Originally created 06/27/99

Mets catching up to sputtering Braves



ATLANTA -- Between the thunderstorms, someone in the Braves' clubhouse needs to adjust the rear-view mirror.

The Braves' NL East lead, which they've held since the early 1990s, is certainly much more tenuous now that these New Yorkers have averted the season's early pitfalls by catching the sputtering Team Tomahawk.

The Mets are kind of like a lead-footed driver churning down the interstate's fast lane flicking his lights, a hint that you should move over or else. By winning 15 of their last 18, they were tailgating the depleted Braves by a mere two games before Saturday's first pitch.

They haven't even reached the All-Star break, and yet the once-potent Braves are faced with their first series of significance.

There have been threats to the Braves' throne during this decade. First Pittsburgh, then the Phillies. A labor strike ended Montreal's efforts in '94. Florida bought its Braves tonic in '97, then sold the parts for junk.

To construct a National League team this decade means buying pieces to serve as Tomahawk threats. So here come the Mets, a team with enough moxie, talent and pitching, taking its turn at the annual King of the Mountain challenge.

This team is not a disguise, though manager Bobby Valentine might be considered one.

"I don't think the Braves marked on their calendar that this is a big series for them," center fielder Brian McRae said.

"I don't think they really give a (bleep) about us, to tell you the truth. Why should they worry about us when we've been behind them for so long and we haven't come up to their level? I don't think they lay in bed at night worrying about the New York Mets."

Well, the Braves have plenty to worry about, especially health.

Their perpetual aura of invincibility has faded. Andres Galarraga's gone for the season, and the crater in the middle of the lineup is expanding each day, despite Ryan Klesko's first-inning, three-run homer Saturday. Now Javy Lopez joins Walt Weiss in the infirmary.

The pitching staff, long relied on to bail these Braves out of trouble, does not have an All-Star starter worthy of selection.

"They probably think, `Well, we've been playing bad and we're still three games up, so what happens when all of a sudden we turn it on?"' ex-Brave Greg McMichael said. "I don't think they have anything to sweat. We're the ones who have to go in and prove something."

The Mets did Friday, blasting the Braves' fifth starter and a bunch of Richmondites for 10 runs. Conversely, the Braves, against a pitcher they might meet come October in Rick Reed, limped out two runs.

Is this a big series? Probably more so for the Mets than the Braves. They're the ones who've lurked in the shadows for so long. They're the ones who failed at a playoff spot a year ago when they were swept by the Marlins.

"You just want to say that, `Hey, we're a team that's gonna have to be reckoned with,"' Mike Piazza said.

These Mets don't appear to have the psychological scars that other teams might. Rickey Henderson's never had his wires short-circuit while trying to catch these Braves. Neither has Benny Agbayani, Roger Cedeno, Robin Ventura, Al Leiter or Piazza.

To a man, these Mets know the Braves are in sight. They just don't think they'll change lanes willingly.

"Since I've been here the last three years, they've been the team to beat in the National League East and we've been the second-best team," said reliever John Franco, baseball's longest-serving active player without a postseason appearance.

"We've put together probably a different mentality here as opposed to some of the teams in the past that might not have measured up to a Braves team. I don't think there's any ill effects as a team just because they've been a winning team over the past 10 years."

Rick Dorsey can be reached at (706) 823-3219 or rdorsey@augustachronicle.com.