By Mike Steffanos
Mets 11 - Braves 1
If you needed any evidence that the Mets and Braves have traded places over the last couple of seasons, consider last night's drubbing Exhibit A.
No, it won't be this easy for the Mets every night between now and October. The Braves have pitching that's good enough to win their share of games over the course of a season. Their offense will be better than it was last night, when it seemed the Braves hitters were more interested in getting back to the warm dugout than in working Oliver Perez effectively. The Mets are unlikely to go 162-0 this season, and will surely wallow through stretches when they play poorly as a team. There will be a pennant race this year. The Braves are better equipped to challenge in 2007 than they were in 2006.
But the Mets are clearly the better team now.
Last year we noted how the roles had reversed. The Braves seemed to be the team making the key mistakes, while the Mets played better fundamental baseball. The Braves feel that it was their bullpen that cost them in 2006 -- and it was awful -- but make no mistake, the Mets outplayed the Braves on the field last year. It happened again last night. I have a feeling that their infield defense will be an Achilles heel for the Braves this season.
The difference in fundamental play between the clubs is reflected in the change in attitude when they play each other, also. Go back a few years, and you just knew the Mets felt deep down that the Braves would find a way to pull games out against them. Now, it seems the Mets feel like they're the team that will find the keys to victory more often than not.
And they're not alone in that feeling. You could sense that the crowd in Atlanta lacked a feeling of security watching the game last night. The silly tomahawk chop chant -- so full of confidence in days gone by -- seemed thin and blustery last night the few times it was heard. When things started to go wrong the fans even paid tribute to the New Yorkers by treating their home town Braves to a lusty Bronx cheer on more than one occasion. Alex Rodriguez would have felt right at home with the treatment given to Larry Jones when the swirling winds caused him to misplay a foul popup after the game fell out of reach in the eighth.
The Braves have John Smoltz pitching today, and you know he's going to give them a good effort. I can't predict what will happen today and tomorrow, but I don't feel the same way about the Braves anymore. They're still a pretty good team, and they can beat you, but there is nothing inevitable about this team winning.
I know Oliver Perez will have his ups and downs, but those out there who are absolutely convinced he will fail have to be having second thoughts if they are paying attention. Let me state again that the Braves put together some atrocious at bats against him last night, but Perez was throwing the ball well and he was throwing strikes -- 56 out of 82 pitches worth of strikes. Yeah, he drifts at times, but now he seems to be able to get it back. At times he actually looks smooth on the mound, and I have a feeling we'll see more of that Oliver Perez as the season wears on.
I used to hate the arrogance of Braves fans that not only consisted of belief in their own team, but also the belief that your team will falter. To be honest, what stung most was that I knew deep down the Mets would screw up. Now I read some of the comments on a Braves web site like the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and I chuckle. Here's one:
... the Mets pitching staff will implode. Give me a break...if you are relying on 65-year old Tom Glavine, 70-year old El Duque, and Oliver Perez, you are dreaming. The Braves will somehow, some way win this division.
At one time there would be more of this. Now it just smacks of desperation and wishful thinking. Braves fans know that their only hope of winning is for the Mets pitching staff to implode. There was a time when the Braves could seize the National League East. That's history. Maybe that's why the chop chant now sounds an awful lot like whistling in the dark.