BY LESLIE MONTEIRO
(Photo credit: Friday’s back page of the New York Post)
WWE Hall of Famer Ric Flair may have had the best soundbite ever when he said to be the man, you have to beat the man.
This is the challenge the Mets face this weekend in trying to win the NL East for the first time since 2015. They have to beat the World Series defending champion Atlanta Braves at Atlanta.
The feeling in August was the division race would come down to this final weekend of the regular season between the Mets and Braves. The Mets have been so good all season yet the Braves kept pace by going 74-32 since June 1. Sure the Braves did their job by beating awful teams while the Mets struggled to beat them in September by going only 11-10 against them, but it was meant to be considering how good both teams have been all year. Iron sharpens iron in this case.
It’s only fitting the Mets go through Atlanta to achieve their goal. After so many decades of the Braves owning them, they have a chance to slay the demons once in for all by winning the series or sweeping them at Truist Park. Since both teams played in the same division in 1994, the Braves raised 16 NL East pennants while the Mets raised only two in 2006 and 2015.
If the Mets win the NL East, it would be fulfilling and rewarding after grinding through a long season and keeping pace with the Braves. It would also mean there would be a legitimate rivalry with both teams for the first time ever.
Let’s face it. There was never really a rivalry back in the late 90s. Even when the Mets fielded good teams under then-manager Bobby Valentine, the Braves would always beat them the way the Yankees beat the Minnesota Twins. Those Braves teams were loaded with pitching. They boasted Hall of Famers such as John Smoltz, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine in the starting rotation.
The Braves are still great. They boast dynamic talent in the lineup, and they can still pitch. But the Mets are as good as them, and they proved it by taking a 9-7 lead in this year’s season series.
It comes down to this: The winner of the series finale likely wins the division and gets a bye week while the loser becomes the wild-card team that will play next week in the playoffs. The last weekend serves as the final word. It will define the season of both teams right there.
For the Mets, this is the best opportunity to finally take down the Braves. They lined up their three best starters this weekend in Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer and Chris Bassitt. If they can’t beat them in a series that matters, when will they? The Mets have the advantage here, even though the Braves will start Max Fried, 20-game winner Kyle Wright and Charlie Morton. As good as those three are, I will take my chances with the Mets trio any day. Definitely Mets manager Buck Showalter would since he manipulated the rotation to have his best starters this weekend.
Yes, the Braves are at home, but great starting pitching negates home-field advantage. That’s where the Mets have the edge.
This Braves team is not going anywhere anytime soon. They signed most of their core players such as Austin Riley, Michael Harris II, Matt Olson, Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies, Spencer Strider and Wright to long-term deals. They will be a problem for the Mets for years to come. If this is the year to beat them, it’s now. This is a team that has win-now veterans such as Francisco Lindor, Eduardo Escobar, Pete Alonso, Jeff McNeil, Brandon Nimmo and Mark Canha that know what to do in pressure situations.
The Mets have the manager to steer them in the right direction and give them a chance to win in Buck Showalter, who should be the NL Manager of the Year. He kept the Mets afloat when they struggled for a bit this month. There was no panic from him, and it filtered through the players. He will have them ready to go against the Braves.
Showalter had the right approach to this weekend by saying this is an opportunity his team should relish to go up against a great team. He is absolutely right.
Sure it would have been nice if the Mets held on to a 10 ½ game lead, but that was not realistic. The Braves were too good, and the Mets would eventually go into a funk in a long season.
Despite all that, the Mets lead the NL East heading to Atlanta. It could have been much worse. The Braves could have been in first place or be tied for first. Instead, the Mets came back to beat the Miami Marlins, 5-4, in 10 innings on Escobar’s game-winning single Wednesday night, and as fate would have it, the Braves took a 3-2 loss to the Washington Nationals Wednesday night.
We can nitpick and talk about what could have been. It serves no purpose now.
The Mets control their destiny by taking the weekend series with their magic number at six. By sweeping the Braves, the Mets win the division outright. By taking two of three against the Braves, the Mets magic number goes down to one with the opportunity of winning the division at Citi Field on Monday night against the Nationals.
The time is now to beat the Braves. The Mets know it, too. This is as good as it gets. This is the best Mets team the Braves faced ever.
In a way, this weekend will be one of the biggest series in franchise history. It would mean the Mets finally exorcise their demons against the Braves once in for all. It would validate this great season. It would put them in a position to win at least 100 games that would make this season even better.
This weekend is a tune-up for the postseason. Both teams should benefit from playing each other as they prepare for the playoffs. It’s actually a good thing for both teams to duke it out for one last bragging right. All eyes will be on both teams along with Aaron Judge for his pursuit of breaking Roger Maris’ single-season franchise record for most home runs. Baseball benefits from all this.
The Mets should look at this as an opportunity.
This is their carpe diem.
This writer can be reached on Twitter at: @LeslieMonteiro6
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