Zack Wheeler took the blame himself. The Mets pulled into heat-hammered Atlanta Tuesday and came up short against the National League East-leading Braves. Wheeler simply said he didn’t have it. But he had lots of help along the way to the 5-3 loss.
“It stinks,” Wheeler lamented after the game. “We’re on this run and I really didn’t give us a chance. This one’s on me.” Not entirely. A lot of the help Wheeler got came through the kindness of Braves left fielder Ronald Acuna, Jr.’s heart.
And if there’s justice in baseball world, Acuna should extend that kindness to Mets third base coach Gary DiSarcina and credit him with a major assist.
Because no sooner did Todd Frazier atone for a rally-compromising double play in the top of the sixth, whacking a double to the back of center field off Braves starter Max Fried, than Mets center fielder Juan Lagares lined a single right to Acuna playing in a none-too-deep left field positioning.
Frazier isn’t as swift afoot as he was earlier in his career, but even Hall of Fame road runner Rickey Henderson would have resembled Wile E. Coyote on a hit that shallow against a left fielder with an arm like Acuna’s.
You get why Frazier had eyes on the plate with the Mets down four runs at the moment. But DiSarcina should have thrown up a stop sign post haste. With the pitcher’s spot due to follow Lagares, and Wheeler’s evening over with recent acquisition Brad Brach up and throwing in the pen, the Mets were certain to send up a pinch hitter with Jeff McNeil, their leadoff man, due to follow if the pinch swinger could swing.
The light never even changed to yellow. Frazier rounded third at just about the moment Acuna let fly. Frazier was such a dead pigeon sliding toward the plate you got the impression Braves catcher Brian McCann tagged him out as a mere formality. And a grand chance to close the distance escaped the Mets.
“His arm,” said Acuna’s manager Brian Snitker, “is a weapon.” Disrespecting that weapon equals disaster.
Coming off taking two of three from the Nationals last weekend, winning the two in almost anti-textbook examples of doing things the hard way, the Mets let Fried and the Braves compel them to try doing it the hard way again. I said it before, I’ll say it again: crisis addiction only wins you so many games.
All night long, whenever they swung the bat the Mets swung as if they thought they could hit the ball right out of Fried’s hand. With Fried pitching exactly the way you’d expect a guy with a 1.38 walks/hits per inning pitched rate, patience would have been the Mets’ virtue. Tuesday night they approached Fried as though patience were what you saw in the doctor’s waiting room.
And the Mets better hope they duck another kind of crisis, after McNeil tweaked his left hamstring trying to hustle out a leadoff ground out in the top of the ninth. He flung his helmet to the ground in obvious discomfort, let a trainer escort him back to the dugout, and said after the game he didn’t feel anything pop.
“Just a little snag,” said McNeil, who undergoes an MRI Wednesday. “Nothing crazy.” He and the Mets better hope it’s nothing “crazy.” Things have been crazy enough for them this year.
The Braves are deep enough that they could withstand life without shortstop Dansby Swanson and rookie slugger Austin Riley for a spell, even if they have been only 17-13 since the All-Star break. And they’re deep enough that even that post-break record doesn’t hurt them after spending the first half eluding everyone else in their division at 54-37.
The Mets aren’t that deep no matter how they’ve looked since the break. They can’t afford to lose McNeil for any appreciable time. And they know it.
“It’s tough. He’s a huge part of this team. He brings fire every day to the field,” said Wheeler. “He’s a ballplayer and you need those type of guys on your team and you need them in the lineup. It’s unfortunate that happened, hopefully it’s not too serious and he can get back decently quick. We need his bat, that’s for sure.” His bat, and his passion.
Recently minted Joe Panik’s going to play a lot more second base now, and he can still whip his leather with authority as well as postseason experience. Bringing back prodigal veteran Ruben Tejada—whom the Mets re-signed in March, but who hasn’t played a major league game since he was a 2017 Oriole while hitting .337 at Syracuse this year—is a band-aid.
There wasn’t much Wheeler could do on a night he admits was an off night from keeping the Braves off the bases and the scoreboard. Acuna himself opened the proceedings with a base hit in the bottom of the first and, after Freddie Freeman sent him to third with a one-out single, Josh Donaldson singled him home. A fly out later, Matt Joyce singled to deep enough right to score Freeman.
The Mets were in a 2-0 hole before they got a second crack at Fried. They’d squandered the first one brilliantly. Pete Alonso and J.D. Davis wrung back-to-back walks out of the Braves lefthander, but Ramos with a near-perfect inner zone pitch to handle and pull whacked it instead to Charlie Culberson, the former Dodger now pressed into shortstop service until Swanson returns from the injured list. Culberson tossed to second for the inning-ending force.
They looked like they’d get to Fried in the top of the second when, after two quick enough outs, Lagares singled up the pipe and, of all people, Wheeler himself got plunked to set up first and second. Never one to look a gift horse in the proverbial mouth, McNeil drilled a single deep enough to left to send Lagares home and cut the deficit in half. But Mets shortstop Amed Rosario let Fried fool him with a slider that broke right under his bat for the side-retiring strikeout.
Freeman put things a tick further out of reach in the bottom of the inning with an RBI single. After the Mets wasted two-out baserunners in the third and the fourth, Acuna made it a little more tough to catch up in the bottom of the fourth. With one out and nobody aboard, Acuna wrestled his way back from 0-2, caught Wheeler’s two-seamer traveling right down Main Street, and sent it traveling over the left field wall.
Ender Inciarte turned a three-run Atlanta edge into a four-run distance in the bottom of the fifth, after Wheeler wild-pitched McCann (leadoff single) to second, hitting a double into the right field corner to send McCann home with the fifth and final Braves run.
But come the top of the seventh, it was Sun Trust Park’s scattered audience now in need of oxygen above and beyond the oppressive heat: the Braves went to the bullpen. And in came Luke Jackson, whose recent misadventures may not have spelled final disaster but were misadventures enough to make Braves fans wonder if he hadn’t been taking lessons in pressure pitching from last postseason’s version of Craig Kimbrel.
Now the Mets went to pinch hitter Luis Guillorme in the pitcher’s hole to lead off the seventh. And Jackson gave the home audience a better reason to put the nitro pills under their tongues. He got Guillorme to pop out to Culberson out from shortstop, then caught McNeil and Rosario overanxious enough to strike them out swinging back to back.
But then Snitker went to Shane Greene, the new toy from Detroit who was supposed to step into the lockdown job out of the Braves’ pen but whose ERA since joining the Braves is a ghastly 14.54. If even one fan in the stands pondered thoughts of Snitker taking pity on the Mets with this move, you couldn’t blame him or her.
Right off the bat, Alonso and Davis singled back to back to open the top of the eighth. And after Ramos forced Davis at second, Snitker took no more chances, bringing in former Met Jerry Blevins. Michael Conforto grounded one to first that got rid of Ramos at second but sent Alonso home with the well overdue second Mets run.
Out came Blevins and in came another former Met, Anthony Swarzak. Frazier singled Conforto to second promptly, and Lagares beat out a grounder to the back of first base to score Conforto almost as promptly, pushing Frazier to second, and suddenly the Mets were back to a mere two-run deficit. But pinch-hitter Panik, swinging a little over anxiously himself, grounded out to short for the side.
Drew Gagnon, recalled from Syracuse (AAA) for his third spell with the Mets this year, got rid of pinch hitter Rafael Ortega, Acuna, and Ozzie Albies almost in a blink in the top of the ninth. But after McNeil’s ham snagged, another trade deadline-minted Brave reliever, Mark Melancon, shaking off his Miami disaster admirably, struck out Rosario and Alonso swinging to end it.
There are teams up and down the standings against whom you can go into crisis and come out with your heads intact and triumphant. The Mets were reminded Monday night that the Braves aren’t one of them.
Neither is Acuna’s throwing arm. Give it even a fraction of an inch, and he’ll take as much distance as you let him get away with. Not to mention his trying and having an excellent chance of becoming only the third player 22 or under to hit forty or more into the seats in a season—behind Hall of Famers Mel Ott and Eddie Mathews, the latter a Braves legend in his own right.
If the Mets want to remain baseball’s hottest post-All Star break team and stay in the postseason hunt, they’d better not dismiss that reminder lightly. Especially against these Braves, who almost never show mercy to those asleep at the switch.