The New York Mets arrived here filled with confidence and optimism, having won more games than any other team the past three months. Their infield defense may be the best in history and their everyday lineup, bullpen and clubhouse makeup are as good as any in the majors.
To the players who have competed against them and the scouts who have watched them, the Mets are a tribute to an organization that has done almost everything right since the end of last season. They also know that every National League contender is measured against the Atlanta Braves.
With the atmosphere resembling that of a postseason game for a second straight night, the Braves made a long list of plays and defeated the Mets again, this time, 5-2, in front of 47,520 at Turner Field.
With the victory, the Braves (95-57) maintained the best record in the majors and opened up a three-game lead over the Mets (92-60) in the National League East with 10 remaining. Because they still lead the Cincinnati Reds by three games in the race for the NL wild-card berth, the Mets do not have to finish ahead of the Braves to make their first postseason appearance in a decade.
But in a season when they've done so many things correctly, the Mets wanted to use this week to show the world that they'd reached Atlanta's level. Instead, they've used it to show that in a season when they've been decimated by injuries, the Braves still are what every other National League team hopes to become.
"In the past, they've had years when you know they should win," Mets starter Orel Hershiser said. "They've had the biggest budget and the most talent. This has been a character-building year and they've showed their true colors."
The Braves survived another nerve-wracking night when both managers played it like a World Series contest. In a battle of the leading contenders for the NL Most Valuable Player Award, Chipper Jones hit a two-run home run in the first for the Braves, and Mike Piazza responded with a two-run homer for the Mets three innings later.
It stayed tied at 2 until the eighth, when the Braves used a pair of singles and a pinch-hit sacrifice fly from Keith Lockhart to score the go-ahead run.
After the Mets left the bases loaded in the top of the eighth, the Braves broke it open in the bottom of the inning on walks to Bret Boone and Jones, a sacrifice bunt by Brian Hunter and a two-run single by Brian Jordan.
It was the kind of game that was exhausting for both teams. But in their exhaustion, the Braves inched closer to another division championship and a probable first-round meeting with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
"They're fun to watch," Braves General Manager John Schuerholz said, motioning toward his players. "They're really amazing."
As energizing as the victory was for the Braves, it was just as deflating in the other clubhouse.
"It's a six-game series," Mets Manager Bobby Valentine said, referring to this week's three-game series and three more at Shea Stadium next week. "We've played the first two games. That's the way I'm counting. . . . I can't wait to come back tomorrow."
Braves starter Tom Glavine went seven innings for the victory, and Manager Bobby Cox mixed and matched four relievers to get through the final two innings. The last was left-hander John Rocker, who pitched the ninth for his 35th save.
The Mets probably were beaten after the eighth when Valentine got leadoff singles from Piazza and John Olerud, then used five pinch hitters, a pinch runner and a two-strike sacrifice bunt to try to get the runners home. His strategy failed because reliever Terry Mulholland struck out pinch hitter Bobby Bonilla with the bases loaded and one out. Mulholland then got a ground-ball out from Todd Pratt to end the inning.
"I came into this series hoping I could get Bobby Bonilla up against Terry Mulholland," Valentine said. "That's the pitcher he probably hits better than any other [with a .350 career batting average]. Lo and behold, I got him up there with the bases loaded. You can't ask for a better situation than that."
Said Bonilla: "That was my failure to do the job. I was just a little too anxious."
To a man, the Braves said that even after seven straight trips to the postseason, this might be their most satisfying season of all. They haven't had cleanup hitter Andres Galarraga or closer Kerry Ligtenberg all season. Catcher Javy Lopez is finished for the season with a knee injury, and Jordan's wrist injury makes his availability uncertain from day-to-day.
Still, they win. They acquired shortstop Jose Hernandez and Mulholland from the Cubs, got catcher Greg Myers from the Padres and patched holes here and there. They keep winning because Jones has had a MVP-type season with 44 home runs and 102 RBI. They keep winning because Glavine, John Smoltz and Greg Maddux are the nucleus of the best rotation in the game. And they keep winning because young players such as Rocker and center fielder Andruw Jones have made tremendous contributions.
"No one gave us a shot when our big guns went down," Chipper Jones said, "but you have to persevere. We've just got a lot of guys in this clubhouse who know how to win."