ATLANTA — Of course it came down to the final game of the regular season between the division rivals.
The Mets raced out to a big lead in the National League East to start the 2022 season. And as they cooled off, they still won 59 percent of their games from June 1 on — a rate good enough to win the Central divisions in both leagues.
The problem, of course, is that the Mets play in the NL East, and they simply didn’t do enough. Starting in June, the defending World Series champion Atlanta Braves woke from their early-season slumber and won 71 percent of their games, including all three in the critical final weekend of the regular season.
Atlanta tied the Mets in the division race with a win on Friday. It pulled ahead with another win on Saturday. And on Sunday, Atlanta completed the sweep with a 5-3 win, earning the right to control its own destiny and all but ensuring that the Mets will play in wild-card round of the playoffs, very likely against the San Diego Padres.
With three games left before the postseason begins on Friday, Atlanta holds a two-game lead over the Mets, and its magic number is at one. In other words, the Braves need only one victory or one Mets loss to win their fifth straight division title. Atlanta’s win on Sunday guaranteed it the season series over the Mets, 10-9, and the advantage in the tiebreaker should the teams have the same record on Wednesday, the final day of the regular season.
Should Atlanta complete its mission, it would cap a stunning turnaround and a head-scratching collapse by the Mets, who led the division by a season-high 10½ games on June 1.
“They just flat-out beat us this weekend,” Mets first baseman Pete Alonso said. “They played well. Good for them. Tip your hat.”
The Mets return home to face the Washington Nationals, the worst team in baseball. And they may suddenly be rooting hard for another division rival: the lowly Miami Marlins, who are only slightly better than the Nationals, as they host Atlanta over the final three games.
The reason the division title mattered so much: The prize is a first-round bye. Atlanta and the Mets had already assured themselves of a spot in the postseason, but the difference is getting five days off and advancing straight to a best-of-five division series versus getting one day off before playing in the best-of-three wild -card round. Waiting in the division series for the wild-card route is the Los Angeles Dodgers, the best team in baseball with 110 wins entering Monday and owners of the other NL first-round bye.
“It’s not like they’re not going to get a chance,” Mets Manager Buck Showalter said of his players. “They’ve earned something regardless.”
He added later: “I am proud of everything they have done. This is not conditional. It’s unconditional, the support. And if I know these guys, they’ll rebound and look to make somebody feel their pain.”
The Mets had reason to be confident entering the series against Atlanta. They had their best three starting pitchers lined up: Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer and Chris Bassitt — with the first two among the very best pitchers in baseball. Instead, each failed against the third-highest scoring offense in baseball. In 14⅓ combined innings, deGrom, Scherzer and Bassitt coughed up 11 runs and six home runs.
Most of the damage came from Atlanta’s All-Star shortstop, Dansby Swanson, and its slugging first baseman, Matt Olson. Swanson homered against each starting pitcher while Olson homered in each game.
“Everyone understood what was at stake during the series,” Swanson said, “and we definitely rose to the occasion.”
On Sunday, Swanson gave Atlanta a 1-0 lead with a blast off Bassitt in the first inning. The Mets quickly recovered, taking a 3-1 lead in the third on a home run by right fielder Jeff McNeil and a run-scoring single by designated hitter Daniel Vogelbach, who had also homered in the previous frame.
But Atlanta’s hitting and pitching were simply too much. In the third inning, Olson drew a bases-loaded walk against Bassitt, and then catcher Travis d’Arnaud lifted Atlanta to a 4-3 lead with a two-run single. Three innings later, Olson smashed his fifth home run in his last six games and added further misery for Mets fans.
On the mound, Atlanta’s bullpen surrendered just one run over 13⅔ innings in the series. Closer Kenley Jansen earned a save in each win.
“When you looked at the schedule in spring training, you had us here against the Phillies for three and here against the Mets for three,” said d’Arnaud, referring to another NL East rival, the Philadelphia Phillies, who are close to securing the third and final NL wild-card spot. “You knew all three of us were going to be great teams and it would be down to the wire. It’s pretty cool how it ended up being how it was these last three days.”
Given the high stakes of the matchup, Atlanta Manager Brian Snitker said he joked with his wife on Friday that the playoffs were starting that day rather than on Oct. 7.
“This was about as exciting and emotional a series that I’ve ever been a part of, even all the playoff series and everything,” he said, adding later, “This has been a very long and stressful series to say the least. ”
After he caught McNeil’s fly ball for the final out on Sunday, Atlanta right fielder Ronald Acuña Jr. pumped his fist and screamed as the crowed roared. It was Atlanta’s 100th win of the season and its first 100-win campaign since 2003. The Mets, who had 98 wins after Sunday and their first trip to the postseason since 2016 awaiting, nearly pushed Atlanta to the brink.
“They’ve been a great team all year,” Olson said. “We knew there was nothing we could take them lightly on. They’re about to win 100 games as well.”
But as Alonso said: The Mets played well, but the Braves played better.