats 3-0 in Washington. The Nationals lost for the fifth the time in seven games, but it wasn’t a particularly great night for the Braves, either: Though they moved to a half game of the division lead, starter Gavin Floyd, who was dominating the Washington offense in perhaps his most impressive start of the year, left the game in the seventh inning with an elbow injury. After the game the Braves said Floyd would return to Atlanta to be evaluated by team doctors and would be placed on the disabled list. The right-hander, with a 2.65 ERA in nine starts, had been pitching well for Atlanta, and his loss is a devastating one for a team that’s been decimated by injuries to its rotation.

In Miami, meanwhile, in the pitching performance of the night, the Mets’ Zack Wheeler dominated the Marlins in the best game of his young career -- a 111-pitch, three-hit shutout  at Marlins Park. Wheeler almost became the first player in Mets history to face the minimum 27 batters before allowing a two-out single to Reed Johnson in the ninth. A year and a day since his major league debut, Wheeler struck out eight hitters and tossed the first complete game of his career against the third-highest scoring offense in the league. It’s been an uneven season for the right-hander, who entered the game with a 2-7 record and a 4.38 ERA, but if the former first-round pick can build off this start and emerge as an ace for New York, the Mets might be able to hang around in this race longer than anyone thought.

It was a dazzling night of pitching in Miami, a glimpse into the future, with the 24-year-old Wheeler outdueling Miami’s Andrew Heaney -- the 23-year-old lefty making his major league debut. After allowing a home run in the first inning to David Wright, Heaney shut down the Mets by finishing the night with just four hits, one walk and the one run allowed. Despite the loss, this was an encouraging night for the Marlins: Heaney is the top prospect in their organization, and the team envisions the 2012 first-round pick atop the rotation with Jose Fernandez, which will give the Marlins one of the top righty-lefty combinations in baseball. They had to like what they saw on Thursday. Heaney lived up to his reputation as a craftsman who sets up hitters by working off his fastball that he locates with surgeon-like precision, and he was in complete control after giving up the Wright home run.

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Heaney looks like he could be an X-factor for the Marlins going forward in the NL East race. Miami, despite the loss, remained just 1.5 games out of first place, and it has an MVP candidate in Giancarlo Stanton, as well as an underrated rotation that could get better as the season progresses even without Fernandez. And then there are the Phillies, who after their 4-1 win over St. Louis have won eight of their last 10, and are just four games out of first place. Remember, this is a team with two elite starters in Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels and an elite closer in Jonathan Papelbon who saved his 17th game on Thursday. If Chase Utley, Ryan Howard (who hit his 14th home run against St. Louis), and Jimmy Rollins keep hitting, and if Domonic Brown can catch fire like he did a year ago, the Phillies could make things interesting this summer.

So here we are, entering the final weeks of June, with Washington and Atlanta struggling and Philadelphia, New York and Miami feeling pretty good about their chances. The Nationals and Braves are still the most talented teams in the division, and it’s hard to imagine the Marlins, and especially the Mets and Phillies, still in the race in September. But then again, we’re already more than 40 percent through the season, and the division -- a division that right now is the least impressive one in baseball -- remains wide open.

 

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