With the NL East title all but lost after a weekend sweep by the Braves, the Mets have problems as the postseason nears

ATLANTA – Before the weekend that would effectively settle the National League East, New York Mets first baseman Pete Alonso considered whether he had ever played in a series with so much at stake. Since his debut in 2019, the Mets have not made the postseason, finishing at least nine games back every year, and so this would surely be the biggest of his MLB career. Twice he led his Florida Gators to the College World Series.

Drawing upon that experience, he said that when so much is at stake, less is more. “Smaller thoughts equal big results.”

Perhaps the Mets let their thoughts get too big this weekend in Atlanta, because the results were ultimately far too small. Across three games, they managed only four extra-base hits, left 22 runners on base, and went a combined 5 for 18 with runners in scoring position. Unhappy with the production and their options at DH, the Mets called up MLB.com’s top prospect 20-year-old ​​Francisco Álvarez to debut on the pressure-packed stage, only for him to go hitless in the crucial series. The pitchers who are supposed to be lights out may have cracked, but it was the lineup that crumbled.

After spending 175 days in first place this season, they’ll head into the final series two games back of the reigning Atlanta Braves. A single win over the weekend would have given them the chance to control their own destiny. Now, to win the division, they’ll need to sweep the Washington Nationals and hope the Miami Marlins can sweep the Braves. Anything less, and they’ll go right into the wild-card round while the Braves await the division series.

“The toughest part?” shortstop Francisco Lindor said after Sunday’s 5-3 defeat in which he went 0 for 5. “That we lost.”

ATLANTA, GA - OCTOBER 02: New York Mets manager Buck Showalter walks back to the dugout after a visit to the mound during the eighth inning of a MLB game between the New York Mets and Atlanta Braves on Sunday, October 02, 2022 at Truist Park in Atlanta, GA. (Photo by Austin McAfee/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

ATLANTA, GA – OCTOBER 02: New York Mets manager Buck Showalter walks back to the dugout after a visit to the mound during the eighth inning of a MLB game between the New York Mets and Atlanta Braves on Sunday, October 02, 2022 at Truist Park in Atlanta, GA. (Photo by Austin McAfee/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Weekend flex by the reigning champs

People will talk about how the Mets were 10.5 games up in the division on June 1, a high mark that was whittled away over the following three months. But they didn’t collapse — going 63-44 since — so much as they were caught. In that same span, the Braves were 76-32, a 114-win pace and second only to the Los Angeles Dodgers in all of baseball.

But I imagine that’s cold comfort as you watch what started as a charmed season slip away in the final stretch. The Mets went from comic relief to easy favorites in the span of a single ambitious offseason. With a new general manager, a new manager, a vaunted new clubhouse culture, and the kind of payroll that used to make people accuse the Yankees of buying rings, the Mets swaggered into the season. Fans might not have admitted it out loud — they watched a lesser version of the team go from first place in mid-August last year to missing the postseason entirely — but the 2022 Mets were one of the Big Teams in baseball. And for most of the season, they played like it.

Zoom out, and you’ll see a team with 98 wins and the chance for a few more. The Mets could finish with 100+ for the first time since 1988 and only the fourth time in franchise history. Hosting the new three-game wild-card series will put a strain on their pitching plans at the outset of what will be a grueling month if they’re lucky; but it’s still their first postseason berth in six years.

“What I’ve reminded them and will remind them is how good they are,” manager Buck Showalter said. “And how good a year they’ve had and we’ll still get a chance to accomplish their goals.”

Mets’ power in short supply

Zoom in, though, and there’s cause for concern.

Even the good starts by the great pitchers include a few bad pitches. You hope to miss out of the zone, or sneak one by the hitter, or have him waste it on a pop-up. But sometimes, you get beat on your bad pitches. That’s what the best lineups do: punish mistakes.

It takes some amount of luck to win a World Series like the Braves did last year, taking down juggernauts like the Dodgers and Houston Astros along the way. But it also takes the ability to hone in on however many opportunities elite pitchers allow. Sure it’s a little reductionist, but home runs are an awfully efficient way to make the most of mistakes.

The difference in the National League East this season will likely end up being just a handful of pitches thrown by the Mets’ top three pitchers across three games in Atlanta. The Braves’ lineup turned three into home runs against Jacob deGrom (two Cy Young awards) on Friday night, two into home runs against Max Scherzer (three Cy Young awards) on Saturday night, and two into home runs off a couple of pitchers Sunday amid a not-so-good start by Chris Bassitt. In all, the Braves out-homered the Mets seven to three in the sweep that reversed the two teams’ fortunes. Shortstop Dansby Swanson and first baseman Matt Olson each homered in all three games.

That dichotomy is no fluke. While the Braves have the second-most home runs in baseball this year — and the most since that pivotal June 1 date — the Mets are 16th. Their offense is built around baseball’s second-best on-base percentage, which works better if you don’t strand the guys who get on. And their wins are built around getting better-than-good starts from deGrom and Scherzer and handing them off to their sensation of a closer, Edwin Diaz, who made just one appearance on the weekend and never got the chance to protect a lead.

Perhaps the most sobering part is simply the reminder that even a 98-win team can get swept — especially when it runs into another playoff-caliber club. The big picture won’t save you in a postseason series, you have to rise to the occasion. The Mets can cite their resolve and resilience and all they’ve earned thus far — but, remember, the reward will be more series like the one they just lost.

“It was intense,” Alonso said of his first taste of almost-postseason baseball, “but I feel like we got a pretty good feel of what it’s going to be like in October.”

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