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SportsColumnistsAnthony Rieber

Braves seem to be rewriting the script in the NL East

Atlanta was projected to be an also-ran behind a likely Mets-Nationals tussle at the top of the division, but the Braves are leading the NL in a bushel of offensive categories.

Ronald Acuña Jr. of the Braves connects on

Ronald Acuña Jr. of the Braves connects on a fifth-inning home run against the Mets at Citi Field on Thursday, May 3, 2018. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

If the world around the Mets feels topsy-turvy right now, that’s actually about right, considering the division they are in.

Conventional wisdom going into the season was that the Nationals and Mets would fight it out all year for the top spot in the NL East. It was thought that the division might end up being decided by how often the Nationals and Mets beat up on the three weaker teams in the East — the Braves, Phillies and Marlins.

But a funny thing has happened on the way to cheap wins and division dominance. The Braves went into Saturday leading the division after sweeping the Mets in a three-game series. The Phillies, who won only 66 games last season, were 17-14.

The Marlins? Well, they’re right about where everyone projected after the Derek Jeter teardown. Miami was 11-20.

The Nationals started slowly amid a sea of injuries, which led Bryce Harper to say this past week, “We’re 13-16 with the Syracuse Sky Chiefs.”

Harper was referring to the number of players from Washington’s Triple-A affiliate who were forced into action on the big club. But the Nationals won their sixth in a row Friday to get to 17-16 (then lost to the Phillies on Saturday).

The Mets? They lost their fifth in a row Saturday and are 17-14 after an 11-1 start. General manager Sandy Alderson knows the postseason calculus already has changed.

“Yeah, I think that has to factor into everybody’s consideration now,” Alderson said. “The Braves have played very well. The Phillies have played well. We’ve played well. Washington probably wishes it had played better. They’re going to play well. And I don’t think the Marlins are as bad as they appear the first couple weeks of the season.

“So the division is substantially upgraded and we’re going to have to play good baseball throughout the season. But I think we rise to the competition.”

The Braves swept the Mets out of first place at Citi Field this past week while featuring the three youngest players in the majors. Atlanta’s lineup is topped by Ozzie Albies, 21, and Ronald Acuña Jr., 20. Righthander Mike Soroka, 20, outdueled Noah Syndergaard in his major-league debut Tuesday.

“Their whole roster is pretty impressive,” Mets manager Mickey Callaway said. “Just their athleticism, the way they play the game. You can tell when you’re up on them, they’re not going to give up. They still play the game the right way. When you have a bunch of young guys like that with energy and mixed in with some of the right veterans, a team can do something really good. They’ve shown all that so far. They’re playing great baseball.”

How are the Braves doing it? Well, youth is the biggest reason. After a 72-win 2017, Atlanta did not sign a single major-league free agent in the offseason. Turns out that was the right approach.

Going into Saturday, the Braves led the National League in batting average, runs, hits, doubles, RBIs, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS. They were third in home runs with 39. Last year, they finished fourth in batting average but only 10th in runs, 11th in OPS and 13th in homers.

Atlanta also has improved on the mound with a 3.53 ERA going into Saturday, which was fifth in the NL. The Braves were 12th in 2017 with a 4.72 ERA.

The respected publication Baseball Prospectus projected the Braves to win 76 games this season. BP also projected the rest of the division: Washington (88), Phillies (81), Mets (80) and Marlins (65).

The Mets, of course, were planning on a big uptick from their wretched 70-92 record in 2017. Even after Atlanta’s sweep, they have gone 10-7 against the NL East.

But the Braves have gotten the biggest intradivision bump, going 14-7 against the East, including 5-1 against the Mets.

So maybe the Braves are the ones who are going to be beating up on the division’s patsies.

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