Charlie Morton and the Braves are scuffling lately, but dominance of Mets continues

ATLANTA — The last time the Braves were as many games out of first place as the Mets are now was the end of the 2017 season. Atlanta finished 72-90 in third place that year, 25 games behind manager Dusty Baker’s Washington Nationals, who won the National League East by 20 games over the Marlins.

Even those Braves, who were in rebuilding mode — a project that would take two or three years less than expected — and had a payroll in the bottom half of MLB, weren’t as hopelessly out of the race as these Mets, a colossal bust of a team with a record-breaking Opening Day payroll of more than $350 million, easily the most expensive in baseball history.

Those 2017 Braves were 17 games back after their 115th game. These Mets are 21 1/2 games behind the Braves after Atlanta’s 7-0 win Friday night in the opener of a four-games-in-three-days series at Citi Field, the 115th game for the Mets (52-63) and 114th for Atlanta (73-41).

Recently struggling veteran Charlie Morton allowed a staggering seven walks and two hits in the first four innings but the stumbling Mets failed to capitalize. They were 0-for-12 with runners in scoring position for the game.

The Braves extended to seven games their streak of getting five innings or fewer from a starting pitcher, but Morton ended another part of the streak — at least four runs allowed by starters. Morton, who threw just 52 strikes in 105 pitches, kept the Mets at bay despite allowing seven walks and three hits in five innings, leaving after facing one batter in the sixth.

They needed innings from Morton since the Braves will have to cover 18 innings in a Saturday doubleheader, when Allan Winans will come from Triple A to start the 1:10 p.m. game and Spencer Strider will start the 7:15 p.m. game. Since Winans is the designated 27th man for the doubleheader, the Braves won’t have to make a roster move.

Morton snapped a four-start losing skid in which he had a 7.32 ERA, though his seven walks Friday gave him 22 walks with 21 strikeouts in 24 2/3 innings over his past five starts.

“I made a (good) start after the All-Star break, and ever since then it’s just kind of hit-or-miss,” said the 39-year-old pitcher, who limited the White Sox to three hits and one walk in seven scoreless innings in his first start after the break, but has allowed at least three walks in each start since.

“Trying to find my delivery, my release, ability to get my stuff down,” Morton said. “I don’t know. I know the curveball’s kind of not been there. I’m spinning it OK, it’s just not doing the same things that it usually does. The depth isn’t there a lot of the times. That’s one thing I’m working on. I’m trying to get fastball command back. I just hit a patch there where there’s some things in my delivery I need to sort out.”

It was a scoreless game until the fourth inning when Eddie Rosario’s two-out, bases-loaded single brought in three runs — two RBIs and a third run on center fielder Brandon Nimmo’s fielding error. Austin Riley had a sacrifice fly in a two-run fifth inning and a solo homer in the seventh inning, his 27th.

Austin Riley rounds the bases after hitting a home run in the seventh inning. (Wendell Cruz / USA Today)

The Braves are 6-1 against the Mets this season and have won 12 of the past 14 games between the teams. Each won 101 games last season, when the Braves erased a 10 1/2-game Mets lead entering June and caught them in the final week of the season by sweeping a stirring series in Atlanta. The Mets haven’t been the same since.

The Mets dealt away their aging, expensive multiple Cy Young Award-winning pitchers, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, at the Aug. 1 trade deadline, and Citi Field denizens are watching the dog days of summer play out in Queens for a team going nowhere. And they got another reminder Friday of what a nemesis the Braves continue to be.

So, what do the Braves remember recall about being 20-plus games behind late in the 2017 season? Only three current Braves players were on that team — pitchers Max Fried and A.J. Minter and second baseman Ozzie Albies, all of whom made their debuts in August 2017. Manager Brian Snitker and some of his coaches were also around back then.

Snitker knows full well what it’s like to slog through the last months of a season with a team that has no chance at the postseason. He’s done it as a manager at the minor-league and major-league levels. It can be dispiriting.

“But you know what, that’s what we do,” he said. “That’s why we’re getting paid. That’s why it’s professional baseball — you’re a professional and you have to do that. You have to come and prepare and expect to win that night.”

Minter’s memory of 2017 is a bit fuzzy, perhaps blurred by all the winning in the years since.

“If I remember right, I think the Braves had one of the best records in the second half in 2017, so that was kind of the whole start of where we are today,” said the reliever, who didn’t remember it exactly as it was. The Braves were 30-45 following the All-Star break in 2017, after going 42-45 before the break in manager Snitker’s first full season as manager.

Snitker was asked if he remembered finishing in last place, 26 1/2 games back, in 2016, the year he took over as interim manager upon Fredi Gonzalez’s firing in May of that season. And then finishing 25 games out of first in 2017.

“I try not to,” Snitker said, laughing. Then he answered seriously. “We were playing pretty good if I remember. But it wasn’t easy, I remember that. There was a lot (that) went on (during) that (2017) season towards the end, too, that I’d like to forget.”

That was the season when general manager John Coppolella was forced to resign at the end of the season with the Braves embroiled in an MLB investigation into rules violations in international free agency, which ultimately led to severe penalties for the organization and a lifetime ban for Coppolella from MLB (he was reinstated in 2022, but is not working in baseball).

President of baseball operations John Hart was also stripped of power by the team and stepped down within months.

Alex Anthopoulos was hired away from the Dodgers and given full control of baseball operations, as both GM and president of baseball operations. The Braves, who initially kept Snitker at the urging of veteran players and to maintain some stability after the front-office shakeup, have under Anthopoulos given three contract extensions to the popular 67-year-old manager, who’s signed through 2025.

“When I got here, I didn’t foresee this coming,” Snitker said of the Braves, who are threatening franchise and league power-hitting records this season and well on their way to a sixth consecutive NL East title, notwithstanding a current 13-13 stretch that followed a 60-28 start. “You’ve got to have the right people. You’ve got to have the guys with the makeup, and people that you trust and things like that. We’re very fortunate to have a group of young men that are high-quality guys.”

The Braves have won the division every year under Anthopoulos, and won the World Series in 2021 for the first time since 1995.

“Looking back, yeah, it’s crazy that there’s only a few of us left here,” Minter said of the 2017 team, the last Braves team to not win the division. “It speaks testaments to Freddie (Freeman), Dansby (Swanson), all the people that kind of made the footsteps to where we are today. I’ll be the first one to admit I’m spoiled. All I’ve known is winning in this organization. I obviously hope we keep doing that moving forward.”

While the Braves have a seemingly insurmountable division lead, they have to keep winning to secure home-field advantage throughout the postseason based on record. Their lead over the Dodgers for the NL’s best record was down to five games and their margin over Baltimore was 2 1/2 games before the Dodgers’ and Orioles’ late games Friday.

“That’s, I feel like, the whole reason why we did win the World Series,” Minter said 2021, when the Braves had home-field advantage over the Dodgers despite L.A.’s 106 regular-season wins to Atlanta’s 88, because the Dodgers finished second in the NL West and wild-card teams can’t have home-field advantage over division winners.

“If we didn’t have home-field advantage, it would have been hard to beat the Dodgers in the LCS,” Minter said. “If you look back, that’s kind of what helped us win the World Series. That’s 100 percent important. We know how impactful, how much playing at home field is an advantage in Atlanta with the fans. We take pride in that. We want to deliver and give our city home-field advantage, for them to come out and witness more games.”

(Top photo of Charlie Morton: Wendell Cruz / USA Today)

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