- Kieran Darcy, ESPNNewYork.com
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NEW YORK -- What a difference 50 days can make.
The last time the New York Mets faced the Atlanta Braves was on May 17 and 18, when the teams played a two-game set in Atlanta. The Mets won the first game 3-2, lost the second game by the same score, and afterward found themselves with a record of 19-21 and in last place in the National League East.
The Braves weren't much better off, just a half-game ahead of the Mets at 19-20.
But a day more than seven weeks later and after an off day Thursday, the Mets and Braves will conclude the first halves of their respective seasons by playing a three-game series at Citi Field. And, rather remarkably, first place in the NL East could be on the line. The Braves now sit atop the division standings, and the Mets are in second place, just three games behind.
"It's gonna be a big series," Mets manager Jerry Manuel said after his team lost to the Cincinnati Reds 3-1 on Wednesday night. "It's right before the [All-Star] break. There should be some excitement. I feel we're ready to play. We're playing pretty good baseball."
My, how things have changed for New York's NL ballclub since those two meetings with its traditional archenemy in mid-May. Remember, the Mets were in major crisis mode at that time. Chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon took the unusual step of flying down to Atlanta before that series began, meeting with Manuel, general manager Omar Minaya and assistant GM John Ricco before the first game to discuss the state of the team.
The Mets were 4-11 in May at that time. They didn't have a single win from a starting pitcher in the entire month up until that point. Manuel's job certainly seemed to be on the line.
But the Mets responded positively to the firestorm. After splitting those two games with the Braves, they split another two-game series with the Washington Nationals. But then they took two of three from the Yankees and swept the Phillies.
The Mets hadn't lost a home series since, until they lost two of three to the NL Central-leading Reds this week. The Mets have gone 28-17 since that Braves series and now are nine games over .500 overall, at 47-38.
Atlanta has undergone an even more dramatic turnaround, posting a 31-15 record since May 19. The Braves are now 50-35 on the year. Couple that with the Philadelphia Phillies' collapse (19-26 since May 19, 43-40 on the year), and the NL East is most certainly up for grabs.
But at this moment, the Braves are the team to beat.
"They're playing fundamentally sound ball," said Jeff Francoeur, who was traded from the Braves to the Mets last July. "With that kind of team, with that kind of pitching I saw all of those years [in Atlanta], all you gotta do is score a couple runs, and they feel confident they're gonna win. So it's just gonna be important for our guys to throw well, and for us to maybe put some runs out early and put some pressure on the pitchers."
The Mets' starter for the series opener, R.A. Dickey, wasn't in the major leagues when the Mets last played the Braves. The 35-year-old journeyman knuckleballer was called up from Triple-A Buffalo to start the Mets' first game following that Braves series, on May 19. He got a no-decision against the Washington Nationals that night but strung together six consecutive wins in his next six starts -- a big reason for the Mets' resurgence.
Dickey (6-1, 2.62 ERA) will face 23-year-old Tommy Hanson (8-5, 4.19) in an excellent matchup Friday night.
In fact, all three games will feature battles between two winning pitchers. On Saturday afternoon, Mike Pelfrey (10-3, 3.39) will face Tim Hudson (8-4, 2.44). And on Sunday afternoon, Johan Santana (6-5, 3.15) will oppose Derek Lowe (9-7, 4.40).
After that, the Mets will have three days off for the All-Star break.
"To be honest with you, I'm glad that we're playing the Braves," second baseman Alex Cora said. "Usually those three days, you start looking forward to your flights on Sunday night and looking forward to where you're gonna spend your three days of the All-Star break. We know we have a good team coming in, and obviously we've got a tough road trip coming up. So we need to keep playing good baseball until Sunday, whenever is the last out."
The Mets have a brutal road trip to open the second half of their season. They'll play 11 games in 11 days on the West Coast, against the San Francisco Giants, Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Dodgers. It will present a major challenge.
But first, they have to deal with the Braves.
"It's good that they're coming," Cora said. "We're gonna stay focused. We've got our horses going, and they do, too, so it's gonna be a good series."
If the Mets somehow sweep the Braves, they will own a share of first place in their division heading into the Midsummer Classic.
Who would've thought that'd be possible 50 days ago?