Something about the National League East warps baseball reality, the way all high flyballs feel like home runs until the outfielder trots in, not back.
This week, for the first time since Opening Day, the Braves climbed into a tie with the New York Mets for first in the division, overcoming what was a 10½-game deficit at the end of May. The star-studded NL East race just escalated into the most fascinating of the season, one that sort of also includes the Philadelphia Phillies: Even though the Phillies trail the leaders by 10-plus games, the new playoff format leaves room for them to secure a wild-card spot, too. Philadelphia plays seven games against Atlanta in the next few weeks, and it seems it will have something to play for in all of them.
And like one of those high flyballs, the reality of the NL East looks far different from one angle to the next.
In Queens, for example, some might see collapse, that the finally functional Mets let another chance slip away, though they have yet to endure a losing month and have a higher winning percentage in the second half than they did in the first. Their team on-base-plus-slugging percentage is higher since Aug. 1 than it was in the days before, fifth in the majors in that time. Their ace, Jacob deGrom, returned from injury last month. Their no-nonsense manager, Buck Showalter, has steered their largely veteran clubhouse away from off-field distraction and into consistency. Their eager owner is spending more on his team than anyone but the Los Angeles Dodgers. Their closer, Edwin Diaz, is compiling one of the more dominant seasons in recent history — and doing so with remarkable theater befitting the excitement that has settled in at Citi Field this year.
To the extent that there has been a Mets collapse at all, it consisted of losing two out of three games to the lowly Washington Nationals, then getting blown out by the Pittsburgh Pirates on Tuesday. That streak was enough to reportedly force a team meeting Wednesday before they swept those Pirates in a doubleheader. If they are falling apart, they are doing so gently.
But their road to the playoffs got more difficult this week all the same. Max Scherzer, who required four brief stints on the injured list during his seven years with the Nationals, landed there Wednesday for the second time this season with what the Mets called “left oblique irritation.” Scherzer missed six weeks with a strain in that oblique earlier this season, though all indications are that this time is more like those quick IL stints of old than a major issue. Scherzer has a long history of taking brief breaks to avoid longer ones, and Showalter said he believes Scherzer will be activated when eligible.
In Atlanta — and certainly to those in the industry who have seen the Braves in recent years — it will look like a course correction. It is not so much an indictment of the Mets but rather an inevitable and overdue Atlanta ascent. The Braves are 63-24 since June 1. The Mets are 53-34. The Braves have the third-highest OPS in baseball in the second half, .784. The Mets have the fourth highest at .766. Atlanta strikes out far more than the Mets, but the Braves homer more, too. Atlanta starters have a 3.11 ERA in the second half. Mets starters enter Friday at 2.98.
But what the Braves have that always seems to kick in this time of year, that will seemingly be available to them for a decade or more to come, is collective experience. They have signed nearly every star in their starting lineup to a long-term deal, meaning Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuña Jr. and Austin Riley and Matt Olson — all of whom, besides Olson, were key parts of last year’s World Series run — will play together for years to come.
They are buoyed by young talent in the form of Michael Harris II and Vaughn Grissom, both of whom are experiencing rare rookie success. Their rotation lost struggling Ian Anderson but gained fireballing Spencer Strider, one of the season’s breakout pitching stars. Atlanta is a juggernaut, one that has proved itself capable of outlasting everyone when it matters most — one that looks like it is preparing to do so again.
So while the NL East script is familiar in that way, the stakes are not: When the postseason begins in less than a month, it will start with four never-before-seen, best-of-three wild-card series. Either the Mets or Braves will be hosting one of them. The team that does not will land in a more familiar best-of-five division series, waiting to see who will join it there. Both will play September with distinct narratives, one as the collapsed, one as the revived. Both probably will enter October with the same perspective: that their reality was never going to be determined until then anyway.