The Braves are heading into one of the most crucial stretches of games of the year with arguably the most important series of the year being played out over the next three games. The Braves head to Shea stadium, knowing that a sweep would put them a mere 1.5 games back of the Mets, while getting swept would all be ruin their NL East hopes. The pressure is being felt from the other side as well. Knowing that the Braves have won six of nine against the Mets this year and after the big splash John Schuerholz made at the deadline, Mets manager Willie Randolph bumped Brian Lawrence from the pitching match-ups, replacing him with John Maine.
Both teams are missing key pieces for the upcoming series. The Braves have Edgar Renteria sidelined due to his ankle sprain and three Mets outfielders--Carlos Beltran, Endy Chavez, and Carlos Gomez-- are on the disabled list. The blows of these players going on the disabled list has been softened some by their young replacements. Yunel Escobar and Lastings Milledge have proven themselves as more than capable of filling in so far. Chipper Jones, Jeff Francoeur, Andruw Jones, and Paul Lo Duca from the Mets have all suffered injuries of late, but the first three seem to be fine and Jones is scheduled to return after missing two days because of a cortisone shot. Lo Duca is back as well but that may be a good thing with the hot-hitting Ramon Castro sitting on the bench.
The timing looks to be good for the Braves. All three of the Mets starters who will take the mound are going through tough stretches, while Billy Wagner and Aaron Heilman have been the only really trustworthy ams out of the pen recently. This team that has survived thus far because of pitching that was seemingly performing well over its head, is seeing just that come back to earth. Add onto that the struggles of Shawn Green and Paul Lo Duca and you have a team that is not nearly as invincible as its NL-best record suggests. The major struggle here will still be taking the mound in the first game of the series. Oliver Perez, who has been the Braves' kryptonite throughout his career and especially this season will face off with Buddy Carlyle in the first matchup tonight. Perez this season, is 3-0 with a 1.31 ERA and 20/2 K/BB in his three starts against Atlanta.
The difference in those first three starts and now is the addition of a slugging first baseman in Mark Teixeira and an offense that is clicking on ever level. This is obviously a much better team than the one that was a part of the last nine meetings with the Mets. The additions of Teixeira and relievers Ron Mahay and Octavio Dotel leaves only one real weakness on the team and that fifth spot in the rotation is something the Mets will not be facing in the series. The Mets' trade deadline activity can't go without notice. The team brought in second baseman Luis Castillo from Minnesota in a move that quite possibly weakened the team by putting Ruben Gotay on the bench.
This is one of those series' that could have serious implications on the playoff race going down the stretch. At a time where the Braves are 4.5 back of the Mets and only 1.5 back of the Padres, who just lost their ace pitcher, in the Wild Card, this is a series where the Braves must take at least two games before they head to Philadelphia.
On another unrelated note. Eric Byrnes has been signed to an extension by Arizona so you can cross him off your list of possible replacements for Andruw next season.