ATLANTA -- With a four-game lead and 10 games left to play, the Atlanta Braves have a clear-cut mission this weekend: Perform well enough to make next week's series in New York a mere formality.
The Braves are all but assured of capturing their ninth straight division championship after winning two of three games from the Mets this week, but they still have three games at Shea Stadium, and before that, four in Montreal. If the series at Shea Stadium still means anything, they run the risk of falling victim to the Big Apple Mojo.
Should the division championship still be on the line when the final series of the season starts Sept. 29, the Expos' series in New York poses a serious hurdle for the Mets.
"They're definitely a young and talented team," said Mets catcher Mike Piazza, "but if you consider yourself a playoff team, you have to play well against them and beat them."
So, while the Braves still control their own destiny, and the Mets look solid for the Wild Card, the Expos are the wild card of another sort now.
"They've got series with both of us, so they could have a lot of impact on it," said Atlanta pitcher Kevin Millwood, who starts tonight's game opposite Montreal's Tony Armas. "If we take care of business, it shouldn't come down to how the Mets do against the Expos. I don't think it's going to be too tough to focus on the Expos. If we do well in Montreal, the series in New York may not matter."
Especially with Vladimir Guerrero in the mix. Few players can impact a single game the way Guerrero can.
"The Expos have outstanding pitching," said Valentine, "and those two guys in the middle of the order (Guerrero and Jose Vidro) are as good as anybody in baseball."
The Braves are convinced. Both have murdered Atlanta pitching this year.
"The thing about Guerrero is he expands the strike zone," said Braves pitcher John Burkett, whom Guerrero ripped for a three-run homer in Montreal's 4-2 win at Turner Field on July 6. "He's got long arms, and he can reach pitches a lot of other guys can't."
Guerrero and Vidro both are hitting .500 against the Braves this year, and Guerrero almost single-handedly has beaten Atlanta twice, including that July 5 game.
Atlanta has had problems with the Expos, dropping six of nine games this year, but the worst of that came at Turner Field, where Montreal won five of seven. The Mets have had the better of their season series against the Expos, winning six of nine, but it was two losses to Montreal last weekend in a four-game set that ballooned New York's deficit to three games entering the Atlanta series.
The notion that the Braves might look past Montreal is quickly dismissed in the Braves clubhouse.
"I've always been kind of curious why anybody could have trouble getting up for a major league baseball game," said Braves reliever Terry Mulholland. "It's not going to be any different than playing any other game."