The sense of despair was as thick as the whiff of inevitability drifting throughout Citi Field on Wednesday night. It was there, in the stadium, and you could see it on television, and you could hear it on the radio. The Braves had just tied things up in Washington. The Mets were scuffling through another brutal offensive night in Queens.
If you embrace this pennant race, then your attention was divided all night: New York and Washington, Citi Field and Nationals Park. Five of the other division races have been settled. Only the NL East remains in doubt.
And as the clock was steaming toward 9:30 it sure seemed as if the worst-case scenario was playing out before a stunned gathering of 28,228 in Queens.
It was Eduardo Escobar, of all people, who edited that script. It was Escobar who hit a two-run home run in the seventh inning that chased Marlins starter Jesus Luzardo, and served as an electric shock to the fans’ hearts. It was Escobar whose two-out single in the eighth inning brought them even at 4-4, just as Braves-Nationals was going to extra innings.
And it was Escobar who snuck a ball to left field in the 10th, scoring Francisco Lindor a few millimeters ahead of JJ Bleday’s throw, a few minutes after CJ Abrams snuck a ball into right field in D.C., securing an unlikely win for the Nats. So the Mets boarded their midnight charter for Atlanta back in first place by a game, a nose ahead of the Braves as they begin their biggest regular-season series in years Friday night.
“We know how good they are,” manager Buck Showalter said of the defending World Series champion Braves. “We’ve got an opportunity just like they do. It’s great for baseball. It’s great for our sport and it’s an honor to be a part of it.”
They know all about each other, the Braves and the Mets. Since June 1 they have been on a collision course for these three games at Truist Park, and for weeks there have been a lot precincts waiting for the Braves to excuse themselves past the Mets and into first place even before their weekend date. Wednesday, it sure seemed that was destined to happen.
But the Mets did an interesting thing: They seized their own destiny.
They came back from 4-0 down thanks to Escobar, and they kept themselves in play because Edwin Diaz in the ninth and Drew Smith in the 10th were six-up-six-down worth of brilliant. That has been the thing about the Mets, even as they’ve felt the Braves gaining on them, hot on their trail: It has always been on them to get where they want to go.
And now they have that again, up one, six to play.
“Just play better,” Showalter said.
The Mets manager was talking specifically about Escobar, who on Aug. 29 was hitting .214 and was a gaping hole in the Mets’ batting order. In 26 games since then, he is hitting .323, slugging .604, and he has slammed seven homers and collected 19 RBIs. Showalter spoke of a clubhouse that remains steadfast and loyal to each other “through thick and thin.”
The same applies to the Mets, who made things more difficult for themselves by going 1-6 against the Nats, Cubs and Marlins at home this month, and they were four outs away from making that 1-7. The Braves have chased them for almost four full months, actually took over first place for 24 hours on Sept. 9, and were tied heading into Wednesday.
Eyes on Flushing. Eyes on D.C.
“You try not to scoreboard watch,” said Taijuan Walker, the starting pitcher Wednesday, “but we’re neck and neck with those guys. We were watching [them].”
Leave it to the glass-half-empty faction of Mets fandom forever looking for dark clouds to actually find some: the storm clouds of Hurricane Ian that pelted Florida on Wednesday. It seems as though that storm isn’t going to hit Atlanta as fiercely as originally thought. That’s a good thing both for the citizens of Georgia and for the interest of fairness. Those games belong in Atlanta.
Now it’s a matter of the Mets doing as they’ve done all year: go to Truist Park, and get after the business of finishing what they started. They will be in hostile territory. The Braves, understandably, look at the NL East as their private playpen. The Mets can change that perception, change so much about a September narrative they never seem able to quite shake.
It started Wednesday, when they turned 0-4 into 5-4. The next stop is the best stop. Just play better.