Mets offer their ‘best shots,’ but Atlanta hits back
By James Wagner
In their biggest series of the year, a matchup that would essentially decide the National League East winner in the waning days of the regular season, the New York Mets had two big reasons to be confident: Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer.
Two of the best pitchers in baseball, deGrom and Scherzer have a combined five Cy Young Awards and 12 All-Star selections. And even though both have dealt with injuries this season, they have plowed through opposing lineups with relative ease. A sweep of Atlanta in the three-game set would have clinched the Mets’ first division title since 2015 and earned them the luxury of a first-round bye in the postseason, which begins later this week.
Instead, the defending World Series champion Braves have the Mets on the ropes. Powered by home runs by Matt Olson and shortstop Dansby Swanson, Atlanta beat deGrom on Friday night and Scherzer on Saturday night. The latter victory moved Atlanta into sole possession of first place in the division for just the second time this season.
“It feels terrible,” Mets outfielder Brandon Nimmo said after his team’s 4-2 loss Saturday. Alluding to deGrom and Scherzer, he added: “Those are our best shots. They stuffed them in our face.”
Then Atlanta shoved another cold reality into the Mets’ faces Sunday night. Swanson and Olson homered again, and Atlanta won 5-3 to complete a three-game sweep. The Mets had broken a 1-1 tie with two runs in the top of the third inning, but Atlanta responded in the bottom half by scoring three runs with two outs and knocking out starter Chris Bassitt.
The Braves (100-59) held a two-game lead over the Mets (98-61) going into Monday with three games left and own the tiebreaker, which means Atlanta stood to claim the NL East with one more win or a Mets loss.
Over the final three games, Atlanta is facing the lowly Miami Marlins (67-92) on the road, while the Mets are hosting the Washington Nationals (55-104), the worst team in baseball. A division title and an easier path in the playoffs remain at stake, although Atlanta has a much clearer path.
Bryce Elder (2-3, 2.76 ERA) was slated to start for the Braves against Miami’s Jesús Luzardo (3-7, 3.53 ERA) on Monday night, while Carlos Carrasco (15-7, 3.95 ERA) was scheduled to start for the Mets against the Nationals’ Cory Abbott (0-4, 5.11 ERA).
Both teams have clinched at least a wild-card spot in the playoffs, but a division title would cap an impressive turnaround by Atlanta — and a fairly stunning collapse by the Mets. On June 1, Atlanta trailed the Mets by a season-high 10 1/2 games. Since then, the Mets have cooled off, going 63-44, while the Braves morphed into one of the best teams in the majors, at 76-32.
“We were not playing good baseball at all,” Swanson said of his team four months ago. “And you’ve kind of seen guys throughout this organization really take ownership of that.”
Added Atlanta manager Brian Snitker: “I knew we were better than what we were on that day. And it was just a matter of time.”
Atlanta pulled even with the Mets for the first time this season on Sept. 6. It held a half-game lead three days later for just the day. It stayed on the Mets’ heels for the next few weeks and was again tied on Sept. 27. Facing the Mets directly over the weekend, Atlanta has shown it is perhaps the better team overall and has an intangible quality gained by playing in so many high-pressure games last season.
“Teams have it, guys have it,” Snitker said. “I’ve had teams over the years all my career and you’re like, ‘God, that team has it.’ You don’t really know what it is. You can’t manufacture it. Some teams have it and some teams don’t. Some guys have it and some don’t. But that is huge in this game.”
In Snitker’s mind, few players have shown that ability more than Swanson, particularly this season. In his final season before free agency, Swanson, 28, has been one of the best shortstops in baseball and produced the finest season of his career. He hit his 25th home run of the season in the first inning Sunday and improved his career-high RBI total to 96. He earned his first All-Star selection earlier this season and has provided stellar defense and team leadership.
“I feel like everyone hates losing, but he hates it more than the average person,” said Atlanta starter Kyle Wright, a teammate of Swanson’s at Vanderbilt University, who on Saturday picked up his MLB-leading 21st win.
In the sixth inning Friday, Swanson smashed a low 98-mph fastball from deGrom into the stands for a solo shot that gave Atlanta a 3-1 lead. On Saturday, he clobbered a 93-mph fastball over the middle of the plate from Scherzer for a go-ahead, two-run blast in the fifth.
“Sometimes you’ve just got to get out of your own way a little bit,” Swanson said of facing the star pitchers. “It can be challenging at times. But there’s no better time to do it than now, kind of saying, ‘To the heck with it, let’s just go compete and lay it all out there.’”
Atlanta’s rise has been fueled, in part, by home runs — a lot of them. Only the New York Yankees (246) have more home runs than the Braves (241) this season. Since June 1, Atlanta has hit a major-league-leading 179 blasts, two more than the Yankees.
“The ability to change the game with one swing is nice, especially when you’re at home and can fire up the crowd,” said Olson, who has snapped out of a September skid with five home runs in his past six games, including a solo blast in the sixth inning Sunday.
Once Atlanta started playing better over the summer, Olson said he had an idea the NL East race would come down to the final weekend against the Mets. And it may have.