If you have an affinity for an occasional roll of the dice, Sunday would have been a perfect day to bet against the Mets. They were coming off an emotionally draining doubleheader of sorts — an extra-inning victory after that pitch-perfect Keith Hernandez ceremony — and looking ahead, naturally, to a road trip to Atlanta.
Caught between those meaningful events, the Mets had to sort through who did and didn’t make the All-Star team and face an opponent that was suiting up a whale of a starting pitcher. Predictably they couldn’t score against Sandy Alcantara or three Marlins relievers, and lost a chance to enjoy their plane ride south, where the defending World Series champs are playing like they are fixing to go back-to-back.
Not long after the Mets lost in 10 innings, 2-0, Atlanta beat Washington in 12 innings, 4-3. On June 1, the Braves were 10 ½ games behind the Mets. They have since gone 29-8 to cut the deficit to 1 ½ games, and to remind their familiar foes from Queens that no part of the National League East will ever be surrendered to them without a spirited and bloody fight.
Asked about the challenges that the Braves presented his team, Buck Showalter responded by calling them “another obstacle” just like the Marlins were another obstacle. But then the manager righted himself and met the query’s intent.
“We understand,” he said, “because they’re the world champions. At some point you know they’re going to be a part of it. That’s a given. I’ve been saying all along, them being a competitive force in our division is a given. You know you’re going to have to figure out a way to be better than them to win the division. That’s something we knew in the spring, and nothing’s changed.”
At the end of his postgame press conference, as he walked away from the microphone, Showalter said, “That was a good one. Only one Atlanta Brave question.”
There will be plenty more asked and answered over the next three days, for the sake of old times. When you want to learn more about a seemingly potent Mets team, put it in the same ballpark with the Braves and watch how everything plays out.
Starting in 1995, right after the Braves were traded from the NL West to the NL East for a ’94 season that was never completed, they have won 16 division titles, including the first 11 and the last four. The Mets have won two division titles in the same period. In their only postseason encounter as NL East teams, the Braves beat the Mets in six in the 1999 NLCS.
For the longest time, what the New England Patriots had been to the Jets, the Atlanta Braves had been to the Mets. The Wilpons’ transfer of power to Steve Cohen didn’t change any of that, as last year’s Braves went on an October tear after the Mets collapsed, again, and got a manager fired, again.
No matter how much oil the Mets keep leaking over the rest of the summer, Showalter won’t be going one-and-done the way Luis Rojas did. He’s one of the best managers the Mets have ever employed, and he still has them 20 games over .500. He still has them in first place.
He still has them believing they are in the early stages of a genuine program that will make them consistent contenders in the coming years.
But the Braves are going to be right there, too. Brian Snitker has his own winning program, just like Bobby Cox did. And once again, that program is coming on like a freight train.
“Whether it was the first day of the year or tomorrow,” Francisco Lindor said, “it’s going to be a challenge. They’re the World Series champs, and in the offseason they got better. So I mean, we played well against them the last time here [a 2-2 series split in May]. Now we’ve got to get it done at their home.”
Yes they do. With two on and two outs, holding the advantage of a 2-0 count in the 10th Sunday, Lindor had a chance to win it with one swing. Instead he took three swings at Tanner Scott sliders, and missed them all.
The Mets ultimately wasted a great performance from Taijuan Walker, in part because Tomas Nido, a Saturday hero on both sides of the ball, airmailed a throw to third on a vain attempt to catch Billy Hamilton stealing. So be it. The day wasn’t without its encouraging news. Starling Marte isn’t headed for the injured list, and oh, he found out he is one of four Mets (along with Pete Alonso, Jeff McNeil, and Edwin Diaz) headed for the All-Star Game.
“We have one of the best records in baseball and our team is super talented, so we should have that many guys,” Alonso said. “We have an excellent team.”
We will find out a little more about that starting on Monday night.
“It’s going to be fun,” Lindor said. “I can’t wait to show up in Atlanta. They’re definitely going to get the best out of us, and we’re going to get the best out of them.”
Getting the best out of the Braves usually isn’t a winning formula for the rest of the NL East. It’s time for the Mets to turn this rivalry into a two-way street.