Atlanta Braves Take NL East Lead Over Mets

Atlanta Braves Take NL East Lead Over Mets

ATLANTA — 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 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 (99-59) have the Mets (98-60) 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 lost, 4-2, Saturday. He continued, alluding to deGrom and Scherzer: “Those are our best shots. They stuffed them in our face.”

With a win Sunday night — the Mets will start Chris Bassitt against Charlie Morton — Atlanta can shove another cold reality into the Mets’ face: The Braves would then hold a two-game lead with three games left and own the tiebreaker, which means Atlanta could claim the NL East with one more win or a Mets loss.

“We’re pretty aware of the scenarios,” Olson said. “But you’ve got to approach it the same way.”

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 10½ games. Since then, the Mets have cooled off, going 63-43, while the Braves morphed into one of the best teams in the majors at 75-32.

“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 this 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 it 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: 24 home runs, a career-high 95 runs beaten in, his first All-Star selection, 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-mile-per-hour 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 Yankees (246) have more home runs than the Braves (239) this season. Since June 1, each of those teams had amassed a major-league-leading 177 blasts.

“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 four home runs in his past five games.

Once Atlanta started playing better over the summer, Olson said he had an idea the NL East race would come down to this final weekend against the Mets. “Here we are,” he added.

All is not lost, though, for the Mets. Like Atlanta, the Mets have clinched at least a wild-card spot in the playoffs. And a win Sunday would give the Mets a tie atop the division. But more important, it would earn them a 10-9 edge in the season series and thus possession of the division tiebreaker should they finish with the same record.

Over the final three games, Atlanta will face the lowly Miami Marlins while the Mets will play the Washington Nationals, the worst team in baseball. A division title and an easier path in the playoffs remain at stake.

“There’s no time to celebrate,” Swanson said Saturday night. “There’s four games left.”

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