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Mets become the hunted as Wild Card race rages on against Atlanta

Can the Mets capitalize on their new role as Wild Card leaders?

Washington Nationals v Atlanta Braves Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images

Considering that the Braves have been committed to building for 2017 as soon as the 2016 season started, the Mets haven’t beaten up on them as much as they could have this year. With a 9-7 record against their southern rivals, you can argue that the Mets have missed some opportunities to put themselves in an even more comfortable position atop the National League Wild Card standings.

This whole campaign has been filled with missed opportunities, though. The Mets miss out on an opportunity every time they fail to deliver with runners in scoring position, which, despite an 11-5 September record, has still happened more than enough in 2016.

However, the kings of missed opportunities this year could end up being the San Francisco Giants. They appeared to be cruising away with the NL West title with a 57-33 record at the All-Star break. Even though its roster is still more than talented enough to support a postseason run, San Francisco has gone 22-37 in the second half to fall a game behind the Mets and their tattered pitching staff.

Thanks to the Giants dropping their last two games to St. Louis, the Mets are 13 games away from earning a home date in the one-game Wild Card round that will determine who moves on to the NLDS in October. After sweeping the Twins away, New York would love to do the same to Atlanta, but as that 9-7 mark tells us, the Braves are still dangerous.

Braves offense

One of the players that has helped Atlanta remain competitive in the second half is Ender Inciarte. We’ve talked before about how that other guy from the Shelby Miller trade, former first overall draft pick Dansby Swanson, is going to help makes the Braves better in the future, but Inciarte has started making them better right now even though he doesn’t become a free agent until 2021.

With 87 hits since the All-Star break, Inciarte is tied with Washington’s Trea Turner for the major league lead in that span, which goes to show you what a terrific contact hitter he is (and how Turner is going to be a pain in the neck forever). The former Arizona prospect is also walking more than he did during his first two years in the big leagues, which has helped boost his on-base percentage to a career-high .351. As a terrific defensive player and a left-handed hitter with little power, he reminds me a lot of former Atlanta outfielder Gregor Blanco, who went on to be a great role player for the Giants.

The Miller trade was an obvious move for Atlanta to sell high on a starting pitcher in order to get younger at a couple of key positions, but the trade they made for Matt Kemp this summer was more confusing on the surface. Yes, the Braves wanted to get rid of failed Cuban project Hector Olivera, but was it worth it when the cost was taking on Kemp’s bloated contract? The veteran outfielder is earning about $22 million per year through the 2019 season, but so far the move has worked out well for the Braves, who have seen Kemp improve his game since being booted from San Diego.

In 44 games with his new club, Kemp is hitting .293/.347/.506 with eight home runs, which is a lot better than the .262/.285/.489 (albeit with 23 home runs) he was hitting with the Padres. The former MVP candidate might continue to be a liability on defense as he grows older, but if he continues to hit for power, he might not turn into the albatross that San Diego apparently thinks he will become.

Mets offense

Sunday was full of pleasant surprises for the Mets, as Michael Conforto came through with a two-RBI single in a rare start and Lucas Duda appeared in the lineup for the first time since May 20. The left-handed slugger might not have produced much in his second-half debut (0-for-2 with a strikeout), but he has the potential to give the New York offense a kick in the butt as we get closer to the postseason. Duda wasn’t super effective this season before his sustained the back injury that held him out for four months, but fans shouldn’t forget that this is a guy who hit 57 home runs over the previous two seasons. Mets fans might moan about his consistency (or lack thereof), but his placeholder at first base James Loney has been horrible in the second half, hitting .253/.287/.337 since the break.

And this might be shocking to some, but Loney doesn’t play better defense than Duda. As long as Duda is healthy enough to do so, he should be given as many starts at first base as possible for the remainder of the campaign.

Probable pitchers

Date Time Television Braves Probable Starter Mets Probable Starter
September 19, 2016 7:10 PM WPIX Aaron Blair Noah Syndergaard
September 20, 2016 7:10 PM SNY Julio Teheran Robert Gsellman
September 21, 2016 7:10 PM SNY Mystery starter Bartolo Colon

Aaron Blair

Important stats: 54.2 IP, 32 K, 29 BB, 11 HR, 8.23 ERA, 6.45 FIP, 1.77 WHIP

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

I’m not one who likes to revel in hyperbole, but that Miller trade we talked about earlier might be grounds to terminate the entire Arizona front office. Another guy moved in that deal was Aaron Blair, although the Diamondbacks perhaps aren’t regretting that part as much. He’s been pretty lousy as a major league pitcher since debuting against the Mets on April 24, but he’s also just 24 years old, so there’s plenty of room for improvement. Blair made another decent start against the Mets on June 18 before our boys finally lit him up for eight runs on June 24. A knee injury has limited the young right-hander to just one big league start since then, so Monday will mark his third outing against the Mets in his last four overall.

Mets opponent: As the rest of New York’s rotation continues to crumble around him, Noah Syndergaard has been labeled as a survivor by some, but he did much more than survive during his last trip to the mound. In a crucial road game against the division-leading Nationals, Thor struck out 10 Washington batters in seven innings to lead the Mets to a 4-3 win. With a 1.42 ERA in September, Syndergaard can continue to earn clutch points with the Cy Young Award voters with another strong outing against Atlanta.

Julio Teheran

Important stats: 170.0 IP, 151 K, 37 BB, 21 HR, 3.18 ERA, 3.76 FIP, 1.04 WHIP

Favorite pitches: four-seam fastball (91 mph), slider (81 mph), curveball (72 mph)

Back in June, Teheran shredded the Mets with 17 straight scoreless innings spread over two consecutive starts, but the New York bats finally did something against him on September 9. Two runs in six innings isn’t anything for an offense to write home about, but the Mets at least got on the board against their nemesis and set the stage for the thrilling eighth-inning comeback that followed. Maybe on Tuesday New York can take the next step and deal the final blow to the Braves before their ace leaves the game.

Mets opponent: No Mets starter can replace what Jacob deGrom gives the team when he’s on the mound, but at least Robert Gsellman has us covered in the hair department. What? Every other Mets news outlet made that joke two weeks ago? Oh, well. Gsellman’s 1.41 WHIP doesn’t quite match up with his 3.08 ERA, but he was at his very best in Washington last Wednesday when he held the Nationals scoreless through five-and-two-thirds innings with four strikeouts and one walk. As long as he continues to keep the ball in the yard, he’s going to be an asset for the Mets.

Mystery starter

The Braves haven’t officially announced a starter for Wednesday yet, but the most likely option is John Gant, the former Mets prospect who has pitched well against New York this season. In two starts against the team that drafted him, Gant has allowed just two earned runs in 11.1 innings, but against everyone else he’s not quite as good. In his most recent outing against Washington, Gant was shelled for five runs without even getting out of the second inning.

Mets opponent: Bartolo Colon continued to have a brilliant September last Friday when he held Minnesota scoreless through seven innings. With every strong start he makes down the stretch, the calls to bring back New York’s sexiest starting pitcher will only grow louder. Against Atlanta this season, Colon is particularly effective with a 1.71 ERA in 21 innings spread over three starts.

Prediction: Mets win two of three.

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