With 53 games and more than eight weeks to go, the NL East is far from won, the annals of baseball history pockmarked enough by comebacks and collapses and other September surprises that, well, as one long-ago Mets manager said, it ain’t over till it’s over.
But after a 5-2 win over Atlanta on Sunday, the Mets like their chances. By taking four out of five games in the series, they nearly doubled their division lead, from 3 1/2 to 6 1/2 games. Jacob deGrom’s dazzling return to Citi Field included a perfect-game bid into the sixth inning, Pete Alonso and Mark Canha each had a two-run double during a game-deciding third-inning rally, and lefthander Joely Rodriguez tossed 2 1/3 scoreless innings to build a bridge from deGrom to closer Edwin Diaz.
“Undoubtedly, it’s a big series for us. I’m not going to shy away from that,” Canha said. “But I’m not ready to make any sweeping declarations about the NL East or anything. I think we just gotta keep playing.”
Brandon Nimmo added: “Winning four out of five and only having seven left [against each other] doesn’t leave them a whole lot of room for catching us by beating us. And we think we’re a tough team to beat. As long as we take care of business . . . it makes it a tough road.”
And Diaz: “They know we’re good.”
Diaz’s presence on the mound in the top of the ninth underscored the significance of this series at this time of year. He was pitching for a second day in a row and a third time in four days, a stretch that started Thursday when he recorded the first two-inning save of his career.
Manager Buck Showalter and the Mets (70-39) saw a chance to step on Atlanta’s neck, and they did.
“This series was big for both, so we gotta take advantage of the lead every time,” Diaz said. “They put the best on the mound.”
DeGrom’s final line was 5 2/3 innings, one hit, two runs, one walk and 12 strikeouts (the most by a Mets pitcher this year). He somehow was even better than those numbers suggest.
Atlanta (64-46) swung at 20 sliders and missed 18 of them. They didn’t put a runner on base until there were two outs in the sixth, when No. 9 hitter Ehire Adrianza managed a walk. Dansby Swanson — deGrom’s final batter no matter what, Showalter said, because of his workload limits — followed with Atlanta’s first hit, a two-run home run to right-centerfield.
DeGrom departed to a lengthy series of standing ovations. He hadn’t pitched at the Mets’ home ballpark in exactly 13 months. The crowd of 37,717 showed its appreciation and excitement by getting on its feet before he had even thrown a pitch as he warmed up to his usual anthem, “Simple Man’’ by Lynyrd Skynyrd.
“Stepping out there was a little bit emotional,” deGrom said. “Big ovation, kind of took a second, took it all in and tried to focus and tried to take care of business.”
Yeah, he tried. His excellence seemed so easy, so predictable, that fans collectively rose in anticipation of random mid-inning, nothing-special strikeouts, the way they have behaved much of the year when Diaz is on the mound.
“I wish I was more equipped to say something deserving of his outing,” Showalter said. “It was kind of like it was Edwin closing every inning.”
The Mets reached Atlanta righthander Spencer Strider for four runs in 2 2/3 innings.
Atlanta, as the defending World Series champion and four-time defending division champion, entered the year as the team to beat. So far, on the field and in the standings, the Mets are beating them.
“Every weakness and strength shows up, and there’s no Cinderellas,” Showalter said. “You earn everything. That’s what I take out of it, that we won some games in a long, tough series against a very good club and that doesn’t give us anything tomorrow.”