Braves must solve Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom to stay in NL East race

The Braves beat up on Carlos Carrasco, a good starting pitcher, to open their series against the Mets on Monday night. He’s fourth in New York’s pecking order. The Braves were set to face Taijuan Walker on Tuesday night. The Mets are getting mid-rotation results from their No. 5 starter: Walker’s 3.43 ERA ranks No. 38 in MLB among pitchers with 100 innings or more.

It’s back to the top of the rotation for the Mets on Wednesday. You know what that means for the Braves. Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom in back-to-back games. Last time that happened, the Braves scored four runs total in the two games and lost both. They need to do more against Scherzer and de this time to have much hope of catching the Mets in the National League East.

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Maybe I’m overstating the importance of two games in August. I don’t think so. There’s urgency for the Braves to win the division and get a bye to the Division Series. Key to those ambitions is making up ground on the Mets this week. There’s also the mental boost that would come with finally figuring out Scherzer and de before October.

If the Braves do no better than break even in this series, they’ll trail New York by at least 5 ½ games with 42 to play. That would be a significant margin. It’s a chasm with the Mets now getting two turns in their rotation from elite pitchers. The Mets have had that setup for only two weeks, and the Braves have been playing well. Yet New York has led the division by at least 2 ½ games since the start of August.

And the Mets have yet to get the full de. He’s been on a pitch limit in three starts since returning from a shoulder injury. He might still be on a limit when he faces the Braves on Thursday. That didn’t matter much last time. De needed only 76 pitches over 5 ⅔ innings against the Braves on Aug. 7. He was perfect until Dansby Swanson hit a homer.

De has won two Cy Young Awards and finished in the top 10 in voting four other years. He already has answered questions about whether he would be the same guy after injuries. Scherzer, a three-time Cy Young winner, also hasn’t been slowed by injury. The eventual return of both pitchers is why I’ve always doubted the Braves would overtake the Mets in the East. Scherzer and deGrom are showing why that was a good bet.

A right elbow issue sidelined deGrom for the second half of last season. The shoulder ailment, which is more worrisome for a pitcher, kept him out until this month. Since returning, deGrom has struck out half the 56 batters he’s faced, walked one and allowed only two extra-base hits among six surrendered. He’s still throwing 100-plus mph fastballs with an easy motion and delivering mid-90s sliders with bite.

Scherzer didn’t pitch from May 19 through July 4 because of an oblique injury. He’s made eight starts since then while posting a 1.89 ERA with 67 strikeouts and eight walks. I still think back to how a dead arm prevented Scherzer from starting an elimination game vs. the Braves in the 2021 NLCS. But I believe Mets manager Buck Showalter will handle Scherzer better than Dodgers counterpart Dave Roberts.

The recent trend for postseason managers is opening with a reliever, sending out starters on short rest or using them out of the bullpen (Roberts did both with Scherzer). But that’s been more out of necessity than strategy. Injuries muck up rotations. Not many teams have a fifth or even fourth starter they trust, or a deep bullpen. The Braves were among the teams that got by in October by cobbling together so-called bullpen games.

Showalter shouldn’t have to do that this postseason, especially if the Mets get a bye. The NLDS schedule has five games scheduled over six days. That means the Game 1 starter could, if necessary, pitch the deciding Game 5 on regular rest. Showalter can call on Carrasco and Chris Bassitt for starts after deGrom and Scherzer. That’s a much better option than trying to piece together a bullpen game.

The chances are good that the Braves will have to deal with Scherzer and deGrom to repeat as World Series champions. They’ve been a problem for the Braves for a long time. DeGrom’s next start against the Braves will be the 27th time he’s faced them during his career. That’s tied with the Marlins for most of his career against an opponent. Scherzer will have faced the Braves 30 times, most of any opponent.

DeGrom and Scherzer tend to dominate the Braves, like they do to every other opponent. That hasn’t prevented the Braves from winning four consecutive division titles (Scherzer was with the Nationals for six-plus years before his brief detour to L.A.). The difference now is the Mets are a more complete team than they’ve been in years. They are on their way to the postseason with the best rotation in MLB.

As a bonus, the Mets surely will have a first-round bye if they win the division. That’s the big carrot for the Braves. Win the East, and they’ll get the bye to the best-of-five NLDS and if the No. 2 seed would play either the Central champion or the third wild card. Win the top wild card, and the Braves will play a dreaded best-of-three series against the second wild card before facing the mighty Dodgers in the best-of-five Division Series.

The Braves have shown off their pitching depth lately. They needed two extra starters last weekend with Max Fried (concussion) out and a doubleheader in Miami. The Braves got quality work from Kyle Muller and Bryce Elder before they were sent back to Triple-A Gwinnett. Fried might return to pitch Thursday against the Mets. Trade deadline acquisition Jake Odorizzi is lined up to face Scherzer on Wednesday.

It’s a lot to ask those pitchers to match deGrom and Scherzer while facing a lineup that’s as good as the Braves’. It’s what the Braves will need to stay in the East race if their hitters can’t do much again vs. New York’s two aces.