ATLANTA -- There's no hex. The Braves understand this, and after Wednesday night's 6-3 survival at Turner Field, maybe the New York Mets finally do, too.
A night after being ordered by manager Bobby Valentine to "play like the good team that they are," the Mets left Atlanta trailing by four games, in higher spirits and with a firmer grip of their wild-card entry into the National League's postseason.
More importantly, whatever scabs were incurred the past four Septembers here finally might have been given a chance to heal.
Not that one game should be any more important than the other 161. Not that the Braves will have a Mets hangover in Montreal. Wednesday's victory, started by Al Leiter and wiggled out by Armando Benitez, should not erase the four years of futility in this one-sided series.
"It's not like we can say we've dominated them now," Leiter said after winning his first start at The Ted in five chances. "But if you're talking about big, this might qualify."
If there ever was such a thing as a baseball must-win, the Mets faced it Wednesday, not so much for the boost in the standings but for the bump in their collective psyche. Having lost 20 of their 22 and every September game since 1996 at Turner Field, having been outplayed time and again, every Met fretted about team confidence. Could they ever beat Atlanta, or were the Mets resigned to be the fool, never the focus?
In Leiter, maybe the Mets have found a pitcher savvy enough to remain immune to the incessant turbulence the Braves create. Leiter started Game 7 of the 1997 World Series, and a year ago, the Mets asked him to win a one-game playoff against Cincinnati to become the wild card.
He's had his own Turner Field hurdles to jump. During his last important game here, Game 6 of the 1999 NLCS, Leiter failed to record an out. He even lost the 2000 All-Star Game.
So with the weight of responsibility to salvage the Mets' machismo, Leiter retired the first 16 Braves calmly, mixing his change-up and curve effectively. It allowed his teammates to experience their first bit of good fortune here.
When Leiter walked in the fifth, as a pitcher, he could sense that it frazzled Tom Glavine.
"Tommy's probably thinking to himself `I can't believe I walked the pitcher with two outs,"' Leiter said. "I know it got to him. But there, that's a little thing that went right for us that normally doesn't here."
Benny Agbayani followed with a single out of Walt Weiss' range, plating Mike Bordick. Suddenly, the Mets had their first September lead since 1996.
"Just to crack the ice," Valentine said. "That got us one the scoreboard first, and things seemed to roll like we're capable of from there. It seems like whenever we're here, we're always playing catch up."
The Big Apple Boys discovered the Braves are not the invincible force the Mets tend to make them into being. The Braves are not immune to base-running blunders (i.e. Reggie Sanders getting picked off at second by rookie outfield Jorge Toca). The Braves aren't always going to get the clutch hit with the bases loaded (i.e. the sixth, seventh or eighth).
"It's good to leave here knowing they don't always play perfect games here," Valentine said. "I heard from a couple of our guys that we had to be perfect to beat these guys, and I took exception to that. They're far from perfect."
The Braves realize there's not much separation between the two clubs physically. They never have taken their mastery over their most persistent pursuer for granted. Don't think the Braves will fret about finally giving the Mets some life because they still have the power.
But for a night, the Mets' Ted-Ache vanished. A team with little hope received a nice parting gift. And if these two teams met in October, the Braves will know it'll be a series, not a scalping.
Reach Rick Dorsey at (706) 823-3219.
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