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Mets go up 9 1/2 games in NL East, drop magic number to 12

Yoenis Cespedes of the New York Mets celebrates

Yoenis Cespedes of the New York Mets celebrates with Daniel Murphy after hitting a solo home run in the eighth inning of the game against the Atlanta Braves on Sept. 12, 2015 at Turner Field in Atlanta. Credit: Getty Images / Todd Kirkland

ATLANTA - Exactly eight years ago Sunday, the Mets awakened to a comforting reality. Fresh off a victory over the Braves, they held a seven-game lead in the National League East with only 17 to play.

Even the most casual historians know what came next.

But as the Mets enter similar territory again, only the most hardened of alarmists can envision a repeat of 2007.

"We've been pretty resilient," Kelly Johnson said Saturday night shortly after helping the Mets withstand a late charge to beat the Braves, 6-4. "We've been pretty ruthless. And I think that both of those traits are huge."

Resilience came in the form of Johnson's go-ahead single in the top of the ninth almost immediately after the Braves tied the score in the eighth on Adonis Garcia's three-run homer off setup man Tyler Clippard.

Ruthlessness also appeared in the ninth. Aware of the Nationals' 2-0 loss to the Marlins, manager Terry Collins went for the kill. For the second straight night, he deployed closer Jeurys Familia despite a desire to curtail what has been a heavy workload.

Working with a two-run lead -- courtesy of Yoenis Cespedes' RBI groundout that added an insurance run in the ninth -- Familia nailed down his 40th save.

Another day had passed, with the Mets making their lead even more comfortable and showing no signs of letting up.

"It's a tribute to the way they're playing," Collins said. "They don't think they're out of a game."

The Mets opened a 91/2-game lead over the Nationals, eclipsing the lead they built in 2007 -- a season that is becoming increasingly irrelevant.

These Mets have the pitching. Those Mets did not. And as if on cue, fireballing rookie Noah Syndergaard had a virtuoso performance.

In his first start since Aug. 30, the righthander rendered the Braves helpless for seven innings, giving up one run, two hits and a walk and striking out eight. He was pulled after 94 pitches, another concession to his innings cap.

Cespedes homered for the eighth time in 11 games, this one a wall-scraping solo shot to left in the eighth to stretch the Mets' lead to three runs. The Mets also got run-scoring hits from David Wright and Travis d'Arnaud, whose double in the ninth set up the Mets' two-run rally.

Wright also scored on a wild pitch, his reward for being alert when Williams Perez bounced one in the fourth.

It was yet another example of the Mets, undaunted by prosperity, methodically dispatching an inferior opponent. They have won six straight, the longest active winning streak in the majors.

Meanwhile, the Nationals have yet to win since encountering the Mets -- and their setup man, righthander Drew Storen, will miss the rest of the season after fracturing his right thumb while slamming his locker shut Wednesday after allowing Cespedes' dramatic homer in the Mets' stirring comeback.

Beginning with the game of July 31, the Mets have gone 29-11 to the Nationals' 17-24 to turn a three-game deficit into a 91/2-game lead.

With a victory in Sunday's series finale and another Nationals loss, the Mets would return to Citi Field with a double-digit lead in the standings. Even as players brushed off talk about the standings, Collins acknowledged that they remain front-and-center.

"They talk about it all the time," he said. "Even now, they're looking at the scoreboard the entire game, a running dialogue about the Nationals being behind."

With that, the countdown continued uninterrupted, a remarkable turnaround considering the outline of this season.

The Mets once had struggled so badly to score runs that their pitchers endured on table scraps. Few believed it would be enough to beat the Nationals.

Now little question remains.

The Mets shaved their magic number to 12 with 20 to play. Only the fading threat of a collapse -- one that would dwarf the meltdown of 2007 -- stands in the way of the franchise's first playoff appearance since 2006.

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