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Don't discount Atlanta

Mets learn lesson in back-to-back losses to Braves

Posted: Thursday April 20, 2006 11:46AM; Updated: Thursday April 20, 2006 1:26PM
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Andruw Jones homered four times in a three-game set against the Mets this week.
Andruw Jones homered four times in a three-game set against the Mets this week.

When I toured NL East training camps in March, I felt like there was something people wanted to tell me but couldn't.

I would ask them to size up the division. They would begin by talking about how the Mets fixed their major problem last season, the bullpen, by signing Billy Wagner. They would then say the Mets should be better at first base and catcher, having added Carlos Delgado and Paul Lo Duca. Then they might even speculate that Carlos Beltran was probably going to give the Mets more this year than he had in 2005.

And then these people -- by they I mean executives, writers or fans -- would cut themselves off and say, with more obligation than conviction, "But Atlanta has won 14 times in a row. It's really tough to pick against them."

These people wanted to say the Mets were going to end that streak of 14 division titles, but they just couldn't bring themselves to do it. Every one of them had been burned at some point by picking against the Braves during this run. And every time they've had it handed to them by Bobby Cox and John Schuerholz' gang. And so this spring, even though the Mets had a great lineup on paper, and even though the Braves' bullpen looks a little ragged and their starting pitching isn't quite the bedrock of the Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz years and their 2005 rookies are bound to have a sophomore slump or two, no one felt particularly comfortable picking against them.

(In the postseason you see the opposite phenomenon, where absolutely no one will pick Atlanta for the same reason -- they are just tired of being wrong.)

But through the first few weeks of the 2006 season, the Braves really tempted people to go for the bait. The starting pitching looked terrible. (Hmm. Maybe they're lost without Leo Mazzone.) Jeff Francoeur started the season hitting lousy. (Huh. Maybe pitchers had figured him out.) And most of all, the Mets' offseason moves seemed to be paying off. (That Xavier Nady guy just won't stop hitting!)

The pent-up desire to turn on the Braves, to declare that they were finally going down, peaked on Monday night. In their first game this season against the Braves, the Mets pulled out a 4-3 win, with Wagner shutting Atlanta down in the ninth. It looked like a new era might be beginning. The New York Post celebrated with the headline "Brave New World!"

But Monday's Mets win just served to set up a familiar pattern. Not even out of April, and Braves are already making doubters pay.

On Tuesday, Atlanta clobbered Victor Zambrano. Which was in itself not that big a deal. It's not like Mets backers hadn't factored in the potential for the occasional ugly start by Zambrano.