How Mighty Have Fallen in National League East

NEWSDAY

When they met for the first time this season, the assumption was that nothing less than National League supremacy was at stake. After all, the Atlanta Braves had dominated the division for a decade and, in their view, the New York Mets had swept to the 2000 pennant with the baseball equivalent of an end-around play, taking the wild-card route through San Francisco and St. Louis. Clearly, it was time for the heavyweights to settle the issue between themselves now that the unbalanced schedule was back in vogue.

Baseball officials must have agreed. Otherwise, why would they approve a schedule in which the Mets opened and closed the season at Turner Field? The 19 games between the league's last two World Series representatives were positioned for maximum impact, and the Mets spent most of spring training listening to questions about what others perceived as their inferiority complex.

So they went out and did something about it. They won the first series in Atlanta, and, one week later at Shea Stadium, again took two out of three from their rivals. "Given the buildup for those two series," Todd Zeile decided Thursday evening, "yes, they were significant."

Unfortunately, the statement they made in April was muffled by subsequent sweeps suffered at the hands of the Montreal Expos and Cincinnati Reds, establishing a pattern that would mark the next two months.

And whereas Atlanta might have been expected to beat up less-distinguished opponents, it will stumble into Shea Stadium Friday night following consecutive series losses to the Toronto Blue Jays, Boston Red Sox and Florida Marlins, capped by a crushing ninth-inning setback to Florida Thursday. That the Mets are chasing the Braves is not in itself unusual. What is strange is that New York is fourth and Atlanta tied for second in the National League East.

Welcome to a Braves new world, one in which the Philadelphia Phillies and the Marlins cannot summarily be dismissed. With both the Mets and the Braves struggling, the fever that used to grip Shea whenever Atlanta came to town has been downgraded to a common cold. "Does that mean we've gotten some antibiotics for the flu?" Zeile wondered. "Maybe."

More likely, the Mets have additional concerns. The truth is they are not in a position to take any opponent lightly. Manager Bobby Valentine preferred to put the Braves on the back burner before Thursday night's game against the Expos. "We're playing a pretty big game tonight," he said, "and then Atlanta will be a big game." His team proved the point a few hours later when it suffered a 10-3 setback that ended a four-game winning streak and guaranteed neither they nor the Braves would enter tonight's contest with any momentum.

Then again, that's the kind of season it has been for both teams. John Rocker, who yielded the deciding two-run home run to Derrek Lee Thursday, isn't the only ball player whose presence on the No. 7 train might be unwelcome Friday. In the finale of their four-game set against Montreal, the only team in the NL East that has excused itself from the playoff picture, the Mets combined weak hitting with shoddy defense and ineffective pitching. And that was just Kevin Appier's contribution in five plus innings of work.

The Braves are in a similar predicament after losing four of their last five home games. They are only three games above .500 and tied with the Marlins. Should they drop behind Florida anytime soon, it would mark the latest in any season they have been third since 1991.

Not that the Mets wouldn't gladly trade places. Only parity within the league has permitted the defending champions to fantasize about a comeback. "It seems the National League has a lot of teams that are OK," Valentine reflected, "and few that are separating themselves." Only two, the Chicago Cubs and Arizona Diamondbacks, have won 60 percent of their games, and neither is in the East.

Of course, that doesn't simplify the Mets' problem, having to surpass three teams in order to claim the division title and at least two in order to qualify for playoff consideration. To Zeile, the situation has reduced the Braves from the status of team to beat to just another obstacle in his team's path. "I don't feel any different about them than I do about the Marlins and the Phillies," he said. "They're a team that's ahead of us and we have to beat them." Then again, he didn't suffer through the years when the Mets failed to measure up to the Braves. He didn't agonize at the conclusion of Game 6 in the 1999 NLCS. Zeile's personal history of the rivalry was confined to a 6-7 record and no postseason showdown in 2000.

"I don't think the Braves have the same presence they did back then [1999 and earlier]," he said. "They're still good. ... I don't think there's a 10th-man feeling here that the Braves used to possess."

Alas for the Mets, they have had considerable difficulty dealing with nine men at a time. That Mets-Braves finale in Atlanta on Sept. 30 may yet become the most anticlimactic moment of the 2001 season.

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