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Series Preview: New York Mets vs. Atlanta Braves

The Force is with the Mets, but they are not division champions yet.

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

It seems like such a long time ago that baseball scribes were lampooning the Mets' offense and criticizing the team for not making a big trade for offense. Back then, weeks like this one seemed impossible. New York's vaunted starting pitching got blasted in two of the three games in Washington, but the resilient squad swept the series anyway thanks to what is suddenly one of the deepest and most powerful lineups in baseball. Remember when "LOLMets" was a thing?

That phrase that has seemed to haunt the franchise since the internet was invented will return to prominence if the Mets don't take care of business during the remaining 23 games on their schedule. The narrative may say that the Nationals are done for, but history says they still have a chance. Until the bottles are ready to be popped, every game that New York plays will be of vital importance, even if those games are against a team that is playing for 2017 and just snapped a 12-game losing streak.

With a few Mets wins versus the Braves, we'll get ever closer to starting that chain reaction that leads to us telling our grandkids, "If you can believe it, people used to make fun of the Mets!"

Atlanta's new toy

There's not many nice things that one can say about the Braves these days. The team was one of baseball's surprise contenders in the first half (remember when the Mets almost fell behind them in the standings?), but lately they have devolved into the rebuilding mess that many predicted they would become in April. A big reason for that is a trade deadline deal that sent lefty starter Alex Wood along with some other useful pieces to the Dodgers in exchange for 20-year-old pitching prospect Zachary Bird, injured relief pitcher Paco Rodriguez, and Cuban third base prospect Hector Olivera.

Olivera was considered the big fish in the haul because he's ready to make a splash in the big leagues. At 30 years old, he's very old for a prospect, but he still has a lot of upside because he had never played in the majors before being called up on September 1. That was in the midst of Atlanta's 12-game losing streak that might turn out to be a blessing in disguise. While the Braves on the field are trying to win every game, their failure to do just that could have a great impact on the team's future. We've seen how high first-round draft choices like Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant can turn around a team's fortunes in a hurry, and Atlanta now has just two more wins than Philadelphia in the race for worst record in baseball.

Anyway, Olivera only collected two hits in hist first five major league games, but then he hit a two-run home run against Philadelphia to help the Braves snap their losing skid.

That win led to a series victory for Atlanta, which I suppose is a good thing since the Mets won't be under pressure to continue what could have ended up being a record run of despair. Perhaps everyone will get what they want this weekend, as the Mets hope to inch closer to a division crown and the Braves (secretly) hope to move up in the draft order.

Of course, with the way the Mets have been hitting the ball lately, they don't seem to need anyone's help to achieve victory. And we're not just talking about Yoenis Cespedes, whose recent play has been generating MVP buzz. Just look at what Kelly Johnson has done since September started. Thought to be a part-time player with David Wright, Daniel Murphy, and Lucas Duda all in the lineup, Johnson is going to continue to force himself into the mix if he continues to drive in runs like he has in five of of the seven games he's played this month. The way this season is going, we could be talking about the Cespedes trade for years, but the move to bring in Johnson and Juan Uribe, who doesn't mind coming off the bench always knows how to lighten the mood, turned out to be very important as well.

Another non-Cespedes entity who has come up big lately is Travis d'Arnaud. I know I was afraid (and I still am) that the catcher's seemingly constant injuries would derail his promising career, but the guy has managed to hit the ball hard whenever he is in the lineup. It's a small sample size, but his walk, strikeout, and home run rates in 202 plate appearances this year are the mark of a future star.

That kind of opposite-field power hasn't been seen in a Mets catcher since a certain mustache-wearing, hair-bleaching, world-destroying backstop used to run this town.

Is pitching New York's new problem?

Back in July, sports personalities used to talk about how that great Mets pitching was being wasted by an anemic lineup. Nowadays, it has been the lineup bailing the starting pitchers out of trouble every night. I'm not going to be so bold as to saw that pitching is a problem for the Mets, but with Matt Harvey and Noah Syndergaard recently being skipped for rest, it certainly is an issue.

Jon Niese had a chance to make a big statement on Labor Day, but ended up flopping for the fourth straight start. Then, Harvey missed an opportunity to redeem himself to the fan base and gave up seven runs in fewer than six innings. Before being sat down for rest, Syndergaard had been mediocre for the entire month of August.

The good news is that Steven Matz looked solid in his return from the disabled list despite suffering a blister in Miami. Plus, Jacob deGrom has turned in three straight solid outings since being blown up in Philadelphia, and Bartolo Colon is doing things that we thought we'd never see Bartolo Colon do again (or ever in this case).

Oh yeah, and he's pitching ridiculously well to boot. That's good news for the Mets as they head into the four-game set down south. Colon will face off against Atlanta's ace Shelby Miller, who has been one of the unluckiest pitchers in baseball as far as win-loss record is concerned. Despite a 2.81 ERA and 151 strikeouts in 176.1 innings, Miller has just five winning decisions this year. Although Miller was lit up for seven runs in his most recent start versus Washington, he's been fairly steady all season long and should bounce back with a competitive outing.

Date Time Television Mets Probable Starter Braves Probable Starter
September 10, 2015 7:10 PM SNY Bartolo Colon Shelby Miller
September 11, 2015 7:35 PM SNY Steven Matz TBA
September 12, 2015 7:10 PM PIX 11 Noah Syndergaard Williams Perez
September 13, 2015 1:35 PM SNY Jon Niese Ryan Weber

Next up was supposed to be former Yankees prospect Manny Banuelos against current Mets prospect Matz, but Banuelos is suffering from elbow discomfort and will be skipped in favor of either Edwin Jackson, Sugar Ray Marimon, or Matt Wisler. While Wisler was smacked around by the Nationals in his most recent start on September 3, Jackson and Marimon have been working out of the bullpen for the entire campaign.

Saturday will bring the return of Syndergaard to the rotation versus Williams Perez. The 24-year-old Perez is coming off a really nice start in Philadelphia in which he struck out seven batters while allowing just two hits and two runs in seven innings. Before that, though, Perez was struggling with his strikeout rate and is very dependent on his ground ball rate for success. Against the Mets on June 20, he allowed four runs in six frames.

In the series finale on Sunday, the Mets will try to get Niese back on track against Atlanta rookie Ryan Weber. Although Weber sported a 2.21 ERA at Triple-A Gwinnett this year, only six of his 27 appearances came as a starting pitcher. Still, his major league debut on Tuesday in Philly went well. The 25-year-old let up just two runs in six innings thanks to an outstanding ground ball rate. Like Perez, Weber doesn't have a big strikeout history, so New York's success will depend on how well the team can lift the ball.

Prediction: Mets win three of four.

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