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New York Mets can build momentum, pull ahead of rivals in series with Atlanta Braves

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Seven of the Mets' next nine games come against Atlanta.

Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Nationals have played outstanding baseball lately. Just this week, they won two out of three games against the Cubs, a team many consider to be the best in baseball. We know from last year that it's still possible for the Mets to overcome their five-game deficit in the National League East and emerge division champs once again. However, as of now, that is an unlikely scenario for the Mets, especially considering that David Wright is going to be out for a long time while Travis d'Arnaud and Lucas Duda are still working their way back from injuries.

That's okay, though. The Mets are still in front of the senior circuit's Wild Card race and they finally figured out how to beat up on mediocre Pittsburgh pitching this week. Scoring runs like that is going to help keep New York one step ahead of St. Louis and Los Angeles, two other highly competitive teams that nonetheless have issues that may keep them out of postseason play. It also helps that the Mets will see a lot of the Braves in the near future. There are a lot of bad teams in the NL this year, but Atlanta may be the worst, and that gives the East-dwelling Mets an advantage. Simply put, they've got to pick up a bunch of wins over the next 10 days.

Terry Collins's team has taken care of business so far with wins in five of six games against Atlanta, but these Braves are not going to just lie down for the Mets. Sure, that's a cliche, but it's tough to sweep a series against even the worst teams. The Braves even took a game from the Cubs the other day! It also won't hurt their chances that Freddie Freeman, who has always been a thorn in New York's side, has been extremely hot lately with 10 hits and three home runs in his last four games.

It's worth noting that those four games came against the terrible pitching of Cincinnati, but Freeman is now on pace to set a career high in home runs with 12 already this year. The left-handed slugger is striking out more than he has in years past, but that's not a big problem if it comes with an increase in power. We've previously heard rumors about the possibility that the Braves trade Freeman as part of their rebuild, but with five years still remaining on his contract, he is looking more like someone worth building around.

Atlanta will instead focus on moving anything that isn't nailed down. Already this season, the club has shipped out Jhoulys Chacin, who started against the Mets earlier this season, as well as Kelly Johnson in exchange for younger assets. It certainly doesn't help that most of the Braves' top prospects are still far away from the big leagues. Although you can see progress being made towards contention, it's dubious that the goal will be achieved in time for the new stadium opening in 2017.

One guy that appears close to making a difference is Mallex Smith, the 23-year-old outfielder that was snagged from San Diego in the Justin Upton trade two Decembers ago. Known mostly for his speed and his defense, Smith has posted very high on-base percentages in the minor leagues and has gotten more opportunities to lead off for the Braves lately. Right now he strikes out a little too much to be ideal for the role, but he's also taking his walks and stealing bases when given the chance. Him and Freeman are two guys in the lineup that the Mets have to be really careful with.

Someone else in that category is Ender Inciarte, the outfielder that Atlanta acquired from Arizona during the offseason. His 11-percent strikeout rate and ability to run makes for a lot of extra pressure on the New York defense. It will be interesting to see how the Mets handle him after he missed the first two series between these teams due to injury.

Speaking of guys coming back from injuries, the Mets got great results from key banged-up players last night. Neil Walker (back) and Michael Conforto (wrist) both returned to the lineup and hit home runs off of Pittsburgh starter Juan Nicasio. It's only one game, but the auspicious performances gives us hope that both guys can start slugging like they did in April once again.

Pitching probables

Date Time Television Braves Probable Starter Mets Probable Starter
June 17, 2016 7:10 PM SNY John Gant Matt Harvey
June 18, 2016 8:15 PM FOX Aaron Blair Steven Matz
June 19, 2016 1:10 PM WPIX Julio Teheran Jacob deGrom

John Gant

Important stats: 16.0 IP, 19 K, 9 BB, 2 HR, 5.63 ERA, 4.26 FIP, 1.75 WHIP

Favorite pitches: four-seam fastball (92 mph), changeup (80 mph), curveball (75 mph)

Yes, that's the same John Gant that the Mets parted ways with last year in order to acquire Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe in late July. He's been pitching mostly out of the bullpen for Atlanta this year, but was recently forced into starting action when Mike Foltynewicz and Williams Perez went on the disabled list. During his first start of his big league career last Sunday, Gant allowed three runs in four-and-one-thirds innings in a 13-2 loss to the Cubs. That's pretty good considering how skilled Chicago is on offense and how most of Gant's relief outings have gone this season. He's fared much better at Triple-A Gwinnett with 48 strikeouts, 13 walks, and a 3.14 ERA in 43 innings.

Mets opponent: With three solid starts in a row, Matt Harvey appears well on his way to becoming the dominant pitcher fans expected him to be at the outset of the season. We'll hope for that run to continue against an Atlanta squad that Harvey has already faced twice in 2016. Both of those outings were decidedly mediocre with five runs allowed and 10.2 innings pitched between them. He should be able to improve on those numbers against a Braves offense that is still one of the league's worst.

Aaron Blair

Important stats: 40.1 IP, 23 K, 25 BB, 5 HR, 7.59 ERA, 5.69 FIP, 1.81 WHIP

Favorite pitches: four-seam fastball (91 mph), changeup (85 mph), curveball (78 mph), two-seam fastball (91 mph)

Acquired alongside Inciarte as part of the Shelby Miller trade in December, Blair looked decent in his major league debut against the Mets in late April, but he has struggled mightily since. Even in the outings in which he doesn't give up a lot of runs, he's not working deep due to a walk rate that has surpassed his strikeout rate. The good news for Blair is that he's on a team that can afford to be patient as he tries to find the strike zone. Hopefully that patience will be tested when the Mets face him for a second time on Saturday.

Mets opponent: Steven Matz hasn't been so spectacular lately with five runs allowed in six innings during his latest start at Milwaukee. However, his season stats still reflect those of a dominant pitcher, and he has a chance to improve on those against the lefty-heavy Braves offense. Against 57 left-handed batters this season, Matz's ground ball rate has jumped to a crazy 78 percent.

Julio Teheran

Important stats: 89.0 IP, 85 K, 24 BB, 13 HR, 2.93 ERA, 4.07 FIP, 0.99 WHIP

Favorite pitches: four-seam fastball (90 mph), slider (81 mph), two-seam fastball (89 mph), changeup (82 mph)

Along with Freeman, Teheran is one other current Braves star who we can expect to see in a similar role three years from now. He's signed to a very affordable contract through 2019 and gives Atlanta a chance to win every time he takes the hill. The low BABIP against Teheran and a high strand rate makes for a FIP that is more than a run worse than his ERA, but on a more human level, it probably takes some resiliency to limit run output despite allowing at least one home run in five straight starts. With the way the Mets have rediscovered their home run swings, that streak could very well increase to six on Sunday afternoon.

Mets opponent: Jacob deGrom earned his fourth straight quality start when he allowed two runs in six innings to the Pirates on Tuesday night. The effort resulted in a Mets loss, but deGrom nevertheless looked like the dominant pitcher we've grown used to again over the past month. As the weather has warmed up, his fastball velocity has risen to 94 miles per hour, just one notch below where it was for much of 2015. Plus, deGrom is mixing his pitches well and giving the Mets that little boost of infield defense every time he toes the rubber.

Bullpens

With Jason Grilli being dealt to Toronto, Arodys Vizcaino has taken over the closer role full-time and done a great job with it. In 28.1 innings, the 25-year-old right-hander has a whopping 41 strikeouts with 12 walks and a 2.22 ERA. The other workhorse in Atlanta's pen is Alexi Ogando, who has already logged 29.2 innings in 32 appearances this year. Although the veteran from the Dominican Republic has maintained a respectable 3.64 ERA so far, it might be time for interim manager Brian Snitker to give some of the younger guys a chance. That's because Ogando has walked 22 batters, which is almost seven per nine innings. Three of those came against Cincinnati on Wednesday night, when Ogando walked a man with the bases loaded to force in the go-ahead run.

The Mets did not surrender a go-ahead run yesterday against Pittsburgh, but who knows what would have happened if Addison Reed had stayed in the game. He finally appeared mortal, giving up a home run to Andrew McCutchen and a double to Jung Ho Kang before giving way to Jeurys Familia. In better bullpen news, Erik Goeddel has gotten his feet wet with a couple of perfect innings since being called up to replace Logan Verrett.

Prediction: Mets sweep!

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