After two months of this 2022 season, the New York Mets seemed to be heading easily for a division title in the National East.
Not so fast, replied the Atlanta Braves, defending World Series champions. Propelled by two of their young stars, the Braves are only one game behind the leaders when the most important series of the season in this section begins on Friday.
« It’ll be fun, » Braves manager Brian Snitker said. That’s kind of why you play. »
Contrary to what happened before the advent of the fourth ace, however, the Braves and the Mets will not fight for their place in the playoffs, which is already assured.
But all the other section titles were won with a week to play, leaving only the National East at stake. And winning the section comes with certain benefits.
The champion in the East will get a first-round bye. Whoever finishes second will have to host a best-of-three series, possibly against the San Diego Padres.
The Mets, who have spent lavishly, are powered by a formidable rotation of starters and power hitters Pete Alonso and Francisco Lindor. They will enter the playoffs for the first time since 2016.
Considering they’ve been No. 1 virtually since the start of the season, it would be a disappointment if they weren’t able to end the Braves’ four-game winning streak.
« It’s an important series, » Mets third baseman Eduardo Escobar said with the help of a translator. Everyone will have to play big baseball. »
Yet this race seemed destined never to see the light of day.
The Braves were 10½ games behind on May 31, with a 23-27 record. Since then, the Braves have been the hottest team in baseball with the Los Angeles Dodgers and a 74-32 record, thanks in part to the addition of two rookies.
Michael Harris II was recalled from level AA on May 28, primarily to improve the club’s defense in center field. It looks like the 21-year-old baseball player can handle the stick too. He hit .305 with 19 homers, 64 RBIs and 20 stolen bases, making him the favorite for Rookie of the Year and already earning him a long-term contract.
If Harris is the National’s best freshman, he’s not far ahead of teammate Spender Strider.
The powerful right-hander started the season in the bullpen before making his first career start on May 30. The 23-year-old gunner was spectacular. He is 10-4 with a 2.77 ERA and 165 strikeouts in 107 1/3 innings.
Unfortunately for the Braves, Strider won’t be available for this series: he will miss the rest of the season with an oblique injury. The Braves are hoping to get him back for the playoffs.
Even without Strider, the duels on the mound promise in this series: Jacob deGrom (5-3, 2.93 ERA) against Max Fried (13-7, 2.50) on Friday; Max Scherzer (11-4, 2.13) against Kyle Wright (20-5, 3.18) on Saturday; as well as Chris Bassitt (15-8, 3.27) against Charlie Morton (9-6, 4.29) on Sunday.
The Braves chased the Mets all summer, finally catching them on Sept. 6. The gap has not been more than three games for a month.
The Mets have won nine of 16 games against the Braves this season, meaning they’ll hold the tiebreaker with a win at Atlanta.
These three meetings were to be the last three of the season for the two clubs, but the lockout forced Major League Baseball to postpone the first series of the season to the very end of the schedule. So the Braves will travel to Miami for three games against the Marlins next week, while the Mets host the Washington Nationals.
« They’re obviously two good teams, » Snitker said. Let’s see how it will go. »