By PAUL NEWBERRY, AP Sports Writer
ATLANTA (AP) — Two months into the season, it looked like the New York Mets were headed for a riot in the NL East.
Not so fast, the defending World Series champions said.
Buoyed by two budding stars, the Atlanta Braves suddenly found their magic.
Now, they are a mere game behind the Mets heading into the biggest series of the year, a three-game set in the ATL on the final weekend of the regular season.
“It’s going to be fun,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “That’s why you play.”
This isn’t like the classic pennant races of the pre-wild card era, when a team had to win their league or division to make it to the postseason. The Mets and Braves are assured of playoff spots.
But all other division titles have been clinched with a week to go, leaving the NL East a very attractive outlier. And winning the division comes with a huge advantage.
The NL East champion gets a bye in the first round. The team that finishes second will have to host a best-of-three series, most likely against the San Diego Padres.
“We know how good (the Braves) are and we have an opportunity like them,” Mets manager Buck Showalter said. “It’s great for baseball and it’s good for our game that we all love.”
The free-spending Mets, backed by a dynamic rotation and sluggers Pete Alonso and Francisco Lindor, are heading to the postseason for the first time since 2016.
His greatest goal has been fulfilled.
Still, considering they’ve been in first place for all but a couple of days this season, it would be a huge disappointment if the Mets don’t end Atlanta’s streak of four straight NL East titles.
“It’s an important series and it’s one where everyone is going to play hard,” Mets third baseman Eduardo Escobar said through a translator.
At first, it didn’t look much like a race.
The Braves were 10 1/2 games behind the Mets on May 31, stumbling to a 23-27 record.
Since then, Atlanta has tied the Los Angeles Dodgers as the best team in baseball at 74-32, receiving big contributions from a couple of rookies.
Michael Harris II was called up from Double-A to join the lineup on May 28, largely with the idea that he would bolster the team’s defense in center field.
It turns out that the 21-year-old is much more than a glove man. Harris is hitting .305 with 19 home runs, 64 RBIs and 20 stolen bases, making him the favorite for NL Rookie of the Year and already earning him a long-term contract.
If Harris is the best freshman in the league, he’s not far behind teammate Spender Strider.
The bushy-mustached right-hander began the year in the bullpen before making his first career start on May 30.
Strider, 23, has been nothing short of ravishing. In 20 starts, he is 10-4 with a 2.77 ERA and 165 strikeouts in 107 1/3 innings.
Unfortunately for the Braves, Strider will not be available for this series. He is out for the rest of the regular season with an oblique injury, though Atlanta is hopeful of getting him back for the playoffs.
Even without Strider, the pitching matchups are tempting: New York’s Jacob deGrom (5-3, 2.93 ERA) against Atlanta’s Max Fried (13-7, 2.50) on Friday, followed by Max Scherzer (11-4, 2.13 ERA). ) against Kyle Wright (20-5, 3.18) on Saturday and Chris Bassitt (15-8, 3.2) against Charlie Morton (9-6, 4.29 ERA) on Sunday night.
The weather forecast also looked much more promising than just 24 hours earlier.
With Hurricane Ian battering the East Coast, the Mets proposed moving the series opener to Thursday, a day off for both teams. The Braves refused, having played 13 straight days.
By Thursday morning, the forecast called for only a small chance of showers through the weekend.
The Braves have been chasing the Mets all summer, finally catching up with them on Sept. 6. But this one has been exciting for a while now, with the margin of no more than three games going over a month.
New York leads the season series 9-7, which means the Mets can clinch the potentially important tiebreaker with a win at Atlanta.
The Mets won four of five when the teams met in New York the first week of August, which many thought would end Atlanta’s division hopes.
But the Braves are 32-13 since then, feasting on sub-.500 teams with a 21-5 mark. New York, meanwhile, opened the door by being swept at home by the lowly Cubs, though the Mets rallied to win nine of their last 12, including a 10-inning victory over the Marlins on Wednesday in which they rallied from a four . run deficit.
The Braves lost in extra innings at Washington, falling a game behind New York.
That’s fine, said Snitker, who noted that his team has played “a lot of big games, long years, high-pressure games. These guys have gotten a lot of them under their belt. I don’t think there’s much to shake them up.”
These were supposed to be the last three games of the regular season, but the stoppage forced a schedule extension. The Braves will travel to Miami for three games against the Marlins next week, while New York closes at home with three against the Nationals.
No one is thinking about those games.
It’s about this series.
“Obviously two really good teams are doing it,” Snitker said. “We’ll see what happens.”
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963
AP baseball writer Mike Fitzpatrick in New York and AP freelancer Harvey Valentine in Washington contributed to this report.
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