The Braves were reminded of the importance of winning a division championship last season, when they won 94 games but finished four games behind the Nationals. And then all the months of good work went away in a single evening when they lost the NL Wild Card game to the Cardinals.
When baseball added a second Wild Card berth for the 2012 season, the goal was to, 1) keep more teams in contention longer, and, 2) increase the importance of finishing first.
The two one-game Wild Card games last year -- the Orioles over the Rangers and the Cardinals over the Braves -- did just that. The Braves would say it was about the emptiest feeling in the world, a season of such optimism ending so abruptly. They seem destined to play at least a little longer this season.
The 72-52 Dodgers are in a terrific spot as well. Since a 30-42 start, they've been baseball's best team, rising from last place in the NL West to a 7 1/2-game lead with 38 to play. They did it with a 42-10 run, a full two months of outplaying every other team in the game.
So if you're looking ahead to October, you're fairly safe in penciling in the Dodgers and Braves. All the other good stuff in the National League has yet to be decided. Specifically:
• Do the D-backs have enough to run down one of the Wild Card berths? They began the day six games behind the Reds in the race for the second Wild Card spot.
• Which of the three NL Central teams will survive a 15-round bout to win what may end up being baseball's closest division race? The Pirates began the day with a one-game lead over the Cardinals and 2 1/2 over the Reds.
First, the D-backs. This is an important week for them, beginning with a four-game series in Cincinnati that could be critical to their postseason hopes. They slipped a game further back by losing to the Reds, 5-3.
If Arizona comes out of the next three games against the Reds in good shape, it will play 16 in a row against teams with losing records. The D-backs will then finish the season with 10 games against the Rockies, Padres and Nationals.
Now, about that NL Central. The Cardinals have spent 99 days in first place, the Pirates 38 and the Reds 12. For a couple of weeks, the Reds seemed to be hanging on, but after falling 6 1/2 games out 12 days ago, they've won 12 of 17 and are back in a nice position to get to the playoffs for the third time in four years.
The Reds are getting the best starting pitching in the division, with their guys having gone 8-2 with a 2.32 ERA in the past 13 games. If they continue to roll out quality starts, the Reds are plenty good enough to win the division.
The Cardinals have had long stretches when they've looked like baseball's best team, and they've had other stretches when everything was difficult. Remarkably, they've hung in the midst of things despite using 18 rookies, tops in the Majors. With Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn and Shelby Miller at the top of their rotation, they seem to be plenty good enough to finish the deal.
And then there are the Pirates. They've been so good for so long that people have pretty much stopped waiting for them to hit the wall for a third straight season. Their pitching has been good enough to overcome their offensive problems, and nothing seems likely to change in the final six weeks.
The Cardinals on Thursday will begin a stretch of 17 games against the Braves, Reds and Pirates. If they get through those 17, they would seem to be in good shape because they finish the season with 19 games against teams with losing records.
The Pirates have six apiece remaining against the Cardinals and Reds, but also have a three-game series in Arlington in early September. The Reds and Pirates will play six times in the final 10 days of the regular season. Meanwhile, the Reds have 18 games remaining against teams with losing records, but also have to face both the D-backs and Dodgers.
If the Reds open up some distance between the D-backs and the three NL Central teams this week, the final weeks could be less stressful. But as the Braves were reminded last year, finishing first is still important.