This Was Once a Rivalry?

In the Mets’ tiered ticket pricing plan, only Opening Day, the Subway Series and the final regular season game at Shea Stadium cost more than a ticket to any of the three games this week, a series New York swept with a 5-4 walkoff win last night.

While in years past, a sweep of the Braves would have been greeted by some of the season’s most enthusiastic cheers, reaction to Thursday’s win, which dropped the Braves 15 games behind New York, was muted. Even the hatred bestowed upon favored targets like Atlanta third baseman Chipper Jones and manager Bobby Cox was almost good-natured.

The crowd seemed more focused on the out-of-town scoreboard, which updated the back-and-forth of Philadelphia’s 4-3 loss to Washington, than on the demise of the Braves. And even the way the Mets won, on a line drive by Carlos Delgado misplayed by Atlanta left fielder Omar Infante, seemed ripped from the script of the way New York lost games to Atlanta for years.

But it wouldn’t be fair to say the teams have merely switched places in the rivalry. The rivalry is dead. And judging by his postgame reaction, Cox, who often propped his feet up on the desk, smoking a victory cigar, and held forth after wins at Shea Stadium, still can’t make sense of it.

“That’s a double play [if Infante had caught the ball],” Atlanta manager Bobby Cox said to reporters who followed the trail of smoke into his office after Thursday night’s game. “He’d get Wright [doubled off] at second. He lost it in the lights. I can’t fault him. I’ve seen lots of balls get lost in the lights at Shea.”

For years, those balls were nearly all lost by the Mets. Make no mistake about it—Atlanta’s tremendous talent helped the Braves to dominate the National League East, in particular the Mets, for well over a decade. But a lot of things need to go right to win division titles year after year—and for the Braves, they always had against New York.

From 2001-2005, the Braves had a 58-37 record against the Mets, and won five straight division titles as the Mets slipped further and further from contention. Even in New York’s playoff years in 1999 and 2000, the Mets entered the postseason as the wild card, losing the division—and the season series—to Atlanta both years. As far back as 1998, the Mets entered the final weekend needing just one win against the Braves to secure a playoff berth—Atlanta, on its way to the playoffs, swept New York. And nearly every series included a game that New York lost through physical or mental errors, as though they were afraid of Atlanta.

Even New York’s victories against Atlanta were signature wins, not just because of extreme circumstances—such as an 11-8 win in 2000 that included a 10-run eighth inning, or Mike Piazza’s homering in a 3-2 win in New York’s first game after Sept. 11—but in large part because both took place against the Braves.

But just four Mets played for New York the last time Atlanta won the National League East—David Wright, Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran and Aaron Heilman. And as the players who were dominated by Atlanta left town, the Mets have stopped playing like the Braves haunt them.

A former Met, Mike Hampton, made the start for the Braves, and was subjected to as much abuse by the fans as Jones or Cox. (Hampton was one of those spooked Mets—in his one season with New York, he had a 3.14 ERA overall, but a 6.92 mark against Atlanta). Hampton, battling back from numerous injuries, pitched credibly, leaving after six innings with a 4-3 lead. New York’s comeback left him with a no-decision.

“Those things happen to [Hampton] more than just about any pitcher I’ve ever seen,” lamented Cox.

The Mets tied the game in the bottom of the seventh. With two outs, and runners on first and second, Bobby Cox summoned lefty specialist Will Ohman to face Carlos Delgado. Ohman did his job, inducing a soft ground ball towards first base, but the first baseman Martin Prado, a converted middle infielder, threw wide to a late-covering pitcher, allowing a run to score.

“Prado tried to make a good play,” Cox said. “Can’t fault him for that.” But he wore the same perplexed expression.

But Met-killer Chipper Jones came to the plate in the top of the eighth inning of a 4-4 game. For years, fans might have had flashbacks to Jones’s large number of key hits against New York, his .330 average against the Mets in his career. Instead, a cheer went up from the crowd.

Washington had pulled ahead of Philadelphia. And though Jones walked, the Mets escaped the inning unscathed.

Cox was also dismayed by the ball hit by Delgado in the ninth, one which allowed Wright to score the winning run. Still, the collection of bad bounces didn’t strike Cox as an evening of the bounces Atlanta enjoyed during the team’s dominance.

“I don’t think that way at all,” Cox said. “It’s one ball that he lost in the lights, and it cost us a ballgame. It’s a bad throw, and it cost us a ballgame.”

As the reporters filed out of his office, Cox asked one: “Our [Olympic] softball team got beat?” He shook his head in surprise and uttered, “Son of a bitch.” This Was Once a Rivalry?