At some point, it is OK to admit that there is something refreshing about these daily dramas, always in two parts, in two places, in two cities. If you are a Mets fan — or a Braves fan, for that matter — you keep hoping for breathing room as the days melt off the September calendar. You keep looking for elbow room atop the NL East, as the games fall off the schedule.
It never happens. The Mets win and the Braves win. The Mets lose and the Braves lose. They circle each other. They measure each other. They jab. They stick and move and rope-a-dope each other. Neither one can get very far away from one another.
And it’s funny: in a year when more teams than ever before in a full baseball season will make the playoffs, in a time when we had all but declared such things dead, the Mets and the Braves have given us something completely unexpected.
They’ve given us a pennant race.
And old-fashioned, genuine, no-kidding, honest-to-goodness pennant race.
“These games are something,” Buck Showalter said. “Every one of them.”
The Mets came into Tuesday’s matinee with the Brewers on a six-game winning streak. The Braves had won five straight. They’d won 10 in a row at home. They quickly went up 2-0 on the Nats early Wednesday afternoon, and that was the score when the Mets took the field, figuring they’d have to win again to keep pace.
But the Nats came back, beat the Braves 3-2.
And the Brewers hammered the Mets — of course — 6-0.
The Mets win and the Braves win.
The Mets lose and the Braves lose.
“It’s kind of weird the way it’s been happening the last couple of weeks,” Mets outfielder Mark Canha said. “This is going to be a grind to the end. It’s going to come down to the wire and we have to do the best we can each and every day.”
This is what a pennant race looks like. This is what a pennant race feels like. Now, if you choose to take the path of the purist, you can dismiss this if you like: after all, both the Mets and the Braves have already clinched spots in the postseason. They will not be left behind like the ’54 Yankees or the ’78 Red Sox or the ’93 Giants, powerful runners-up who spent all of October on golf courses and beaches.
Still: the difference between first place and second place — the difference between a first-round bye and a crapshoot best-of-three wild-card jamboree — mimics those old-time stakes. Second place in the East will have to survive the wild-card gauntlet, and if they do they’ll get the Dodgers right away for their troubles. First place gets four days off, gets to set up their pitching rotation, and gets to avoid the Dodgers until the NLCS, assuming chalk rules the day.
Both the Braves and the Mets have the ability to fight their way out of the wild-card box; neither one wants any part of finding out if that’s so or not.
“You’ve got to keep pushing to the end,” Canha said. “Keep running through the finish line.”
The Braves pulled to within a game of the Mets on Sept. 4. Every day ever since, neither team has been more than 1 ½ games up, and never more than one up or down in the loss column. That’s 18 straight days of holding serve, 18 straight days of refusing to blink, 18 straight days of resilience, both sides, both teams. With 14 days of season left.
The Braves are 70-29 since June 1, and that’s a 115-win pace. And yet they’ve only spent one of those days in first place. The Mets surrendered the top spot Sept. 9, got it right back the next day, and have stayed there by the slimmest margins available. The Mets since June 1 are 61-39. That’s a hundred-win pace.
In most years, in most seasons, those 3 ½-month samples would be more than enough to start calculating magic numbers and taking victory laps to the end. Just not this year. Not in the NL East. Not when the Mets win and the Braves win, when the Mets lose and the Braves lose, day after day, week after week.
Yeah. This is a pennant race, all right. Ask the Mets. Ask the Braves. They’ll answer as soon as they run through the finish line.