Mets series vs. Braves crucial for NL East standings

This story was excerpted from Anthony DiComo’s Mets Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

In some respect for the 2022 Mets, the real season begins today.

For the past six weeks, the Braves have chipped away at the Mets’ National League East lead, which once stood as tall as 10 1/2 games. That’s by little fault of the Mets, who continues to win with regularity despite an offensive output that has cooled a bit as the weather has warmed. The defending World Series champions have simply played otherworldly baseball, putting pressure on the Mets without having seen them since the first week of May.

That last part is about to change. Monday marks not only the first of three games in Atlanta for the Mets this week, but the first of 15 remaining between the two clubs. Whoever wins more of them stands a good chance of winning the division, as well.

“It’s an exciting time,” shortstop Francisco Lindor said. “We are past the midpoint of the year. So I think every game now, especially in the division — I don’t want to say means a little bit more, but they should be more intense. … It’s still a long season, but now it’s a shorter season. The best teams always rise to the top.”

While it’s possible that the Phillies or Marlins could still make noise in the NL East, with Philadelphia in particular looking like a Wild Card threat, the division will most likely come down to the Mets and Braves. Those teams entered Monday sporting a combined 98.4% chance to win it, according to Fangraphs projections with the Mets a slight favorite to prevent the Braves from grabbing their fifth straight NL East title.

“I expect the division to be very close,” Lindor said.

Most of the optimism in New York stems from the fact that the Mets built their lead without the services of Jacob deGrom and — for a seven-week stretch — Max Scherzer, so it stands to reason they’ll be better with those two starting two out of every five games in the second half. Scherzer is already back from the injured list, and the Mets’ decision to give him an extra day of rest resulted in him lining up for Monday’s series opener in Atlanta.

While manager Buck Showalter insists that’s a coincidence, and that he would never intentionally rejigger his midsummer rotation for the sake of matchups — “You can’t make one game at this stage of the season more important than any other,” Showalter said – – the Mets stand to benefit regardless.

Lindor disagrees, arguing that the rhythms of the season bring different challenges. While it’s true that games in April count the same in the standings as games in July, the mentalities of players do change. Pressure heightens. That’s why Lindor expects to see even more one-run games and late dramatics in the second half of the season, beginning this week.

The Mets will enter the series shorthanded, with both James McCann and Starling Marte injured and Jeff McNeil headed to the paternity list. But New York will nonetheless be ready for this showdown with the Braves.

“They’re going to get everybody’s best punch,” Lindor said. “They are the target. They are the last champion team. They are the team that everybody wants what they have. And we understand how good they are.”

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