There’s a moment in every baseball season where the grind gives way to gravity, and 156 one-day-at-a-time narratives collapse in the face of a big game. Or three big games.
For the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets, that moment arrives Friday night in Cobb County’s Truist Park, when a fantastic National League East race will tilt in one team’s direction after months of hide-and-seek.
The Mets are 98-58, leaders of the East for all but one day since April 12, fulfilling the mandate of their uber-rich owner that the time is now.
The Braves are 97-59, trailing by a game like they have for so many days this year, defending both a World Series title and an NL East crown they’ve possessed since 2018.
Yet their next win will be their 98th, most in this run, and at least a 3-3 finish will ensure their first 100-win season since 2003. All that, though, may not guarantee them anything but a trip to the best-of-three wild card series while the Mets enjoy five days off and an automatic berth in the NL Division Series.
The final remaining division race in baseball is also the greatest.
“It’s going to be huge, honestly,” Mets reliever Drew Smith told reporters after an extra-inning win over Miami gave New York its one-game division lead. “It’s pretty much deciding the division. I’ve never been a part of the playoffs and I’m sure it’s going to be as close to a playoff atmosphere as you can get.”
“It’s going to be a packed house in Atlanta,” says Braves first baseman Matt Olson. “It’s been packed houses all year, and this is one of the biggest ones.”
A look at what’s at stake, who has the edge and what the many potential outcomes mean ahead of Friday night’s opener:
Winner take all?
Not exactly. Only the Mets can clinch the East this weekend, and both clubs must fight letdowns in three-game, season-ending series against also-rans next week – the Mets at home against Washington, the Braves at Miami, including a date with Cy Young Award favorite Sandy Alcantara in the season finale.
Another huge factor: The season series winner, which will serve as a tiebreaker if the teams finish tied atop the standings. The Mets enter with a 9-7 head-to-head edge, so the Braves must sweep to win the season series. Otherwise, a tie means New York actually has a one-game advantage.
Here’s how the division would look after the following scenarios:
Mets sweep: New York would clinch the division with a victory Sunday.
Mets win two of three: New York would leave Atlanta with a two-game lead and a magic number of one – in other words, a Braves sweep in Miami and a Nationals sweep in New York would be Atlanta’s only path to the division title.
Braves sweep: Atlanta emerges with a two-game lead, the season tiebreaker and a magic number of one – a Marlins sweep in Miami and a Mets sweep in New York would be the Mets’ only path to the division title.
Braves win two of three: The teams leave Atlanta tied atop the division, and the Braves would need to win one more game over the Marlins than the Mets do over the Nationals to win the division. Otherwise, the Mets win the division.
Folks, this is the series both franchises have been pointing toward for weeks and the pitching matchups reflect as much.
Friday: Two-time Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom (5-3, 2.93 ERA) starts for the Mets, opposed by lefty Max Fried, who could be a finalist for the award this year.
Saturday: Three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer starts for the Mets, opposed by 20-game winner Kyle Wright.
Sunday: Right-hander Chris Bassitt is opposed by Atlanta veteran righty Charlie Morton.
The opener should be an absolute delight, with deGrom kicking the dirt coming off a rare poor start and pitching in the kind of big game he’s relished since the Mets last reached the playoffs in 2016. Fried, meanwhile, won Game 6 of the World Series last season and ranks fourth in the NL with a 2.50 ERA.
It’s a microcosm of the weekend, which is to say: Flip a coin. Or, simply, enjoy each team aligning its 1-2-3 as if it’s a playoff series. Which, in a sense, it is.
Right now, nobody moreso than Eduardo Escobar. The charismatic Mets third baseman is putting on a September clinic, batting .330 with eight home runs this month. Wednesday, he drove in five runs between the seventh and 10th innings, including the walk-off hit in their crucial win over Miami that provided a one-game lead.
For the Braves, it’s more a matter of who isn’t. First baseman Matt Olson was in a 7-for-61 skid with no homers over 17 games heading into Washington; perhaps his two homers against Nationals pitching are a harbinger of better times. All-Star third baseman Austin Riley, who had a strong MVP case at midseason, has just one home run in his last 59 at-bats, batting .203 over his last 16 games.
“He’ll get out of it,” insists Braves manager Brian Snitker, “and get hotter than hell.”
In this, the first year of the triple wild-card format, both teams are desperate for – and have certainly earned – the bye that will come by winning the division. While both clubs would have deGrom and Scherzer or Fried and Wright lined up for a best-of-three wild card series, they’d face a massive advantage aligning for a Division Series matchup against a wild card survivor – St. Louis, Philadelphia or Milwaukee – that had to burn its top two or three starters to simply move on.
“You’ve already won a series without throwing a pitch,” notes Braves starter Jake Odorizzi. “Our goal is to win the division.”
The stakes are probably higher for the Mets, who would love to avoid backend starters like Carlos Carrasco until at least the NLCS and don’t enjoy the same bullpen depth as Atlanta. Yet it is not just positioning, but pride at stake after six months and nearly 162 games pursuing one another.
“We’re still the defending world champs,” says Braves closer Kenley Jansen, who will reach the postseason for the 10th consecutive year. “Gotta defend the title.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Braves vs. Mets: NL East title at stake in MLB's biggest 2022 series