ATLANTA — Only the overly optimistic could declare that the Mets finally have found their way. But if what transpired this weekend wasn’t some mirage, then the path back toward contention suddenly has become clearer.
In his first start off the disabled list, Seth Lugo pitched the Mets to a 2-1 victory over the Braves on Sunday, allowing one run in seven innings in an impressive season debut. The outing continued what has been a long-awaited pitching renaissance.
“I think we’re going to start seeing what we expected,” manager Terry Collins said.
Though the Braves won’t be confused with world-beaters anytime soon, the Mets (28-33) took three of four and capped a 4-2 road trip. It’s the closest they’ve moved to the .500 mark since May 31.
The surge has come on the back of the kind of pitching that has faltered since staff ace Noah Syndergaard went down with a lat injury April 30. In their last five games, beginning with Zack Wheeler’s gem against the Rangers on Wednesday, the Mets’ starters have allowed three earned runs in 32 2⁄3 innings for an ERA of 0.83 in that span. The last two have come from a pair of pitchers — Steven Matz and Lugo — coming off the disabled list with elbow injuries.
“Losing [Noah] Syndergaard was a big hit,” catcher Rene Rivera said. “Now we’ve got two of the guys back and we’ve got our rotation strong again, giving us a chance to go deep in the game [so] we don’t overuse the bullpen.”
For the first time since April 19-21, the Mets got consecutive seven-inning performances from their starters, providing a much-needed respite for a bullpen that has been run into the ground.
Lugo scattered six hits, walked two, struck out six and leaned on the defense to bail him out.
The slugging Mets used small ball to take the lead. In the first, Wilmer Flores lifted a sacrifice fly to drive in Michael Conforto, who had doubled and moved to third on Juan Lagares’ sacrifice bunt. In the third, Lugo doubled, moved to third on a groundout and scored on Lagares’ infield hit.
With a 2-1 lead to protect, Lugo ran into trouble in the fifth. The Braves loaded the bases with one out and the dangerous Matt Adams at the plate, but one day after committing two errors in the same inning, Asdrubal Cabrera started a double play.
“This game is so crazy,” said Cabrera, who has 10 errors after making seven all last season. “You’ve got to be strong and forget what happened the day before.”
Adams’ hard grounder forced Cabrera to slide to his right, and from a knee, he shoveled the ball to second. Neil Walker caught it as he came across the bag, then fired a strike to first. Flores stretched for it, and though Adams initially was ruled safe, a review showed the ball barely beat him.
The infield huddled together, then celebrated after watching the replay on the video board in centerfield.
“That’s big time,” Lugo said. “That gives us all the momentum. They were close to making it a tough situation for me. Cabby making a play right there, that’s huge.”
With that, the Mets used a moment of baseball ballet to close out a series that could go down as a turning point to the season.
Lugo commanded his fastball and leaned on his changeup, and though he threw only a few curveballs — the pitch that turned him into a second-half surprise last season — he pitched without restrictions. He said he did not think about the partially torn UCL in his elbow, which sent him to the shelf after he pitched in the World Baseball Classic.
“I haven’t had any symptoms or pain in over a month, so why think about it?” Lugo said.
Lefty Jerry Blevins worked a perfect eighth ahead of Addison Reed, who recorded his 11th save of the season.
If the Mets indeed have found themselves, they’ll learn quickly if it’s real during an upcoming 14-game gantlet that features a string of teams that made the playoffs last season.
On Monday, the Mets will begin a homestand against the defending world champion Cubs, followed by the division-leading Nationals. Then comes a three-city road trip that includes stops against the Dodgers and Giants.
“It’s the big leagues,” Collins said. “If we’re going to get back in this, we’ve got to beat them.”
Seth Lugo’s numbers