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Starting Nine: Mets-Braves showdown is here, and promises to be epic

Setting the stage for key NL East series, including the key pitching matchup, Michael Harris II’s ROY closing argument and X-factor

MLB: New York Mets at Atlanta Braves
Ronald Acuña Jr. and the Braves trail the Mets 9-7 in the regular-season series, and by one game in the National League East standings. 
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The No. 2 seed in the National League bracket, the Atlanta Braves East title streak and the New York Mets trying to avoid what will be considered another collapse.

While the division may not be completely decided by Sunday night, the stakes are clear as the division rivals meet in the biggest series of the season, beginning Friday night at Truist Park, with the Mets up one game after their walk-off win and the Braves’ walk-off loss Wednesday.

The weather doesn’t look to be the subplot it once was. The potential impact of Hurricane Ian led the Mets to reportedly ask the Braves about moving the first game of the series to Thursday, an offer which Atlanta — which would have played at least 14 straight without a day off had the series started early — is said to have declined.

The storm has shifted east, and the there looks to be little impact on the Atlanta metro area, with the forecast showing a two percent chance of rain Friday and five percent Saturday.

Rain and high winds won’t be a factor, but here’s what will. On the storylines the scenarios, players and more to key in on in this East showdown.

1. Let’s play out the scenarios

Already down one game and trailing the Mets in the season series 9-7, the Braves’ chances at the division are over if they’re swept or if they lose two of three.

Even if they win two games, the Mets will still own the tiebreaker 10-9, putting the division title on the outcome of the final series, when the Mets host the Washington Nationals and the Braves head to Miami play the Marlins.

Atlanta would need the last-place Nationals to win that series, while winning two or three vs. the Marlins to claim the East. Any dueling outcomes in those final series would trigger the tiebreaker, and the Mets are East champs.

The cleanest path for Atlanta would be to sweep the Mets, gain control of the tiebreaker 10-9 and its own destiny going into to the Marlins series. Should the Mets take all three games, they’ll be celebrating a clinch come Sunday night.

Going into the series, FanGraphs has the Mets with a 78.9 percent chance of winning the East to the Braves’ 21.1.

2. Which pitching matchup looms the largest?

Buck Showalter shuffled the Mets’ rotation after retaking the division lead Wednesday, going with Jacob deGrom instead of Chris Bassitt on Friday, moving Max Scherzer to Saturday and giving Bassitt the Sunday start.

The Braves will go with Max Fried on Friday, followed by Kyle Wright and Charlie Morton. Wright has had his issues vs. the Mets, posting a 6.23 ERA in two starts, and Morton has been a roll of the dice, with six starts of two earned runs or less in the second half and six in which he’s allowed four or more runs. He has a 6.23 ERA in his last four outings.

Given the tiebreaker implications and the Mets’ front-loading their arms, it’s all on Fried for the Braves.

While the Braves have dropped three of his last five starts, Fried continues to deal with a 2.21 ERA in the second half that’s sixth in the NL. He’s held the Mets to a .215 average and .593 OPS this season with 22 strikeouts, all the best of any Braves starter.

In a perfect world, the Braves are throwing Spencer Strider, whose 1.69 ERA vs. winning teams is the only line better than Fried’s 2.75. But with Strider out with an oblique injury, it only amplifies Fried’s start. It’s on him to deny the Mets a foothold that changes the complexity of the series.

3. Michael Harris II’s ROY closing argument

With Strider on the IL, his NL Rookie of the Year resume is complete, while Harris gets a chance to pad his in the biggest series of the season.

The 21-year-old center fielder is chasing history, sitting one home run away from 20 and the first 20-HR/20-steal season by a Braves rookie, the first in the NL since the Diamondbacks’ Chris Young in 2007 and he can help his rookie class become the first to ever have three 20/20 seasons.

The Seattle Mariners’ Julio Rodriguez and Kansas City Royals’ Bobby Witt have already reached the mark and adding Harris to that club would break this year’s tie with 1987, when the Boston Red Sox’s Ellis Burke and California Angels’ Devon White both did it. That’s the only other season with multiple 20/20 rookies.

It would be a fitting exclamation point to Harris’ season and the tear he ends the regular season on. He’s tied for eighth among all qualified hitters with 1.3 fWAR and is fifth in the NL with 156 wRC+. With a 4.9 fWAR on the season, which is tied with Strider, Harris is 0.1 behind Rico Carty in 1964 by the best by any rookie position player in franchise history. Only pitchers Kid Nichols (8.4 in 1890), Irv Young (5.6 in 1905) and Jim Whitney in 1881 (5.1) have been better, making it a very real possibility that Harris ends the regular season with a top three fWAR of any Braves rookie, ever.

The debate between Harris and Strider wages on — and there’s always the chance of the first co-ROYs since the San Diego Padres’ Butch Metzger and Cincinnati Reds’ Pat Zachry in 1976 — but Harris can still make an impact and do so against one of the few opponents he’s yet to feast on. He has a .587 OPS vs. the Mets, the only team he has more than six PAs against and an OPS under .744.

4. Ronald Acuña Jr., the moment is yours

First pain in his right knee and then a sore back have kept Ronald Acuña Jr. from consistently being the force we’ve become accustomed to atop the Braves’ lineup. But of late, he’s been back to doing Acuña-type things, with a .951 OPS over the last nine games, with four home runs, three doubles and 10 RBI.

He’s done plenty of damage vs. the Mets, hitting .315 along with a .913 OPS, though Acuña is hitless vs. Scherzer (nine plate appearances) and deGrom (three PAs). But he last saw them in August, when Acuña had a .318 slugging percentage with one homer vs. fastballs, and the outfielder is in the midst of a September where he’s gone deep on that pitch four times with a .547 slugging percentage.

Acuña still has a career-low 116 wRC+, his 2.2 fWAR is the lowest of any of his 162-game seasons, and his ability to consistently be in the outfield is up for debate after the knee injury, but right now, at the plate, he’s locked in at the right time.

5. The X-factor in the series is ...

The Braves’ bullpen, third on the season with 7.3 fWAR, has been the NL’s best this month, and it’s not particularly close.

That group leads the majors with a 1.57 ERA — which is 0.61 ahead of the next closest, that Astros — and tops the NL this month with a 1.6 fWAR — that’s 0.3 better than the next best team.

Raisel Iglesias has yet to give up an earned run in 11 2/3 innings in September, while striking out 15; A.J. Minter has 17 Ks while yielding one run in 11 2/3 innings, and Dylan Lee has yielded one over 10 innings with 12 strikeouts.

Meanwhile, Kenley Jansen has followed his forgettable blown save in Seattle on Sept. 11 by converting each of his last four chances and hasn’t allowed a run with a .160 average against in his last seven appearances.

It’s not all pristine, as Tyler Matzek has given up a run in four of seven games going into this series, but six of the team’s most utilized relievers have ERAs of 2.45 or lower in the month. The Mets, meanwhile, only have three such relievers among those with more than three innings pitched in September.

For all the focus on the savory starting pitching matchups, the depth of the Braves’ bullpen — and the lack thereof for the Mets, despite Edwin Diaz’s brilliance — could be a major key, especially if the weather does end up impacting things or force a Sunday doubleheader.

Now, moving on from this incredibly massive, season-defining series ...

6. Matt Olson keeping new company

Matt Olson’s run in Oakland didn’t profile him as a Three True Outcome player, hitting .271 and .267 in his last two 162-game seasons with the A’s. But he’s taken a hard turn into that territory in his first year with the Braves and is keeping some new company.

Olson, who hit his 30th home run on Wednesday vs. the Nationals, is hitting .236 with 163 strikeouts and 73 walks. He’s the first player in Braves history to have that stat line in a season and joins Three True Outcome King Kyle Schwarber as the only such players in 2022.

Olson’s the 10th player with those home run/average/walk/strikeout thresholds, putting him in with a who’s who of Three True Outcome players in Chris Davis, Adam Dunn, Joey Gallo and Mark Reynolds.

7. Elder showing he has value come October

Braves rookies have compiled a 12.1 fWAR, a franchise high since World War II, and while those NL Rookie of the Year candidates Harris and Strider have been the headliners, the work of Bryce Elder and Kyle Muller has been instrumental in closing in the gap on the Mets.

The duo has teamed up for six spot starts the past two months, games in which the Braves went 6-1. That includes Elder throwing the club’s first complete game of the season in blanking the Nationals on Monday — which was also the first nine-inning shutout by a Braves rookie since Paul Marak in 1990 — and a day later, Muller followed with 4 2/3 innings to key another victory in D.C.

With Strider out for the rest of the regular season, and the Braves reworking things to line up the top of the rotation for the Mets series, those two have loomed large. Elder, in particular, has been key given that he had more walks (14) than strikeouts (12) and a 4.74 ERA through four April starts. His last four outings, though, have included a 0.65 ERA, 20 strikeouts and eight walks.

Neither is expected to get a start in the postseason, with Elder potentially a long relief option come October. But if Strider’s oblique issue limits him, and Jake Odorizzi (5.97 ERA in eight starts since the trade deadline) keeps struggling, Elder has proven he has value to this staff.

8. Closing in on the century club, and some East history

Despite winning the last four East titles, these Braves are challenging to do something they haven’t during this streak, and something they last accomplished in nearly two decades ago ... and they are in line to make some division history in the process.

With 97 wins, Atlanta is closing on its first 100-win season since 2013, when it went 101-61. The Mets are in position to reach that mark as well as at 98-58, which would mark the first time since MLB moved to three divisions in 1994 that the East has had multiple 100-win teams.

It’s only happened twice across the majors, with the NL West’s Dodgers and Giants last season, and in 2018 with the Red Sox and Yankees in the American League East.

9. Runs on runs on runs

Not to pile it on for the Nationals as they limp to the finish line, but here it goes. The first team 100 losses and threatening to supplant the 2009 club’s mark of 103 defeats — the most since relocating to Washington — the reeling Nats are in a bad way, and the Braves have taken full advantage.

Claiming the season series 14-5, they did so in piling up 116 runs, the fourth most in the Atlanta era, trailing only the 128 the Braves racked up vs. the 2004 Expos, the 125 scored vs. the 2003 Expos and the 199 against the 2019 Marlins.

In the 56 years since the Braves moved to Atlanta, they’ve scored 101 or more 13 times, with five of those now coming vs. the Expos/Nationals. That’s the most against any franchise in that span.

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