The players have changed. Hell, even the stadium has changed. And yet, the Mets enduring crushing losses to the Braves in Atlanta is, apparently, inevitable.
For Mets fans like myself who grew up in the late 1990s, the Atlanta Braves were the Mets’ arch-nemesis. I know of the Cubs rivalry in the late 60s and the Cardinals rivalry in the mid-80’s from tales told by Mets fans who lived through it, and I experienced the rivalry with the Phillies in the late aughts, but in my mind, the rivalry the Mets had with the Braves in the late 90s put all those to shame and is, all things considered, the most contentious in the franchise’s history. And yet, it wasn’t much of a rivalry because the Braves always came out on top and always crushed our dreams. It was about as one-sided as a rivalry between two powerhouse teams could be. And with this weekend’s showing, it felt like we had been doomed to relive that trauma once again.
The Mets only needed to win one game in Atlanta to put their fate in their own hands. To put that simply: They could have lost the series and been heavy favorites to win the National League East. They put forth their three best starting pitchers to help them achieve that goal—again, the goal of winning just a single game (preferably two or three, but at least one). They did not win a single game. Not just that, but they never really looked like they belonged in the same ballpark as the Braves. They had moments in the final game where it seemed like they might break through, but it was short-lived. In the end, the Braves looked like the team that led the National League East for 170+ days, and the Mets like the team trying (and failing) to catch them.
It’s a familiar feeling, going all the way back to Mike Piazza’s first season with the club in 1998. Turner Field was always labeled as a “House of Horrors” for the Mets, and with good reason. No matter how good the Mets were, they always seemed to cower at the sight of Atlanta’s home ballpark—perhaps it’s not the ballpark, but just the state in general, seeing as how the Braves now call Truist Park home and yet things haven’t gotten demonstrably better for the Mets when facing Atlanta on the road.
In ’98, the Mets had 88 wins with five games to go in the season. Functionally, one win would’ve gotten them to at least a Wild Card play-in. They lost their last five games and missed the postseason entirely. The final three games came against the Braves in Atlanta. What made things even harder to swallow was that the Braves had locked up the division title weeks ago and had nothing to play for, except torturing Mets fans everywhere. The Mets even sent their ace, Al Leiter in to start the middle game. It didn’t matter: The Mets lost 6-5, 4-0, and 7-2. Season over.
Then there’s 1999. The two teams again squared off in late September. Atlanta entered with a skinny one-game lead in the NL East. They swept the Mets, with John Rocker, who had not yet become Public Enemy No. 1, closing out all three games—his Sports Illustrated comments after the season would make him a hated figure around Shea Stadium for the rest of his career. That pretty much closed out the division and also sent the Mets into a seven-game losing streak, which set them up to play a play-in game with the Reds even after winning 96 regular season games. Then came 2000, when the Mets went into Turner Field down three in the division with two weeks to go in th season. They lost the first two to send them five back and effectively end any realistic chance of winning, while a loss to the Braves later in the month at Shea officially ended their NL East pursuit—they did get the last laugh, as they advanced to the World Series that year.
But those all pail in comparison to the 2001 season. That year, the Mets found themselves comfortably behind for much of the season following their 2000 NL pennant-winning campaign, trailing by double digits for much of the summer months. They staged a pretty impressive second-half renaissance and closed the gap considerably. The Mets were red-hot when MLB shut down for a week following the September 11th attacks and, when baseball resumed, so did the Mets’ pursuit of Atlanta. Everyone remembers Mike Piazza’s New York City-uplifting home run on September 21 which, in addition to providing the city a temporary escape from the recent pain, brought the Mets to within 4.5 games—the closest they had been to first place since May 5. They won the following night to close the gap to 3.5, and they were in prime position on September 23 to move to within 2.5 games of Atlanta. However, Brian Jordan hit a two-run homer in the ninth, and a single later in the inning tied the game. Jordan would homer in the eleventh to send the Braves home winners and increase their lead to 4.5 games.
Later in the month at Turner Field, the Mets entered a three-game series down just three with nine to play and a chance to catapult themselves into a tie for first place. Instead, they lost the first game, but they built a 5-1 lead in the middle game heading into the ninth inning. In one of those most heart-wrenching regular season defeats in franchise history, the Braves put up seven in the inning, punctuated by a Jordan walk-off Grand Slam off John Franco. Jordan’s name still sends shivers down the spines of Mets fans to this day.
So here we are, 21 years later, and things haven’t changed. Because time is a flat circle, the Mets find themselves playing second fiddle to the Braves in the NL East. It was true then, and it’s just as true now: The Mets will always need to get past the Braves, exorcise their demons when entering Atlanta, to reign supreme in the NL East. They couldn’t do it this year, but you can be sure if the team is competing for the NL East crown next season, they will once again need to get past the Braves. I guess it’s a good thing they don’t play them in September 2023.