In all the big ways October really does start in baseball this weekend, more at Truist Park in Atlanta than anywhere else when the Mets and Braves are scheduled to play a three-game series that will likely determine which one of them wins the National League East, and which one ends up a Wild Card.
Last year in baseball we had the Giants and Dodgers in the NL West, and what felt like a truly great pennant race out of the past. This year we get the Mets and Braves and what has been the great baseball race of this season.
The Mets have mostly had first place all season except for a blink a few weeks ago when the Braves passed them. The two teams would have come into this series in Atlanta tied except that on Wednesday night at Citi Field, the Mets came from behind again against the Marlins, came from 0-4 down to finally win, 5-4, because Eduardo Escobar had the baseball night of his life, considering the circumstances, and knocked in all five Met runs, and did that after the seventh inning.
He started the comeback by hitting a home run right-handed (No. 20) and ended it with a single to left against the shift batting left-handed, knocking in Francisco Lindor in the bottom of the 10th, on the same night the Braves were losing in extra innings against the Nationals.
So that is where we are. One game separating them, three games in Atlanta. They each still have three after that -- Mets against the Nats and Braves against the Marlins. It’s not knockout baseball, because one of these teams will be the top Wild Card in their league. But it feels that way.
I asked Buck Showalter late Wednesday night what it was like watching the postseason a year ago, before he got the Mets job, and while the Braves were beginning their run to the title.
“It was too hard for me to watch unless I had to talk [on television] about the games,” he said. “When I did watch, I just rooted for people I cared about. This is as different as it could be, because this time around the people I care about have given me a season like this one.”
He was asked about the night Escobar had just had, after all of his early-season struggles, during which Showalter had never given up on his third baseman.
“It’s the beauty of what I get to do,” Showalter said. “It’s the beauty of what we all do. You show up at the ballpark and find out what the guys have in store for you.”
There was a pause, and he said, “It’s why this season continues to be so special. And it’s why I refuse to let our guys think for one minute that somehow this season is a failure if they end up as a Wild Card, because of everything they’ve done to put themselves in this position.”
The Braves will go with Max Fried and Kyle Wright, who is 20-5, and Charlie Morton. Showalter will throw his very best at them: Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer and Chris Bassitt. When the season started, with everybody knowing what the Braves did last October and how deep and talented they were, the Mets would have signed up for a series like this, and for the chance to get to 100 wins this weekend in Atlanta, in a New York minute.
The Mets enter the series not only one game up in the standings, but also currently holding the tiebreaker over the Braves thanks to a 9-7 record in head-to-head meetings so far this season.
The Braves are without Spencer Strider and Ozzie Albies. The Mets are still without Starling Marte, who was such an important presence for Showalter this season up there at the top of his batting order. Somehow, even with the way Atlanta has come at them since the Braves were 23-27, the Mets are still ahead of them by a game. Once their lead over Atlanta had been 10 1/2 games. When the Braves passed them the night of Sept. 9, it was the first time in five months, since April 11, that the Mets hadn’t been in first place in the NL East.
Now the Mets are still ahead of them going into Atlanta despite the fact that since June 1, the Braves have put together a record of 74-32. So it’s not that the Mets faded. They’ve been 23 games over .500 (64-41) since the first of June. It’s just that the Braves have come on and come at them the way they have. This was the best baseball race of the summer, and still is now that they both arrive at this showdown in Atlanta.
It really is a race out of the past, and a Mets-Braves showdown like out of the past, from the time when Chipper Jones was Atlanta’s best and Mike Piazza played that same role for the Mets.
Here is one more thing Showalter said about Escobar’s big night, on the eve of Mets-Braves:
“I always knew he was good. He’s good, and he got there.”
The Mets arrived in Atlanta a few hours later. Day off Thursday. Game 1 Friday night. This was the way it was always going to end in the NL East. This is the way it was supposed to end, and the way October is still supposed to begin in baseball.