Braves start October by dominating Mets in ‘emotional’ series

The Braves and their fans only dreamed about a sweep before this weekend. They hosted the Mets in a series hyped to an extreme degree well beyond 99.9% of major-league contests. It was a de facto postseason series in which the winner almost certainly would take the division.

The dream scenario seemed very possible after the Braves defeated the Mets consecutively to retake first place in the National League East entering Sunday. Then the unlikely became the reality. The Braves, who trailed 3-1 early, quickly answered and defeated the Mets 5-3 to complete the three-game sweep at Truist Park.

It virtually ensures the Braves will win their fifth consecutive division title. In the final three-game series, they’ll need only one win over the Marlins or one Mets’ loss to the Nationals to make that official because their victory Sunday also clinched the tiebreaker over the Mets by taking the season series, 10-9.

Coined arguably the biggest regular-season series in franchise history, the Braves responded as a World Series champion should.

“This is about an as exciting and emotional series as I think I’ve ever been a part of,” manager Brian Snitker said. “Even the playoff series and everything. It was something else. The stadium, the support from the fans, everything. This is one of the better ones I feel I’ve ever been a part of.”

Beyond hanging another banner on those crowded poles at Truist Park, the Braves (100-59) securing the NL East would have gigantic implications on the postseason field. The most obvious being the Braves would own the No. 2 seed, giving them homefield advantage in the NLDS and perhaps even the NL Championship Series if the top-seeded Dodgers were eliminated early.

The top two seeds benefit under the new postseason format. The Braves would avoid playing the best-of-three wild card round – the Mets would instead play next weekend while the Braves watch from their sofas – and therefore have their rotation set for the Division Series. The team winning the wild card round will already have a disadvantage after using at least its top-two starters to advance.

It’s also notable the Braves wouldn’t face the 110-win-and-counting Dodgers until potentially the NLCS thanks to seeding. Instead, if the Mets – the top wild card - advance they’d meet Los Angeles in a best-of-five. So the Braves’ route back to the World Series as a division champ would not require them facing both the Mets and Dodgers.

Another reason rest helps: The Braves are waiting to see when starter Spencer Strider and second baseman Ozzie Albies could rejoin the club. It seems extremely unlikely Strider (oblique) could pitch in the wild card series that begins Oct. 7, but he’d have additional time to heal if the Braves didn’t begin play until Oct. 11. Albies (fractured pinkie) is likewise uncertain, but he could contribute as a pinch-runner and bench bat if healthy enough.

All this is possible because the Braves have become a new October force. The Mets needed one win to control their own path to the division title. They lined up their best starters, including dual aces Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer, knowing this series was essentially the start of their postseason run.

The Braves were unfazed by everything the Mets threw at them. They hit five combined homers off deGrom and Scherzer, the two individuals who’ve had people giddy over the Mets’ postseason chances. In the finale, they overcame the Mets’ two-run third with a three-run third that chased starter Chris Bassitt.

“I said Friday when I came to the ballpark, I told my wife, ‘Well, the playoffs start today,’” Snitker said. “That’s what it felt like. This whole weekend felt like a playoff weekend and then some.”

The Mets are phenomenal, winning 98 games - potentially 101 - and trading blows with the reigning champs for six months. But the Braves completely outclassed them when it mattered most, looking every bit capable of becoming the first repeat champion in two decades.

It was fair to criticize the Braves dropping two inexcusable games to the Nationals in the past couple weeks, but when the pressure increases, the Braves respond accordingly. The Mets looked like a team that’s new here – in fairness, they are – and the Braves looked like a club that channeled its energy from last year’s run.

There’s no Freddie Freeman, Joc Pederson or Jorge Soler, but that’s the beauty of what the Braves have built. They perfectly supplemented their World Series core with offseason and midseason acquisitions that minimized those losses.

There are red-hot sluggers Matt Olson and Dansby Swanson, who homered in all three games. There’s rookie sensation Michael Harris, playing in Mississippi months ago, who has a case for team MVP. There’s Austin Riley and Travis d’Arnaud, valuable well beyond their on-field contributions.

The team is so deep that All-Star designated hitter William Contreras didn’t even start in the most pivotal game of the regular season (that decision was debatable). The team is so deep that All-Star lead-off man Ronald Acuna, who had three hits Saturday, was among the weekend’s afterthoughts.

Then there’s the bullpen, which earned every dime this weekend. Raisel Iglesias is another Alex Anthopoulos heist (he’s allowed one earned run across 27 games since joining the Braves). Hometown product Collin McHugh feels destined for big October moments. Kenley Jansen, playing this year’s Will Smith role and bearing the brunt of reliever criticism, delivered three straight saves in the series (the latter two perfect ninths).

“It’s a clubhouse full of guys who want to win,” Olson said. “From the second I’ve walked in, I can tell that’s No. 1 on the program. While it sounds great everywhere, I don’t think that’s necessarily the case for every person in the big leagues. Sometimes teams can get away from it. But when you come in and the entire team is set on the same thing, and that’s to win, it’s powerful.”

The Braves aren’t perfect, but they’re about as close as you can realistically come. That’s how they’ve overcome a 10-1/2 game deficit, which would be their best divisional comeback in franchise history. They’re 74-32 since June 2, the second-best record in MLB, which has put them past the Mets, who went 63-42 in that span. As travis d’Arnaud said following Sunday’s victory: “I wouldn’t doubt us ever.”

Baseball fans love clowning the Mets, and while they had some missed opportunities, it’s evident the Braves haven taken this division more than the Mets lost it. These past few months have been one of the most sensational runs in Braves history. All that’s left to do, other than mathematically wrapping the NL East up, is defending the crown later this month.

“These guys are ready for that,” Snitker said. “They’re ready to fight that fight. They’ve been doing it all year. That’s what these guys do. They prepare, they’re consistent, they fight the fight. That’s why they’re successful.”