ATLANTA — The Mets and their fans could be forgiven if, upon glancing at the schedule and seeing three games against the Braves this week and three more next week, their minds started to wander and wonder just a little: Might the streaking Mets make the NL East race interesting?
At first thought it seems laughable, sure, because they were eight games back of Atlanta as they arrived at SunTrust Park this week and only recently escaped fourth place. But not too long ago, when they were second-to-last in the entire NL standings, a wild card sounded silly, too. And here they are.
If a miracle run to a division title is going to happen, it didn’t start Tuesday. The Mets fell to the Braves, 5-3, for their second loss in a row and third in 18 games.
The Mets (61-58) hadn’t lost consecutive games since those back-to-back walk-offs in San Francisco — almost a month ago — and haven’t endured a three-game losing streak since late June. They are two games back of the last NL wild-card spot.
Although the Mets are 2-2 since the cupcake portion of their schedule ended, the line scores reveal a more troubling trend: They have pitched with a lead in just one inning during those four games. (It was the ninth inning Saturday, after an eighth-inning rally against the Nationals.)
“The thing I’m looking at is, do we ever give up?” manager Mickey Callaway said. “We didn’t give up tonight. We made it interesting, we made them use some relievers they probably didn’t want to use, which helps us out for tomorrow. Our guys haven’t given up. That’s what I’m more concerned about.”
The theme of Tuesday’s loss could be a common one for the next decade: Blame Ronald Acuna Jr. The Braves’ 21-year-old outfielder — the reigning NL Rookie of the Year — went 2-for-5 with a home run and threw out a Mets runner at the plate.
Acuna, batting leadoff, smoked Zack Wheeler’s first pitch of the game 105 mph off the wall in right-centerfield. Not running his hardest, Acuna stopped at first for a single as Juan Lagares smoothly fielded the ricochet. It nonetheless started a two-run rally, featuring RBI singles from Josh Donaldson and Matt Joyce. Wheeler’s 29-pitch inning ended only when Charlie Culberson struck out looking on a questionable strike three that appeared to be off the plate.
In the fourth, Acuna — the son of Ronald Acuna Sr., a Mets minor-leaguer from 1999-2004 — added a solo shot, a 105-mph rocket to left.
“He’s a good young player,” Wheeler said. “And when you miss your spots he’s going to make you pay more than likely.”
In the sixth, with Todd Frazier trying to score from second on single to left by Lagares (4-for-4), Acuna’s throw beat Frazier on a close play at the plate to end the inning.
Wheeler labored through his first stinker of a start in more than a month — since before the All-Star break — and left after allowing five runs and a career-high 12 hits in five innings. He struck out two, a season low, and walked two. Fourteen of his 27 batters reached base.
Aside from the Acuna-centric goings-on, the Braves got to Wheeler in the second, when Freeman singled on a fly ball to left — on of several hits plopped in front of J.D. Davis. Ender Inciarte added an RBI double in the fifth.
“I just didn’t have it tonight. It stinks,” Wheeler said. “We’re on this run and I didn’t give us a chance to win, really. The bullpen kept us in it. Those guys kept on battling. This one is on me.”