ATLANTA — Nearly seven months have passed since the Mets’ new general manager, Brodie Van Wagenen, issued his memorable rallying cry to his competitors. “Come and get us,” Van Wagenen said — and the Atlanta Braves, by definition, were the first team in his sights.
The Mets have finally looked like a playoff team, winning 15 of their last 17 games through the weekend. But after feasting mostly on weak opponents, the Mets on Tuesday encountered the Braves, who won the National League East last season and are once again well ahead of the field.
The Braves — the Mets’ nemesis in the late 1990s and early 2000s — have not been caught yet, and they were not boasting about their 70-50 record before Tuesday, either.
“I think it’s easier for clubs to not have those expectations, to go below the radar,” said Alex Anthopoulos, the Braves’ understated general manager. “This club does a really good job of ignoring all that stuff. If you look at preseason predictions, I don’t think anyone had us being a contender for the playoffs — and they might be right, we’re not done yet.
“But I think you’re better off operating that way. I’ve been humbled enough in this game that you know how hard it is.”
The Mets’ season, until recently, had been one long lesson in humility. They woke up on July 13 with a 40-51 record, behind every other N.L. team except the Marlins. On Tuesday, one month later, the Mets arrived at SunTrust Park with a 61-57 record, eight games behind Atlanta in the division and one game behind St. Louis for the second wild card spot. Instead of a long slog through August, the Mets are in a pennant race.
“There’s more pressure, and I think our players lately have welcomed that pressure and performed really well,” Manager Mickey Callaway told reporters before Tuesday’s game. “So it is more difficult. We have to understand that today is the only thing that matters.”
The Braves, likewise, are being careful not to look too far ahead — “I’d rather it stays quiet,” Anthopoulos said — but their record ranks them second in the N.L., behind only the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers (79-41 through Monday) have won the last two pennants and eliminated Atlanta in the division series last fall.
“When they beat us, they knew they were supposed to win, and they knew they were a better team than we were,” said the Braves utility man Charlie Culberson, who played for the Dodgers in the 2017 World Series. “For them, it was more like a confidence that they’re supposed to be there and supposed to go further. The key is experience, and they’ve had it.”
The Dodgers have steadily brought up high-impact prospects to their roster, with Joc Pederson, Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger, Walker Buehler and Alex Verdugo all emerging in the last five years. The Braves have had similar success with the young outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. (33 homers, 28 steals through Monday), second baseman Ozzie Albies, the injured shortstop Dansby Swanson and starter Mike Soroka.
“I saw it over there, and I see it here: These kids come into the clubhouse knowing they belong,” Culberson said. “Everybody treats them normal, and they don’t try to change who they are. These guys are comfortable, and they’re elite for a reason.”
The Braves have essentially matched the Dodgers’ offense this season; with both teams having played 120 games through Monday, the Braves had more total bases and just one fewer run scored. The difference has been pitching: The Dodgers’ rotation had a 2.90 E.R.A., by far the best in the majors, while the Braves ranked 15th at 4.47.
“You look how we came into the year, and with three-fifths of our starting rotation, things happened,” Anthopoulos said. “We’ve gotten consistency from these five, and we like the five that we have.”
Those five are Max Fried, Dallas Keuchel and Julio Teheran — the scheduled starters in this series — plus Soroka and Mike Foltynewicz, an All-Star in 2018 who was sent to the minors earlier this season. Sean Newcomb was sent to the bullpen, and Kevin Gausman was claimed off waivers by the Cincinnati Reds.
Anthopoulos added relievers Shane Greene, Mark Melancon and Chris Martin at the trading deadline, but has mostly resisted dealing from the Braves’ stockpile of pitching prospects. He has also been frugal in free agency, signing Josh Donaldson, Brian McCann and Keuchel to one-year deals and resisting most long-term commitments. Only four players — first baseman Freddie Freeman, Albies and outfielders Acuna and Ender Inciarte — are signed past 2020.
“When we believe in the opportunity, we’ll spend and we’ll add,” Anthopoulos said. “But we have to believe in the opportunity. I think we have shown it at various times, but we are very selective about what we do and how we do it.”
The conservative approach has worked for the Braves, who staggered through three seasons of at least 90 losses before last year’s breakthrough. Soon enough, they should have another chance to win a postseason series, which they have not done since 2001. If fans are focused on that, Anthopoulos said, it is a sign of progress.
“We get back to the playoffs and we get eliminated in the first round, and then it’s another level of expectation, which is great: We haven’t won a series,” Anthopoulos said. “It went from three years of losing 90 games, which was hard on this fan base, and now we’ve made it back. But getting in every year, consistently, is hard enough, and you can’t get ahead of yourself.”
The Mets have lived that reality. As hot as they have been lately, they are still chasing the Braves — not the other way around.