ATLANTA — Of their biggest series of the 12 months, a matchup that may essentially resolve the National League East winner within the waning days of the regular season, the Mets had two big reasons to be confident: Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer.
Two of one of the best pitchers in baseball, deGrom and Scherzer have a combined five Cy Young Awards and 12 All-Star selections. And despite the fact that each have handled injuries this season, they’ve plowed through opposing lineups with relative ease. A sweep of Atlanta within the three-game set would have clinched the Mets’ first division title since 2015 and earned them the luxurious of a first-round bye within the postseason, which begins later this week.
As an alternative, the defending World Series champion Braves (99-59) have the Mets (98-60) on the ropes. Powered by home runs by Matt Olson and shortstop Dansby Swanson, Atlanta beat deGrom on Friday night and Scherzer on Saturday night. The latter victory moved Atlanta into sole possession of first place within the division for just the second time this season.
“It feels terrible,” Mets outfielder Brandon Nimmo said after his team lost, 4-2, Saturday. He continued, alluding to deGrom and Scherzer: “Those are our greatest shots. They stuffed them in our face.”
With a win Sunday night — the Mets will start Chris Bassitt against Charlie Morton — Atlanta can shove one other cold reality into the Mets’ face: The Braves would then hold a two-game lead with three games left and own the tiebreaker, which suggests Atlanta could claim the N.L. East with yet one more win or a Mets loss.
“We’re pretty aware of the scenarios,” Olson said. “But you’ve got to approach it the identical way.”
A division title would cap a powerful turnaround by Atlanta — and a reasonably stunning collapse by the Mets. On June 1, Atlanta trailed the Mets by a season-high 10½ games. Since then, the Mets have cooled off, going 63-43, while the Braves morphed into the most effective teams within the majors at 75-32.
“We weren’t playing good baseball in any respect,” Swanson said of his team 4 months ago. “And also you’ve type of seen guys throughout this organization really take ownership of that.”
Added Atlanta Manager Brian Snitker: “I knew we were higher than what we were on that day. And it was only a matter of time.”
Atlanta pulled even with the Mets for the primary time this season on Sept. 6. It held a half-game lead three days later for just the day. It stayed on the Mets’ heels for the following few weeks and was again tied on Sept. 27. Facing the Mets directly this weekend, Atlanta has shown it is probably the higher team overall and has an intangible quality gained by playing in so many high-pressure games last season.
“Teams have it, guys have it,” Snitker said. “I’ve had teams over time all my profession and also you’re like, ‘God, that team has it.’ You don’t really know what it’s. You possibly can’t manufacture it. Some teams have it and a few teams don’t. Some guys have it and a few don’t. But that it is big on this game.”
In Snitker’s mind, few players have shown that ability greater than Swanson, particularly this season. In his final season before free agency, Swanson, 28, has been the most effective shortstops in baseball and produced the best season of his profession: 24 home runs, a career-high 95 runs batted in, his first All-Star selection, stellar defense and team leadership.
“I feel like everyone hates losing, but he hates it greater than the common person,” said Atlanta starter Kyle Wright, a teammate of Swanson’s at Vanderbilt University, who on Saturday picked up his M.L.B.-leading twenty first win.
Within the sixth inning Friday, Swanson smashed a low 98-mile-per-hour fastball from deGrom into the stands for a solo shot that gave Atlanta a 3-1 lead. On Saturday, he clobbered a 93 m.p.h. fastball over the center of the plate from Scherzer for a go-ahead, two-run blast within the fifth.
“Sometimes you’ve just got to get out of your personal way a little bit bit,” Swanson said of facing the star pitchers. “It could actually be difficult at times. But there’s no higher time to do it than now, type of saying, ‘To the heck with it, let’s just go compete and lay all of it on the market.’”
Atlanta’s rise has been fueled, partly, by home runs — loads of them. Only the Yankees (246) have more home runs than the Braves (239) this season. Since June 1, each of those teams had amassed a major-league-leading 177 blasts.
“The flexibility to vary the sport with one swing is good, especially while you’re at home and might fan the flames of the gang,” said Olson, who has snapped out of a September skid with 4 home runs in his past five games.
Once Atlanta began playing higher over the summer, Olson said he had an idea the N.L. East race would come right down to this final weekend against the Mets. “Here we’re,” he added.
All shouldn’t be lost, though, for the Mets. Like Atlanta, the Mets have clinched no less than a wild-card spot within the playoffs. And a win Sunday would give the Mets a tie atop the division. But more necessary, it will earn them a 10-9 edge within the season series and thus possession of the division tiebreaker should they finish with the identical record.
Over the ultimate three games, Atlanta will face the lowly Miami Marlins while the Mets will play the Washington Nationals, the worst team in baseball. A division title and a better path within the playoffs remain at stake.
“There’s no time to have fun,” Swanson said Saturday night. “There’s 4 games left.”