Braves healthier than Mets for NL East fight to finish

The Mets led the National League East by 10 ½ games at the end of May. The Braves briefly nudged ahead of them Friday night. This has not been a vintage Mets collapse, though. They’ve been good since their hot start. It’s just that the Braves have been better than any NL team since New York had that big lead.

The Braves and Mets are set to fight until the finish. New York has 20 games left; the Braves have 21. The teams will play each other three times on the weekend of Sept. 30. The stakes aren’t do-or-die. Both teams will make the postseason. But winning the division means a bye to a Division Series and avoiding a potential meeting with the Dodgers until the NL Championship Series.

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The Braves have no reason to fear the Dodgers. They bested them on the way to winning it all in October. Still, it’s better to take the path with shorter odds if it can be helped. Outkicking the Mets over the final three weeks is the way the Braves can do that. It could come down to which team is healthier, which tends to be the case at this time of year.

That’s where the Braves have an edge. Second baseman Ozzie Albies (foot) is on a rehabilitation assignment at Triple-A Gwinnett. Outfielder Ronald Acuña is playing through a nagging knee injury. The Braves otherwise are healthy for the final stretch. The Mets have bigger issues.

First, it was fantastic right-hander Max Scherzer’s oblique injury flaring up again. Then All-Star right fielder Starling Marte was put on the injured list because of a fractured right finger. The news played out similarly: Player and team initially said an IL stint wouldn’t be necessary, then a few days later, it reversed course. Maybe the Mets were waiting to see if the injuries would improve, but this being the Mets, it’s hard not to think they were trying to fend off feelings of dread.

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When Scherzer left a Sept. 3 start early, the Mets said he was experiencing “left side fatigue.” Four days later he was placed on the IL with a downgraded prognosis of “oblique irritation.” Scherzer dismissed the injury as not significant. He knows his body best, but there’s nothing insignificant about a 38-year-old pitcher going on the IL in September.

That would be true even if Scherzer weren’t playing for a team with a history of seemingly small injuries becoming big deals. There’s also Scherzer’s own injury history. Remember, he couldn’t pitch for the Dodgers in an NLCS elimination game against the Braves in October. He’s human.

Scherzer will end up missing at least two turns in the rotation. He’s eligible to return Sunday. Scherzer has been great for the Mets when available. He’d be the NL’s ERA leader if he had enough innings to qualify. If all goes well then Scherzer will make, at most, three more starts during the regular season. One of them could be during the series against the Braves.

Marte fractured his finger when he was hit by a pitch Sept. 6. He can come off the IL on Friday, but it’s risky to rush a hitter back with a finger injury. Marte has followed up a career-best season with another good campaign. His offensive production is one reason the Mets stayed afloat when Pete Alonso slumped.

The Mets have some depth behind Scherzer and Marte. Young lefty David Peterson was good as a replacement for Carlos Carrasco. Now that Carrasco is back from injury, Peterson has stayed in the rotation to fill Scherzer’s slot. Veterans Tyler Naquin and Darin Ruf are platooning in right field. They have pretty good numbers in favorable matchups.

Those players obviously aren’t going to provide the same impact as Scherzer and Marte. The Braves don’t have such big holes to fill.

Albies was slumping when he broke his foot in June. The Braves had a hard time finding someone who could do better until rookie Vaughn Grissom grabbed hold of the job. Albies has time to get right by October. Grissom is a pretty good Plan B.

Acuña’s nagging knee injury is worrisome. He’s still in the lineup, lately as only the designated hitter, but is hitting just OK by his standards. We’re accustomed to seeing Acuña do extraordinary things. He’s still only 14 months removed from ACL surgery. He’s human, too.

When the Mets cooled off and the Braves surged, I stuck by my prediction that New York will win the East. I may end up regretting that I ignored my usual instinct of assuming that something will go wrong for the Mets because it always does. They were winning without Jacob deGrom and Scherzer, two of MLB’s best pitchers, so I figured the worst was behind them. I should have known better.

The Mets should benefit from a softer finishing schedule. They’ll play the NL’s two worst teams (Pirates and Nationals), the AL’s worst team (Oakland) and two teams more than 20 games below .500 (Cubs and Marlins). The Braves also will play the Nationals and Marlins. But they have seven games left against the Phillies, who are in the wild-card race.

It’s going to be a fun, tight finish in the East: FanGraphs predicts that the Mets will win the division by one game over the Braves. I hold division titles in high esteem because it’s harder to be consistent over 162 games than get hot for a few playoff series. I know many Braves backers feel differently because the 14 division titles from 1991-2005 resulted in only one World Series title. Still, a fifth consecutive East title should be worth something beyond playoff seeding, especially when pulling it off would deny the Mets.

If Albies returns soon, the Braves will have a full lineup of regulars for the final stretch. Injuries are, of course, unpredictable. They mostly come down to luck. Right now, though, the Braves are in better shape as they fight the Mets to the finish for the East title.