The Braves’ mission? Catch the Mets. That’s not impossible

Atlanta Braves' Freddie Freeman (5) beats the tag from New York Mets catcher James McCann (33) to score on an Ozzie Albies base hit in the first inning of a baseball game Wednesday, June 30, 2021, in Atlanta. (John Bazemore/AP)
Caption
Atlanta Braves' Freddie Freeman (5) beats the tag from New York Mets catcher James McCann (33) to score on an Ozzie Albies base hit in the first inning of a baseball game Wednesday, June 30, 2021, in Atlanta. (John Bazemore/AP)

Credit: AP

For a couple of hours, Sunday was shaping up as profitable day for the local nine. (Actually the local 26, minus AJ Minter, since demoted to Gwinnett.) The Braves led Tampa Bay, an excellent team, by three runs. In comic fashion, the Mets trailed Pittsburgh, a terrible team, by six. Had those scores held, the Braves would have been two games out of first place.

They’d also have been at .500, though not yet above, for the seventh time this season. But they did as they’ve spent four months doing — they blew a lead, blew a game and, when the Mets rallied in the ninth, saw the standings in the National League East reset to their status at the All-Star break, the Braves four games in arrears.

Season so far

With every Braves’ loss, I have a conversation with myself: “They haven’t done anything all year. Why do you believe they have a chance?” Then I check the standings and say, “That’s why.”

The Mets would have trouble pouring branch water from a boot. Since 2018, they’ve had three general managers and four interim GMs. One “permanent” GM was Brodie Van Wagenen, who’d previously been the agent for Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard, who pitch — sometimes — for the Mets. BVW lasted two years and eight days. His successor was Jared Porter, who lasted 35 days. He was fired after ESPN reported that, while with the Cubs, he sent lewd texts and photos to a female reporter.

The Mets made the World Series in 2015 with a rotation that was briefly the envy of the sport. They had Matt Harvey, Syndergaard and deGrom, not to mention Bartolo Colon. Harvey, seen as the best of the bunch, was known as The Dark Knight, which is among Batman’s nicknames, which makes me wonder: Does Batman need a nickname?

I digress. The World Series ended with Harvey demanding to stay in Game 5, in which he’d thrown eight shutout innings, despite manager Terry Collins’ decision to deploy closer Jeurys Familia. The crowd demanded more Harvey and, having seen Commissioner Gordon flash the Bat-Signal over LaGuardia, got its way. (OK, I’ll stop.) Two batters later, Kansas City had halved its 2-0 deficit and placed the tying run in scoring position. The Mets lost in extra innings. They haven’t won a postseason game since.

Harvey was never the same pitcher. He lost velocity. He had surgery. He didn’t show up for a game. He was relegated to the bullpen, which prompted another snit. He was waived after the 2018 season. He has worked for four different clubs over the past three seasons.

Syndergaard, known as Thor, hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2019. His career took a downturn when, after adding 17 pounds of muscle so he could throw harder than he was already throwing, which was 100 mph. He underwent Tommy John surgery in March 2020. He developed a sore elbow this spring. The Mets keep saying they expect him back soon.

New York Mets starting pitcher Jacob deGrom (48) takes the mound against the Philadelphia Phillies, Saturday, June 26, 2021, in New York. (Noah K. Murray/AP)
Caption
New York Mets starting pitcher Jacob deGrom (48) takes the mound against the Philadelphia Phillies, Saturday, June 26, 2021, in New York. (Noah K. Murray/AP)

Credit: Noah K. Murray

Credit: Noah K. Murray

As for deGrom: He’s the world’s best pitcher. He has also suffered five physical flare-ups this season that have seen him leave starts, miss starts and, as of Sunday, be placed on the injured list. He, too, is throwing harder than ever. He’s 33. When he won the Cy Young in 2018, his four-seamer averaged 96 mph. This year it has averaged 99.6 mph. That’s great when he feels good. It’s less great when he doesn’t, which has become a regular occurrence.

The Mets have allowed the third-fewest earned runs in MLB without getting anything from Syndergaard and Carlos Carrasco. That’s the good part. The bad: They’ve scored the second-fewest runs. The Braves have a better run differential (plus-25) than the Mets (plus-five), for what that’s worth, which is maybe nothing. The Braves’ bullpen, a strength in their run to the 2020 NLCS, ranks 22nd in ERA. Minter is tied for the most blown saves (six). They led Tampa Bay after six innings in all three weekend games. They won one.

Just when you think the Mets can do nothing to top their usual silliness, they manage. On Sunday, pitcher Taijuan Walker — who has been quite good — tracked a batted ball that dribbled 20 feet up the third-base line. In the effort to keep it foul, he swatted it toward the backstop. Trouble was, the ball had drifted fair, which no Met grasped despite the plate umpire’s emphatic call. Three baserunners scored. Walker stuck around for one more batter, who was the opposing pitcher, whom he walked.

Credit to the Mets for winning the game, especially after wasting a six-run lead the night before. Still, it was hard to call Sunday a banner day. They lost a series to a last-place team. In addition to deGrom, they placed shortstop Francisco Lindor on the injured list. They signed him for $341 million over 11 years. He’s hitting .228. His OPS is .702.

Were the Braves chasing Washington, I’d feel differently. But they’re not. All they need to do is catch the Mets. (The Phillies are in second place, but I don’t count them.) As manager Brian Snitker said Sunday, channeling Yogi Berra: “We’re in it till we’re out of it.”

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