NEW YORK — Instead of just brushing this off as another series, Braves manager Brian Snitker admitted he was excited to see his team match up against the team with the National League’s best record.
“We’ve been seeing the Mets from afar,” Snitker said. “We knew they were a really good team. They did really good things in the offseason. It doesn’t surprise me where they’re at. I’m kind of glad we’re playing them.”
Snitker’s pregame sentiments didn’t change as the Braves opened this four-game series with a 5-2 win over the Mets on Monday night at Citi Field. For one of the first times this year, the reigning World Series champs played like a team capable of defending its title.
“We’ve got a lot of pieces and a lot of talent,” reliever Collin McHugh said. “We have a world championship to prove it. We haven’t played our best baseball, but tonight was a good one.”
Max Fried delivered six strong innings and received necessary support when Ozzie Albies and Travis d’Arnaud recorded consecutive two-strike hits during the two-run sixth inning. After Tyler Matzek loaded the bases with two outs in the seventh, McHugh silenced the home crowd by striking out Mark Canha, who had homered off Fried in the third.
With the series-opening win, the Braves pulled within five games of the Mets and proved they remain quite confident in their bid to win a fifth straight NL East title.
“We believe in ourselves and we know we’re a good team,” d’Arnaud said. “Today, we had everything going.”
While the Mets have won each of the series they have played this year, the Braves have either lost or split each series played against the Rangers, Nationals and Reds, who all currently stand as last-place teams. Atlanta’s only series win this year came last week against the Cubs, who are four games under .500.
Maybe the mediocrity has been a product of a World Series hangover and or just another slow start by a team that didn’t produce a winning record before August arrived last year. But with veteran manager Buck Showalter now leading the much-improved Mets, the Braves knew they needed to come to life during this series and prevent getting buried too deep in the standings.
So, while winning just one game doesn’t send a message, winning the opener of a four-game set against a talented team might at least bring a little swagger back to the previously-slumbering Braves. It also doesn’t hurt that the defending champs recently activated Ronald Acuña Jr., who sprinted down the first-base line for an infield single, made a couple nice plays in right field and came within a few feet of homering in this series opener .
Any lingering concerns about Acuña’s surgically-repaired right knee continued to evaporate as he got down the line at 30.5 ft./sec. with his single from him. That is the fastest a Braves player has run to first base this year.
If Acuña gets back to being himself soon, he will strengthen the production of Austin Riley, who began the big two-run sixth with a single and also started the fourth with his seventh homer of the season. He has harkened memories of a former Atlanta third baseman as Riley has hit nine homers in 75 career at-bats at Citi Field.
Speaking of home runs, the Braves entered Monday leading the NL with 28. But it’s worth noting that 82.1 percent of those were solo shots. This team hasn’t consistently stringed hits together. Atlanta ranked 11th in the NL in on-base percentage and second-to-last with a .215 batting average with runners in scoring position.
This adds information to the significance of the decisive sixth inning. Albies snapped an 0-for-21 skid when he reached across the plate to slap an outside fastball through a vacated left side of the infield. The shift-beating single was followed by a double d’Arnaud produced against Chris Bassitt’s 0-2 slider.
Bassitt executed his chase pitch. It would likely hit the left-handed batter. But d’Arnaud managed to get his bat on the ball and watch it travel to the right field for what was one of the biggest hits of the young season. His two-run double in the eighth simply added cushion as the Braves cruised toward what could be a big win.
“It was a big win in a series like this,” Snitker said. “It was as good of a ballgame as we’ve played.”