There was supposed to be a weekend showdown in the National League East. Its two best teams, each gunning to take the division, were going to shoot it out for slightly more than the division title but for the possible final setup of the postseason picture under Commissioner Pepperwinkle’s mad-scientist changes.
The Braves and the Mets are going to the postseason. No questions asked. But after their bats came up far too short in the first two at Truist Park, Sunday is both must-see television and must-win for the Mets, if they want a shot at winning the division with a record equal to the Braves.
They let the Braves get to them twice on Friday and Saturday. They couldn’t overcome the three solo home runs torn out of an otherwise effective Jacob deGrom Friday or the two bombs and four runs torn out of Max Scherzer Saturday. They couldn’t find ways to score more than two Friday and Saturday each off a Braves pitching staff that can pitch up with anyone else and with them when needed absolutely.
Now the Mets have to hope their Starling Marte-less lineup can find more than a few ways to pry some runs out of the Braves while riding Chris Bassitt on the mound Sunday. Bassitt, a good but not great pitcher, whose 3.55 fielding-independent pitching rate is respectable but nowhere in the deGrom (2.14) or Scherzer (2.62) league. Bassitt, who’s more prone to the long ball than either of the ones who got reached so far this weekend.
The Braves don’t rely on two particular pitchers almost exclusively and have up and down the line balance. The Mets built themselves to sail aboard deGrom and Scherzer primarily. They didn’t exactly change that plan despite losing both to health issues for critical portions of the season. When that bit them in the posterior Friday and Saturday, the Braves were only too happy to exploit.
“To get the first one is huge,” said Braves third baseman Austin Riley after Friday’s game, “and just try to build as much momentum off it as possible. To come out fighting and top to bottom did a great job. Arms did great. Just a solid win.”
Riley had a big hand in it. He hit the first of a pair of back-to-back bombs against deGrom in the second, joining Matt Olson for the honours. Nobody went back-to-back long distance against deGrom since former Braves Freddie Freeman and Josh Donaldson did it in 2019.
DeGrom rehorsed almost at once and kept the Braves quiet until he struck Ronald Acuña, Jr. out to open the bottom of the sixth. Dansby Swanson then hit a first-pitch fastball over the center field wall. But Max Fried and three Atlanta bulls kept the Mets quiet other than Tomas Nido’s solo bomb off A.J. Minter in the eighth.
Kenley Jansen came on in the ninth and got himself into the kind of jam the Mets usually turn into disaster. Francisco Lindor opened by striking out but Jansen plunked Mark Canha, surrendered a base hit to Jeff McNeil for first and third, then walked Eduardo Escobar to load the pads with just one out.
But then Mets manager Buck Showalter let rookie call-up Francisco Álvarez bat instead of reaching for a more experienced bench hand. The rook struck out on three swinging pitches. Then Tyler Naquin fought Jansen to an eight-pitch, six-foul draw before Jansen finally struck him out to end it, 5-2.
Only after the game, too, did deGrom acknowledge he was pitching with a hand blister. Never using it to excuse the evening, the righthander said he and the team would monitor it closely.
Come Saturday, it was Scherzer’s turn. He was still “managing” an oblique issue that prompted the Mets to close him down for much of September. Swanson and Olson managed to go long against him, Swanson with a two-run shot in the fifth and Olson with a leadoff solo in the sixth.
“I felt like mechanically I was working east-west and me I want to work north-south,” Max the Knife said postgame. “I didn’t feel like I had good put-away pitches. I didn’t feel like my two-strike pitches tonight were as sharp as I usually have them. When I made mistakes, they made me pay and just couldn’t efficiently pitch tonight.”
Did I mention that both Friday and Saturday the Mets took early leads? Better to mention how tenacious the Braves are and can be even against the best pitching to throw against them from the other side. “Just keep going,” Swanson said postgame on Saturday. “This is no time to celebrate. There’s four games left. So much left to be had of this season.”
“We’ve just got to take the same approach,” said Olson, whose blast made for the final run of the 4-2 Braves win. “We know those guys are good that they started the last two days and we know Bassitt is a competitor as well.”
The Braves also know they were once ten games plus out of first in the division, not a happy place for defending World Series champions. But do the Mets realise they once had that ten game plus lead and looked like the ogres of any NL section not occupied by the ogres in Los Angeles?
Do they get how dangerous it was to let a rookie, even a highly-touted one, take on the job of a bases-loaded plate appearance in the ninth? Do they get just how serious are the dice they roll with their two best pitchers not quite back to full strength and their bullpen still trying to figure things out? Do they fathom that their lineup can’t let one key missing link stop them from swinging up and forth, against the Braves or otherwise?
If even one of those answers is no, never mind all four, the Mets are going to have a lot of explaining to do after Sunday night. And their notoriously self-flagellating fan base—the kind that proclaims a season over after one bad inning in May—isn’t going to want to hear it.