'It’s two really, really good teams': Braves, Mets take baseball's most thrilling race down to the wire

ATLANTA — Friday afternoon, on a FaceTime call with his former Milwaukee Brewers teammate Christian Yelich, designated hitter Daniel Vogelbach explained the complicated stakes of the weekend series the New York Mets were about to embark upon in Atlanta.

Entering the penultimate series of the regular season, one game separated the top two teams in the only division still up for grabs, the National League East. This year, in a new expanded postseason format, four teams — the top two in each league — will receive a bye for the first round. Three have already been determined. The Mets and Braves are fighting for the last one. The victor will get a chance to rest and reset its pitching staff while the other must survive the new three-game, wild-card round for the opportunity to face the 110-win (and counting) Los Angeles Dodgers.

It’s been a decade, at least, since two teams fighting for first have played each other so late in the season. A Mets sweep would be decisive, a Braves sweep would turn the tides decidedly. Anything in between and the race would go down to the wire, with each team playing three more games against other opponents.

Yeli used to tell Vogelbach, who spent a little more than a season in Milwaukee, that postseason baseball is addicting: “You go once and you lose and it's like, ‘I want more, I want to keep going,’” he’d say. And Vogelbach, who spent the first part of his career in Seattle, didn’t think much of that until the Brewers won their division last year, only to be booted in the NLDS.

“When we lost, it was like, man, I want to do that again right now,” he said.

But here’s the thing about baseball’s thrilling postseason: To get from one to the next, you have to go through the 162-game regular season. And while the oft-cited adage ‘you just have to get in’ speaks to the excitement created by a newly leveled playing field and the unpredictability of short series, it also implies a corollary: a team’s real merit is measured in the regular season. Both these teams will play in October; it could be that neither wins the World Series. But first we’ll find out which one is better.

“I'm actually glad I'm in the race,” said Max Scherzer before the series got underway, unsurprisingly amped to not be in a position to coast. “I enjoy being in these races. I'm so lucky to be on a team where you get to come to the park and it's a must-win game.”

“In a way I see it as a plus,” Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson said. “For us, just continuing to play meaningful baseball, to not give yourself a chance to let up, is really important because I feel like we've been in that position where … you win it with a week and a half left, and the next thing you know, you kind of lose a little bit of, like, that edge. Your body kind of shuts off a little bit, your mind shuts off a little bit, but right now it's no rest for the weary. You just keep going. Keep grinding away.”

Braves closer Kenley Jansen — who once again finds himself on a team that seemingly cannot lose, like last year’s Los Angeles Dodgers chasing the San Francisco Giants, and yet also cannot overtake the unstoppable team ahead of it — said of these stressful final stretches, “I love it. This is what we’re built for.”

Little room for error

Before this weekend, the Mets had spent only two days this season without at least a partial possession of first place. But that belies the formidable showdown brewing as the reigning champions tore through the second half at a 107-win pace to pull within a single game heading into the final weekend.

And then the Braves won two more against the Mets themselves to switch spots in the standings, now up one. The New York Yankees lead baseball in team home runs — it helps to have one guy rack up 61 of them — but the Braves are No. 2 in the sport. Against elite pitching, their ability to turn any mistakes into instant runs proved to be the difference. The Mets started their co-aces in the first two games of the series, playing their strongest card by lining up Jacob deGrom and Scherzer. The Braves homered five times combined against the two of them.

“If I don't execute my pitches, they're going to beat me,” Scherzer said. “Very thin room for error.”

And so it goes that with one game left against each other, the room for error is as thin as could be. The season series, which will function as a tiebreaker, is currently knotted at nine apiece. Another Braves win would put them up two and give them the edge in the event of a tie come season’s end. A Mets win would have them tied with Atlanta in the standings, but with a chance to control their destiny with the tiebreaker on their side.

The last good race in baseball this year is a doozy. And, if fans are lucky, a preview of many more like it to come.

Atlanta Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. (13) is tagged out by New York Mets catcher Tomas Nido (3) during a game on Saturday, Oct. 1st, 2022 at Truist Park in Atlanta, GA. (Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Atlanta Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. (13) is tagged out by New York Mets catcher Tomas Nido (3) during a game on Saturday, Oct. 1st, 2022 at Truist Park in Atlanta, GA. (Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

'They had a nice run'

The Mets-Braves rivalry hasn’t been truly bitter since before some of these rookies were born. The two teams — that used to make the insults personal and turn their personal lives into living, breathing taunts — haven’t finished first and second in the division since 2000. Although that was merely just past the midpoint of the Braves’ 14 straight years of NL East titles.

“They had a nice run,” Mets owner Steve Cohen said before the first game of the series, looking a little pained at the thought of the rivalry’s heyday. “Maybe it’s our turn.”

Although they’ll duke it out between the white lines, Cohen himself can put a heavy hand on that scale. Money does that. And while his many billions creates endless opportunity — at least for speculation — the Braves’ precise distribution of their own funds internally could tip things back in their favor. The future of these two teams is a study in how, if the details are done right, both certainty and uncertainty can be equally exciting.

Less than a half hour before the first pitch of Friday’s game, the Braves announced that starting pitcher Charlie Morton would be returning in 2023, on a $20 million contract, with a club option for 2024. It was just the latest, and perhaps least splashy, in a spate of extensions that have come to characterize the current regime in Atlanta. The Braves’ front office likes home-grown guys and cost certainty, and bolstered the team that won a World Series with just a couple of high-profile replacements. Reprehensibly below-market early-career deals with Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies have begotten fairer extensions. This year alone the Braves signed 28-year-old Matt Olson to an eight-year deal immediately after trading for him; 25-year-old Austin Riley to a 10-year deal; and 21-year-old rookie sensation Michael Harris II to an eight-year deal.

Where the Braves spend to keep guys, the Mets under Cohen spend to get guys. This past offseason featured a shopping spree that brought in Mark Canha, Eduardo Escobar, Starling Marte, and was headlined by baseball’s most expensive contract on a per-year basis to get a second ace in Scherzer. If they bring back deGrom, it’ll likely be on a new contract signed after he opts out. They have one $300 million man in Francisco Lindor (styles of team building are not mutually exclusive; Lindor, like Olson, was a trade acquisition that was quickly extended) and Mets fans have enjoyed window shopping across town for another.

Both teams figure to contend for a while: because of the Braves commitment to what is working, and the Mets’ seeming determination to do whatever it takes.

“I don’t know if it’s a rivalry,” Vogelbach said, “it’s two really, really good teams.”

Of course, that is the recipe for a rivalry.

Jansen said that after Yankees-Red Sox, nothing is as intense as the California rivalry he came from with the Giants and Dodgers — “I see so many fights in the pavilion in Dodger Stadium” — but rivalries respond to recency bias. And for a more up-to-date temperature check, you have to wade into the instant thermometer that is the internet.

“Just from my Twitter comments, Jesus, people are tense. I go on there and I see stuff and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, people are at each other’s throats on here,” Canha said. “It’s heated.”