For The New York Mets, A Series Win Over The Atlanta Braves Delivers A Statement Decades In Coming

For a manager who is more interesting and quotable than the rest of his peers combined, Buck Showalter can lapse into skipper talk as easily as anyone else.

“We’re living in the moment — tomorrow it’s nine innings, today’s nine innings,” Showalter said Sunday afternoon after the Mets completed their most pivotal series win since 2015 by beating the Braves, 5-2. “From the time the last pitch is thrown — by the time you get to the top of the steps in the locker room, you’re on to the next one. You have to. Resonation, all that stuff — we’re going to their place for four days down the road. I’m sure they’ll be ready.”

But even if he wasn’t in the mood to metaphorically flip through the history books Sunday afternoon, the only person in a Mets uniform who has any recollections of how the Mets-Braves rivalry used to go — and Showalter studies or remembers ev-ery-thing — surely understands how taking four of five from the Braves made the weekend a potentially transcendent and transformative one for the Mets.

The Dodgers are the NL’s standard-bearer and the Astros remain the most consistent championship contender of the last half-decade. Yet the Mets’ path to trying to establish themselves within that top tier has to begin with toppling the Braves, and not just because the Braves are the defending World Series champions.

With a 3 1/2-game lead as the series began Thursday, holding serve by winning two or three games would have sufficed for the Mets. But winning the four games as they gives the Mets a chance to vanquish the Braves in the latter’s prime — something the Mets have been trying to do with no success for most of the previous three decades.

The Mets scored the first five runs in a series-opening 6-4 win Thursday and never trailed in a doubleheader sweep Saturday nor in Sunday’s electric win, when Jacob deGrom struck out 12 and carried a perfect game into the sixth inning in his first home start in 13 months. In a 9-6 loss Friday, the Mets evoked memories of 1999 and 2000 by almost overcoming an 8-0 second-inning deficit and forcing the Braves to use their three best relievers to get the final 10 outs.

The Mets, forever searching for a Braves-esque identity and direction during the Wilpon era, displayed plenty of both over the weekend. A relentless offense produced 31 runs despite hitting just five homers — none after Friday. On Sunday evening — hours after Brandon Nimmo led off the game with a single to cap a 10-pitch at-bat — Braves manager Brian Snitker referred to the Mets “grinding out at-bats” four times in answering the first question of his postgame press conference.

The Mets’ restrained trade deadline philosophy was also rewarded when Tyler Naquin, Daniel Vogelbach and Darin Ruf — all acquired over the back half of July — hit a combined .385 with three homers and eight RBIs (plus one very rumbling run scored by Vogelbach Sunday) in the series. Joely Rodriguez, who remains the lone left-hander in the bullpen after the Mets didn’t acquire another southpaw, recorded perhaps the seven biggest outs of the weekend in serving as the bridge Sunday between deGrom and all-world closer Edwin Diaz.

“We believe in ourselves,” Nimmo said. “We think that we’re a good offense. We think that we wear pitchers down. We think that we have great pitching and a good bullpen. We think we’re a really good team. I think this just emphasizes that.”

It provided an emphasis the Mets have never delivered against the Braves.

The Mets were swept by the Braves in the final series of the 1998 season when one win would have ensured them a spot in a wild card tiebreaker game with the Cubs. The Chipper Jones-fueled sweep in September 1999 sealed the NL East for the Braves and nearly cost the Mets the wild card. The Mets surged back into the NL East race in 2001 with an inspiring run bookending the week-long pause following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but their playoff hopes ended with Armando Benitez blowing saves in spectacular fashion against the Braves on consecutive weekends in late September.

Even the iconic, franchise-defining moments the Mets had against the Braves eventually yielded disappointment. After beating Showalter’s Diamondbacks in the 1999 NLDS, the Mets’ bid to comeback from a three games to none deficit in the NLCS against the Braves ended with the Mets overcoming a five-run first-inning deficit and blowing two late leads in an 11-inning loss in Game 6 — a defeat that still has the members of the best Mets team since 1986 wondering what might have been if they could have gotten to a Game 7 with a World Series date against the Yankees at stake.

The 10-run eighth inning comeback on June 30, 2000 that ended with Mike Piazza’s laser beam homer off the retired numbers in left field pulled the Mets within 1 1/2 games of first place. Two days later, with a chance to move into first place in the series finale, they lost 10-2. The Mets spent one day atop the division the remainder of the season. And Piazza’s homer on Sept. 21, 2001 came fewer than 48 hours before the first of Benitez’s blown saves.

The two times this century the Mets ascended to the top of the NL East, they did so when the Braves were reloading or rebuilding. The Braves’ run of 14 straight division titles ended in 2006, when they finished 79-83 and 18 games behind the Mets. Nine years later, Atlanta finished 67-95 and 23 games back of the Mets.

As frantically euphoric as that 2015 run was for the Mets, that’s all it was — a fluky once-every-20-years type of sugar high built on the good fortune of the Mets pivoting to Yoenis Cespedes when the Carlos Gomez trade fell through and the Nationals dousing their locker room in gasoline by acquiring the human flame thrower, Jonathan Papelbon.

All caveats apply about how the weekend’s series win will be rendered nothing more than a footnote if the Mets’ season ends with disappointment in the playoffs — especially at the hands of the Braves in the NLDS or NLCS.

But on Sunday night, this surge felt much more sustainable and with the added bonus of being mounted against the team by whom the Mets have been measured for most of the last 30 years — even if Showalter wanted no such talk.

“I don’t make random statements,” Showalter said.

Neither did the Mets this weekend.