The best division race in baseball might be historically good, too.
The upstart Mets and powerhouse Atlanta are barreling toward a rare feat: two 100-win teams in the same division. That has happened just five times in the more than half-century since MLB instituted the format. These teams — in their tightened chase of the NL East title — are looking to make it six.
With less than four weeks remaining in the regular season, the Mets are 87-51, on pace for 102.1 wins. Atlanta is 86-51, on pace for 101.7 wins. With both clubs idle Thursday, the Mets lead by a half-game going into their weekend series in Miami.
This is the final countdown. And the Mets happen to have a pair of players with first-hand experience in such an outlier of a pennant race: Max Scherzer, who played for the 2021 Dodgers, who won 106 games, and Darin Ruf, who was on last year’s 107-win Giants.
“I put such an emphasis on the division because it’s something that feels real, tangible,” Scherzer said. “That type of intensity and grind, it’s just fun to be a part of. It’s great when baseball unfolds this way.”
Ruf said, comparing the NL East this season to the NL West last season: “It’s pretty identical. The quality of the two teams, the pitching staff, offense. Both teams do so many things right. It’ll be very, very similar as long as both teams keep playing well.”
What has stayed with Ruf most is the daily intensity. If you lose on any given day, you are likely to lose ground. That may well be especially true for the Mets and Atlanta given their easy schedules in the final month.
Every game matters in a way that is more than a cliche.
“That was the main consensus: Damn, we have to win again today, we have to win again today. Last game of the season, we have to win today,” Ruf said of his Giants experience. “It was intense. To play 162 games, to have the best record in baseball and still have to focus on winning the 162nd game — it’s pretty incredible that you have to do that when you win 107 games, to have every single one of them matter, to run our starters out there every single game.
“That’s what I took from it. Every single one of the guys had to bring it every single day for every single game of the season.”
If you are looking for parallels, consider the 2022 Mets the 2021 Giants, the big-market team that had underperformed in previos seasons but had a newish front office trying to start a new era, then hit it big — way big — probably earlier than they genuinely expected. Atlanta is the Dodgers, the perennial division champion and defending World Series champion having another darn good year but in a dogfight anyway.
Last year, the Giants led by 2 1/2 games or fewer — usually fewer — every day for the last six weeks. Los Angeles went 7-0 to finish its schedule. But San Francisco managed a 6-1 run. The Giants didn’t clinch the division until the final day of the regular season, sending the Dodgers to the wild-card game. (When the teams met again in the NLDS, the Dodgers wound up winning.)
“Especially having a little bit more of a veteran team like we had, guys that have won World Series and things like that — even they hadn’t had to win every single regular-season game to get yourself in the position that you wanted to in the playoffs,” Ruf said.
Scherzer said: “You can’t just throw away a game.”
For the Mets and Atlanta, the circumstances are similar and the stakes are significant. The victor will get a bye into the NLDS (as long as they can hold off surging St. Louis for the No. 2 seed). The loser will play in the best-of-three wild-card round, which is new this year, then if they advance face the Dodgers in the NLDS.
Their Sept. 30-Oct. 2 series in Atlanta — the penultimate series of the season — looms large.
“It keeps you sharp, keeps you focused,” Scherzer said. “That’s when baseball is at its best, when you’re coming in every single day and grinding to win — every single day. That’s what you want. It’s only a benefit. There’s no negative to it.”
Previous divisional pennant races with two 100-win teams:
2021 NL West: Giants (107), Dodgers (106)
2018 AL East: Red Sox (108), Yankees (100)
2001 AL West: Mariners (116), Athletics (102)
1993 NL West: Atlanta (104), Giants (103)
1980 AL East: Yankees (103), Orioles (100)