Though the rivalry does not date back very long, Mets fans are entirely familiar with the script. If Chipper Jones and the Braves come to town, bad things happen.
With Thursday’s 7-6 victory over the Mets, Atlanta has now won all four series, and 8 of 12 games, against the Mets this season, dominating the rivalry just as they have most years since the late ‘90’s.
Braves manager Bobby Cox, true to form, dismissed any notions of Atlanta-as-bogey-team.
“That’s nonsense,” he snarled, sitting in the dugout Tuesday night as the teams prepared to do battle. “We play the game of baseball. That’s all.”
There’s no easy answer. The Mets’ pitchers have an earned run average of 3.89 against the league this season—and a comparable ERA of 4 against Atlanta. Their batting average, on base percentage and slugging percentage as a team against the Braves nearly matches the season total. They’ve lost close games and they’ve lost blowouts this season against their arch rivals, defeated Chuck James and been bested by Buddy Carlyle.
Mets center fielder Lastings Milledge, 22, who grew up a Braves fan in Florida, remembers thinking of the battles less as a rivalry, and more like a predetermined outcome. The Braves won division titles every season from when Milledge was six years old until he was 20.
“Growing up, they were always the best team,” Milledge said Tuesday night. “But we’re not going to let it be like that anymore.”
The Mets finally managed to break the depressing pattern last year, defeating Atlanta 11 of 18 times, underlining their newfound superiority in late July by sweeping a series in Turner Field to put themselves 15 games ahead of the Braves.
But for many Mets fans, the question of whether the team would stand up to the Braves when seriously threatened remained unanswered. And according to utility infielder Chris Woodward, who left the Mets for the Braves following the 2006 season, the veteran Atlanta players were eager to find out, too.
“All a lot of these guys have known is winning,” Woodward said. “I think they took losing last year personally. We entered the season believing we can dethrone the Mets.”
After their latest series triumph – they won the first game 7-3 and lost the second 4-3 before clinching yesterday – the Braves left town trailing by 3.5 games with 48 left to play. Not an insurmountable deficit, to be sure, but a difficult one, considering that the Braves have trouble beating anyone besides the Mets this year (their record is a pedestrian 52-50 against everyone else).
Part of the explanation for the contrasting fortunes of the Braves against the Mets and other teams is that Atlanta has sent out its two best starters, John Smoltz and Tim Hudson, in two of three games against the Mets each of the last two series, or two-thirds of the time. Overall, however, they can only pitch those two 40 percent of the time—the remaining starts have gone to the inconsistent Chuck James, the now-departed Kyle Davies, and others who are not headed for Cooperstown.
The Mets, meanwhile, should be a stronger club by the next time they meet their rivals. They’ll soon have injured starting center fielder Carlos Beltran back. With the emergence of the talented young outfielder Lastings Milledge, manager Willie Randolph can spell right fielder Shawn Green against lefthanders he can no longer hit, rest the aged Moises Alou, and even spell them both for defense when Endy Chavez returns, which Mets GM Omar Minaya indicated could be within two weeks.
Also looming in the near distance is Pedro Martinez, who made his first rehab start Wednesday, giving up five runs in three innings. Ignore the results—Pedro’s velocity was in the upper eighties, and with his abilty to throw strikes, and his intelligence on the mound, the results will come as long as his health remains strong.
Still, the Braves will have six more cracks at the Mets between now and the end of the season, something Braves reliever Tyler Yates, who was released by the Mets, believes will spell doom for the current leaders.
“I think we are the class of the NL East,” Yates said. “We have a better lineup, and, I like the bullpen,” he added, smiling immodestly.
Maybe the Mets will just have to hope that the Braves can’t improve their performance against teams that don’t wear orange and blue.
“Look, we’re the first-place team,” Milledge said. “As long as we are, we can lose to them every game, and it doesn’t matter. But hopefully we can change that.”
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