New York Mets manager Buck Showalter.

New York Mets manager Buck Showalter. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Last year, in a tiny room off the Mets’ clubhouse at Citi Field, a go-to spot for pregame meetings about defensive positioning and opposing pitchers and the like, the staff hung on the wall a small board displaying the NL East standings. It existed as a mere statement of fact, a reflection of the reality for that day, a reminder — for most of the season — that the Mets had positioned themselves well.

But then the end came, they fell into second place and Atlanta captured the division title for a fifth consecutive year. The Mets, who finished with the same record as Atlanta, lost via a tiebreaker, the teams’ head-to-head record, which also was decided in the waning days.

Officially, Atlanta was on top in the standings. But for the additional half-week that the Mets’ season continued during the playoffs, manager Buck Showalter decided to say the heck with it, rearranging that board — plain for the players to see — in accordance with his preference:

Mets: 101 wins, 61 losses
Atlanta: 101 wins, 61 losses

He would not cede that they were an inferior team just because of a technicality.

“Just to show [his players] that they didn’t finish ahead of us,” Showalter said. “We tied. We tied. It’s just a reminder to the players. It’s how much one game means. That more than anything, how much one game can mean over the course of the season.”

Max Scherzer said: “Man, you’d do a lot of messed-up things in life to be able to get that one extra game.”


Therein lies the Mets’ primary challenge over the next six months: Do what they did last year but finish the job and actually win the NL East title, knowing from painful experience that any random game might be the difference at the end. All the hype — and legitimate World Series aspirations — that accompanies their estimated $370 million payroll, the highest in baseball history, means nothing if they don’t earn a banner to hang at the end.

With Atlanta, the Mets and the Phillies — a distant third-place club that ended up in the World Series in 2022 — the race for the NL East looks as if it again will be awfully entertaining and/or stressful, depending on your perspective.

To Scherzer, who has a new co-ace in old Tigers teammate Justin Verlander, difficult is fun.

“When you’re playing each other, beating up on each other, it really pushes you to get better,” he said. “I’m a better pitcher because of it. I’ve taken some hard losses. I’ve gotten my brains beat in by the Phillies and [Atlanta]. You sleep on the Marlins or Nationals, you get beat. Division games are fun because of how difficult they can be.”

Showalter added of the perennial non-contender Marlins, whom the Mets play four times to begin the season: “I don’t know if anybody has a better pitching staff than Miami. They’re capable of shutting you down for three or four days.”

Atlanta’s biggest offseason move was trading for premier catcher Sean Murphy, but for the second time in as many seasons, it will have to get by without a longtime face of the franchise. Dansby Swanson left for the Cubs via free agency, just as Freddie Freeman (Dodgers) did a year ago.

The Phillies added shortstop Trea Turner to an already loaded lineup, as well as former Met Taijuan Walker to the rotation and Gregory Soto and Craig Kimbrel to the bullpen.

Brandon Nimmo and Scherzer pointed out that the past two National League winners have come from this division, Atlanta winning it all in ’21 before Philadelphia came close last year. In fact, over the past six seasons, the pennant- winner has been either an NL East team or the Dodgers.

“It’s a testament to how difficult the regular-season games are in the NL East. They’re very playoff-like,” Nimmo said. “When you do get to the playoffs, usually the hot team is going pretty far in the playoffs. So when you’re a hot team from the NL East, you’re pretty hard to beat.”

For all the scoreboard-watching and standings duels in recent seasons, there isn’t much heat between the Mets and Atlanta. They’re fun to watch play against each other, but it hasn’t gotten personal. Even after their historically great race last year — it was just the sixth time in more than 50 years that one division had multiple 100-win teams — their fights are metaphorical more than literal.

Nimmo described it as “a very intense rivalry but not necessarily animosity.”

“It’s not like we dislike them,” Francisco Lindor said. “I don’t dislike them. But it was a good fight, it was fun.”

Mark Canha added: “It’s that competitiveness. Everybody wants to win really bad. I don’t think there’s any sort of bad blood or anything.”

The Mets, though, are ready for a role reversal, ready to lead the real standings — not just Showalter’s version.

“They [Atlanta] have been on top for a while now,” Nimmo said. “And they’re good and they know they’re good and they got new young guys that are filling in spots all the time. It’s kind of our job to dethrone them.”


Record: 93-69

Place: Second in NL East, wild-card berth

The most hyped season in recent Mets history begins with them not necessarily the favorites in the NL East; that has to be Atlanta, the five-time defending division champion, until proved otherwise. But they nonetheless have as good a chance as any team, in the division or otherwise, at making a deep October run. The Mets will go as far as older aces Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, plus a lineup led by Pete Alonso and Francisco Lindor, take them.

Tim Healey has covered the Mets for Newsday since 2018.

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