The Braves traded shutouts and split a doubleheader Monday against the Mets at Citi Field. They won Game 1, 2-0, before dropping the second contest 1-0. Both games were seven innings.
In Game 1, Kyle Muller has looked advanced beyond his years since arriving in mid-June. His emergence reached another height Monday, when he outdueled Marcus Stroman and helped the Braves take the first game
Muller, 23, lamented his previous outing, when he labored through only four innings against the Padres. This time, while still battling through danger, Muller kept the Mets scoreless over five innings. He allowed four hits, struck out three and walked two. There were several sequences when Muller showed the poise and calmness that’s rarely found in rookie starters.
After recording two strikes to lead-off man Jonathan Villar, Muller threw seven consecutive balls in the first inning. He responded by retiring three Mets. In the third frame, the Mets had two on with one out. Muller struck out slugger Pete Alonso and won a 10-pitch at-bat against Michael Conforto, who struck out on a low slider.
“That’s what you want,” Muller said. “I want to be in those situations so that hopefully by the end of the year, I’m even more comfortable in that situation. I finally threw the good slider to Conforto 3-2 that I was trying to throw six pitches earlier. I was really, really excited about that. That was a big moment in the game right there.”
Muller escaped another sticky spot in the fifth. A Brandon Drury double and Villar walk again positioned the Mets with two on and one out for Alonso. But the home run derby winner grounded into a double play on the first pitch – played perfectly by third baseman Austin Riley – ending Muller’s afternoon with the Braves retaining a two-run lead.
“That was awesome,” Muller said. “Those are two pretty big spots right there. I had some great defensive plays all day, and (catcher Stephen Vogt) back there, he was all-time. He was really big keeping me confident in those situations, so a lot of respect for him. Just knowing I have the defense behind me is awesome. I was proud of myself. The fans were rocking. I stayed composed and executed some big pitches right there. That was really cool.”
Manager Brian Snitker lifted Muller at 75 pitches. It was a controversial choice in the moment, given how Muller was pitching and the importance of the following four games, but it worked. Southpaw Tyler Matzek logged a clean sixth and Will Smith recorded the save.
Shortstop Dansby Swanson made a nick pick on a ball hit by James McCann to start the game-ending double play.
“If he doesn’t win a Gold Glove, there’s something wrong,” Snitker said. “I haven’t seen anybody that we’ve played in baseball - with all respect to everybody who’s out there - this kid has been unbelievable at shortstop.”
In Game 2, the Braves couldn’t muster any offense against six Mets relievers. Bryse Wilson went three innings in his start, holding the Mets scoreless thanks to masterful work by reliever Jesse Chavez, who replaced Wilson in a two-on, none out situation and escaped the frame. New York scored its only run on Jeff McNeil’s two-out double off Luke Jackson in the fifth.
“You’re always disappointed when you can’t get the second one,” Swanson said. “But to keep things in perspective, I thought they threw the ball well in the second game. We didn’t have too many chances, and when we did, we weren’t able to capitalize. They had a big two-out hit and that was the difference in the game. I thought our guys threw great, too. Just one pitch, really, that got hit and that was the difference. We played well, we just didn’t take advantage of the opportunity.”
Why this series is so important: If the Braves take four of five, they become clear buyers and show they’ll hang around the NL East hunt. If they lose four of five, they should pivot, knowing the division and wild card are probably out of reach.
But if they float in the middle – that’s a 3-2 or 2-3 mark – as they have all season, their deadline strategy is more interesting. If they go 3-2, they’d leave Queens trailing the Mets by four games. If they go 2-3, they’d depart in a six-game hole. In either scenario, they’re within striking distance, though one could argue a team six games out that hasn’t crossed .500 all season shouldn’t operate as a contender.
Series usually don’t feel this crucial in July, but there is an all-the-marbles feel to this week in Flushing. Snitker and his players haven’t minced words about the series’ importance. Sand is draining in the hourglass.
The Braves will have 61 games remaining when they head home to begin a brief homestand Friday. That’s one game more than the shortened 2020 season, which shows just how little time remains. If the team didn’t make the most of its trip to New York, perhaps it’s finally time to wave the white flag.
To this point, it’s fair to say this team would be viewed through a different prism if it wasn’t supposed to be good. Somebody watching baseball for the first time this season, without knowing how the past several years unfolded, would be surprised to learn the Braves were a few innings from a World Series berth last season.
That person wouldn’t see this team for more than what it’s been: a mediocre club with some stand-out individual talent. There’s time to change the story, but it’s dwindling. If they’re going to flip the script and make a turnaround that many in the South will remember for years and years, it feels like it needs to happen this week.
So far, the Braves are 1-1. Consider it a victory for the Mets, who took two games off the calendar without losing any ground. It was a missed opportunity for the Braves to hold their opposition to one run across two games yet only split.
“We’re good (pitching-wise for the rest of the week),” Snitker said. “That was two good ballgames. We’re in good shape with our bullpen tomorrow. Just couldn’t get a big hit (in Game 2). But we’re OK.”