David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
ATLANTA - The calendar says September, but this month has a mid-March feel for the Mets. This weekend, Turner Field might as well be Lake Buena Vista. All that's missing is Mickey and Minnie.
With the National League East title hanging out of the Mets' back pocket like a batting glove, there really is no sense of urgency. This is the Grapefruit League now, a time for Terry Collins and Co. to get the pitching staff some work, let the regulars get some rest and call some meetings to sort everything out for October.
The priority Saturday night was to beat the Braves, and the Mets did, 6-4, with an impressive two-run rally in the ninth. Almost as important, however, was to make sure Noah Syndergaard was safely off the mound after seven innings, and in this case, 94 pitches.
Syndergaard should get used to it. Even with a six-man rotation, he's going to be limited to seven innings in his final three starts, all in preparation for the playoffs.
His leash isn't as short as Matt Harvey's -- or nearly as dramatic -- and Syndergaard already is 22 innings over last year's total. That's a no-no in 2015, but the front office apparently is OK in this zone. Maybe.
"So far they are," Collins said.
This is strictly precautionary with Syndergaard, who turned 23 two weeks ago and has not had Tommy John surgery. But he does throw incredibly hard, and after being skipped in his previous start -- a 13-day breather -- Syndergaard was spitting fire during his eight-strikeout night against the Braves.
According to Brooks Baseball's Pitch F/X tool, Syndergaard threw 29 four-seam fastballs, with an average velocity of 99.8 mph and a max of 101.5. At those speeds, it's a wonder Syndergaard's arm is still attached. But he had no complaints, and the Mets have no need to push him with the division race in the bag.
"You're talking about a big, strong young man," Collins said. "It's his first time in September, but I'm not that worried. We've put down this policy and we're going to watch the innings."
Other than keeping an eye on the scoreboard, that's really all that's left for the Mets, who have only three games left against a winning team -- the Yankees next weekend at Citi Field. The Nationals evidently have folded, and Collins plans to sit a big chunk of his lineup Sunday.
These are things you can't afford to do in a real pennant race. But the Mets lead the Nats by 91/2 games, so the remainder of this month is just an extended tuneup for the Dodgers and figuring out who gets home-field advantage for that Division Series. General manager Sandy Alderson already has talked about skipping Jacob deGrom at some point, and Harvey likely will get one last start against the Yankees before preparing himself for the playoffs.
For Syndergaard, this was spring training, only in a bigger stadium. The Braves battled back against Tyler Clippard to tie the score at 4 and deprive Syndergaard of the victory, but he didn't seem to mind all that much. As we said, it doesn't really feel do-or-die. The Mets are going to win this thing eventually, so it's just a matter of picking a date.
Syndergaard was just glad he got to work on some changeups. We're surprised he didn't head out to run on the back fields.
"I got a little anxious out there probably," he said. "It's been a while since I've been able to go out there and compete. I was very pleased. I did a really good job of maintaining my mechanics through those 13 days [off] and my arm felt really good."
There were no questions about specific at-bats, no breaking down his strategy against the Braves. What was the point? We should have started asking him about the Dodgers. Until then, the Mets are just killing time. And Syndergaard is being a good sport about the innings limit. Guess he's not all that concerned about his stats for salary arbitration in 2017.
"I know there's a bigger picture here," Syndergaard said.
Just think of the next few weeks as the Grapefruit League, only with champagne, a toast to much greater October goals ahead.