Atlanta crunch time

Can you remember the last time the Mets lost a game this year and Mets fans didn’t come away from that loss feeling as though the proverbial roof fell in on both again? Well, perhaps you can. From among several.

Maybe 23 June in Chicago. When beleaguered manager Mickey Callaway let a less than well armed Seth Lugo work a second inning’s relief, which let Javier Baez on 0-2 hit a three-run homer that proved the game loser.

And, when both Callaway and then-Mets pitcher Jason Vargas started a war with a Newsday reporter doing what only every damn reporter in the clubhouse did: ask why Callaway let Lugo go to work for a second inning when he’d been run to back-to-back full counts and needed a double play to bail him out in the first inning’s work.

Maybe 26-27 June. Back-to-back walkoff losses to the Phillies. The first courtesy of erstwhile Met Jay Bruce doubling home the game-winner in the bottom of the tenth; the second, which really hit where it hurt, courtesy of two homers in the bottom of the ninth, including Jean Segura’s three-run winning shot—after the Mets took a lead in the top of the inning with a two-run homer and a run-scoring ground out.

Maybe even 18-21 July, when they could win only one of four against the Giants, and all three losses were walkoffs. And, at those times, the Phillies were still factors in the National League East race while the Giants still looked as though they’d yanked themselves back from the dead and into the NL wild card hunt.

The Giants polished them off after they’d taken two of three from the Marlins and swept a pair from the then-American League Central-leading Twins. But then the Mets got even crazier: they took two of three from the Padres, swept the Pirates and the White Sox back-to-back, took two of three more from the Pirates, swept four from the Marlins.

And everyone wondered whether these resurgent Mets were anything resembling the real deal. If you include the Giants going from a 19-6 July to a 4-7 August that may have sent them back out of the wild card run, the Mets hadn’t really beaten anyone significant until this weekend with the Nationals—holding second place in the NL East and the lead for the first NL wild card—coming to town.

Then the crazy Mets got downright insane. They beat the Nats at the last minute or next to last minute Friday and Saturday nights. Losing Sunday, leaving the Mets 21-7 in the second half so far and still baseball’s hottest team, didn’t send Mets fans looking to stick their heads into the nearest oven.

Maybe the most disheartened among either the Mets or the much-put-upon faithful was first baseman Pete Alonso, their Rookie of the Year candidate. “If I make that play,” he said after the 7-4 loss, “we’re probably still playing baseball. Tough pill to swallow.”

“That play” was on a bases-loaded, two-out grounder to first by former Met Asdrubal Cabrera, whose bases-loaded two-run double in the seventh broke a three-all tie and proved the game winner, in the top of the first. Instead of the third out it meant three unearned runs. And it wasn’t exactly Alonso’s entire fault.

He made a sharp snag of Cabrera’s sharp enough grounder. He threw to Mets starting pitcher Jacob deGrom running over to cover. Inexplicably, deGrom hesitated a step. By the time he reached the pad the ball flew just past his outstretched glove. Alonso was charged with a throwing error but the charge probably should have gone to deGrom for that inexplicable hesitation.

Then it went from crazy to rubber room time. As two Nats scored on the error, deGrom ran the ball down in foul ground toward the Mets’ on-deck circle. With Juan Soto trying to score a third unearned run, deGrom threw home and Soto was a dead duck. Except that Mets catcher Wilson Ramos dropped the ball as he was turning to tag Soto, who should have been out by two and a half feet on the play.

Instead, the game opened with the Mets in a 3-0 hole. DeGrom steadied from there, keeping the Nats scoreless, though the Nats did their best to keep running up his pitch count to get him out after five innings. But a 6-1 homestand including two of three from the almost-equally-resurgent Nats—like the Mets all but left for dead in May and June—is nothing to mourn.

Especially when your next opponent will be the Braves, in their playpen, starting Tuesday night, after a weekend in which they split a four-game set with the Marlins. Leaving the NL East leaders a mere 16-13 in the second half so far and 6-5 for August.

The Braves’ newly retooled bullpen isn’t as sharp as advertised. Shane Greene has gone from lights out in Detroit to lights flickering with the Braves. Mark Melancon had four consecutive solid assignments as a new Brave until Saturday night.

Handed a four-run lead to protect in the ninth, Melancon opened with a strikeout before surrendering four straight Marlins singles including one with the bases loaded. Snitker lifted Melancon and brought in Greene, and Greene promptly surrendered another RBI single and a two-run double, sending the game to extra innings. Where Sean Newcomb surrendered a game-losing sacrifice fly.

And on Sunday, a 5-4 win to gain the series split still felt almost like a loss. Neither team scored since the bottom of the sixth, but in the ninth Luke Jackson, the Atlanta reliever whose name lately strikes fear into the hearts of his own team’s fans, performed a perfect impression of postseason Craig Kimbrel: single (and the fortune of throwing out Isan Diaz trying to stretch), ground out, single, deep infield single, and a long fly out.

Why must they always do it the hard way now? you could hear the Tomahawk Choppers moan.

The Mets don’t exactly have a steady bullpen themselves, of course. They may even have to throw in the towel at last and do something drastic with Edwin Diaz. His early season misusage has led to confusion between his ears and command issues on the mound. After he surrendered Victor Robles’s two-out two-run homer in the top of the eighth Sunday, he retired the side, but back in the dugout he looked as though he’d been told of a death in the family before he got there.

It may turn out to be his. Jim Bouton once described players being sent down to the minors as deaths in the family. (“I died tonight,” he wrote in Ball Four, after the Seattle Pilots sent him down to their Vancouver farm for a spell.) With Lugo now the arguable best reliever on staff, and likely to claim a formal closing job, the Mets may consider sending Diaz to AAA Syracuse to help him right himself.

On the threshold of meeting the Braves, the Mets can’t afford to wait for Diaz to regain his once-formidable command. And this week’s set with the Braves, even more than the weekend with the Nats, will show what the Mets are really made of. Especially, whether their young turks and the now-best rotation in the league, if not the game, can keep overcoming the dead weight of too many of their veterans.

But it may be a set in which the Braves have to prove once and for all what they’re really made of, too. Especially if it turns out to be a contest of whose bullpen is going to play with more matches.

The good news for the Braves: they don’t have to worry about facing deGrom or Noah Syndergaard this week. The good news for the Mets: They can still throw Zack Wheeler, Steven Matz, and then Marcus Stroman—coming off a splendid showdown against Stephen Strasburg Friday night—at the Braves, who counter with, in order, Max Fried, Dallas Keuchel, and Julio Teheran.

Fried has a winning record but he’s prone to inconsistencies now and then. Keuchel isn’t the pitcher he used to be anymore even if he eats innings and provides a veteran steadiness to the Braves’ staff; more and more, his Cy Young Award winning season resembles a fluke. Teheran’s faced the Mets three times this year with mixed results: one earned run surrendered 14 April, six surrendered 18 June, two surrendered 29 June—the third when he threw 50 pitches in three and a third before rain delayed the game an hour and ten minutes.

Wheeler’s gone from trade deadline speculation subject to something resembling his better self since. Matz has begun trusting his breaking, off-speed stuff a lot more and become a formidable foe once again. And Stroman, thought an inexplicable trade deadline period acquisition, is now invaluable to the Mets.

After this set, the Mets get one of their absolute few breathers the rest of the way when they spent next weekend in Kansas City. The Braves have the Dodgers to deal with next weekend. The Mets still want to prove they’re for real. The Braves still want to prove they’re the same team who had the kind of lights-out June that the Mets have had since the All-Star break.

Neither will be confirmed without a good, solid battle. And to think that, before the Nats hit New York for the weekend now done, Alonso thought, “We are now in crunch time.” He ain’t seen nothing yet.

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