The first-place team in the NL East met the hottest team in the NL East Tuesday night at SunTrust Park.
The Braves, who have been in sole possession of the division lead without interruption since June 12, defeated the Mets, who have the best record in the division since the All-Star break, 5-3.
Starting pitcher Max Fried’s 14th win of the season, a 1-2-3 save by closer Mark Melancon and a 13-hit attack that included Ronald Acuna’s 34th home run of the season (ninth this month) punctuated the Braves’ win in what felt like a bigger-than-standard August matchup.
“You know what, I got goose bumps coming out of the bullpen tonight,” Melancon said after recording his first save as a Brave. “It’s a cool setting coming out of that ’pen. That gate opens, and it’s such a nice ballpark. You’ve got great energy, and I get to watch these guys play every night, so it couldn’t get much better.”
The win, which maintained the Braves’ six-game lead over the second-place Nationals and extended their lead over the Mets to nine games, began what should be a revealing week for the Braves. After a three-game series against the resurgent Mets, the Braves (13-13 over their past 26 games) face the Los Angeles Dodgers, who have the National League’s best record, Friday through Sunday.
Asked before the game Tuesday if he expects to learn something about his team this week, Braves manager Brian Snitker said: “I don’t know that I need to learn anything about it. I expect us to play well.”
The Mets arrived at SunTrust Park with a best-in-MLB 21-7 record since the All-Star break, including 15 wins in their past 17 games and eight in their past nine, marking an impressive turnaround for a team that was 40-50 before the break.
“They’re hitting on all cylinders,” Snitker said.
Although the Mets’ top two starting pitchers, Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard, aren’t scheduled to pitch in this series, their starter Tuesday, Zack Wheeler, brought a 15-inning scoreless streak into the game.
That ended quickly as the Braves scored two runs in the first inning on four singles. Acuna scored the first run, his 100th of the season, the second most in the majors behind Boston’s Mookie Betts (107).
By the time Wheeler’s night was done, the Braves had scored five runs on 12 hits in five innings against him. That included Acuna’s 34th homer of the season -- his ninth in 12 games this month and seventh in the past seven games.
Fried (14-4) outdueled Wheeler, allowing one run on six hits through six innings and leaving with a 5-1 lead. Fried has won five consecutive starts, dating to July 15, and has posted a 2.92 ERA with 29 strikeouts in 27-2/3 innings during that impressive stretch.
“It kind of feels like the way I was throwing the ball at the beginning of the year, just not overthinking, trusting my stuff, trusting the guys behind the dish and the homework they do, and also trusting our defense,” Fried said.
Speaking of defense: Acuna, a force in all aspects of the game, threw out the Mets’ Todd Frazier, trying to score from second base on a single to left field, to end the sixth, Fried’s final inning. Acuna’s throw to the plate was clocked at 99.1-mph.
The Braves’ beleaguered bullpen got the final nine outs. Luke Jackson worked a scoreless seventh, striking out two. Three relievers -- Shane Greene, Jerry Blevins and Anthony Swarzak -- were needed to get through a troublesome eighth inning in which the Braves allowed two runs (both charged to Greene, swelling his ERA with Atlanta to 14.55). Melancon closed out his perfect ninth with back-to-back strikeouts in his first appearance since blowing a save opportunity by surrendering four runs in 1/3 of an inning Saturday at Miami.
“It was nice to kind of redeem myself,” Melancon said. “… Not to say you don’t lose sleep when things don’t go your way, but you’ve got to forget about it. It’s fortunate you have the opportunity as a reliever to get back in there every night. We relish pressure down there.”
The Braves and Mets play again Wednesday night, with Dallas Keuchel (3-5, 4.83) starting for Atlanta vs. Steven Matz (7-7, 4.49) in a matchup of left-handers.
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