ATLANTA — The battle for the NL East has just about everything one could want in a fun baseball story, courtesy of the Mets and Braves.

There’s elite pitching, sure. There’s exciting, youthful talent, yes. There’s plenty of drama, a little trolling and just the right amount of smack talk, too. There’s all that, plus what is apparently a great unsung ingredient: ice cream.

With apologies to every other division and all other rivalries and campaigns, the NL East is the most exciting and interesting race in baseball this season — and it seems destined to go the distance.

“It’s baseball. You never know,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said Thursday, essentially summing up the state of the race after his team took three of four from the Mets to trim New York’s lead to 3 1/2 games.

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On the surface, that may seem like a big deal, like the Braves are priming themselves to overtake the Mets within a week or so. But really it’s just the latest in a series of apparent momentum shifts between these teams in what’s been a kind of see-saw battle for most of the summer — and one unlikely to have finality until the calendar says they’ve run out of games to play.

The Mets held a 10 1/2-game lead as June arrived and appeared ready to run away with the division. Then the Braves won 14 straight to open the month while New York cooled a bit and that lead fell to four games. The Mets nudged it up to 6 1/2, but the Braves stayed hot and eventually whittled the lead to just a half-game shortly after the All-Star break. Drama! But then it was the Braves' turn to cool off and the Mets' lead inched up again as August rolled on.

Then came a five-game series between the teams in New York earlier this month that saw the Mets pummel the Braves into submission by winning four of the five to extend their division lead to seven games and come out looking like the clear favorite again. But the ol' momentum see-saw was still in working order and, yada, yada, yada, the Braves just took three of four from the Mets in Atlanta and now sit just 3 1/2 back with plenty of baseball left.

The point is, this is what you want in a playoff chase: two of the league’s elite teams, longtime rivals, just going at it and taking advantage of every mistake and every opening, beating who they should beat and making the most of their head-to-head battles.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Many of the names in the running for National League MVP, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year are found on these rosters, plus others who have been there before or will likely be there in the future: Max Scherzer, Austin Riley, Jacob deGrom, Spencer Strider, Pete Alonso, Ronald Acuña Jr., Francisco Lindor, Michael Harris II, Edwin Diaz, Max Fried, Kyle Wright.

In other words, the perfect ingredients for hot September baseball, and no other division can match it.

But there’s also that one cold ingredient I mentioned earlier.

With their win Thursday night, the Braves earned themselves a new soft serve machine in the clubhouse, which is apparently a big deal for them. Their old machine (the one tongue-in-cheekly credited with propelling them to a World Series title) was removed after last season, and it’s been a minor sticking point since. So catcher Travis d’Arnaud recently asked general manager Alex Anthopoulos if they could get a new one.

“I said if you guys win three out of four against the Mets, the ice cream machine is back,” Anthopoulos told Atlanta radio station 92.9 The Game before Thursday’s game. “So these guys were so fired up after they won the first two (against the Mets) that tonight is obviously a big game for them.”

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Whether silly or serious motivation, the promise of a new machine was motivation nonetheless for Atlanta. After closer Kenley Jansen recorded the final out of Thursday’s game, he walked toward d’Arnaud and mimed making a soft serve cone.

So, yeah, it’s a big deal.

“The fact that the ice cream machine isn’t in yet is just brutal,” shortstop Dansby Swanson bellowed in faux anger upon entering the clubhouse after Thursday’s game.

This time of year, you take motivation wherever you can get it. Maybe a toppings bar is in order if they finally reach first place.


The 3 1/2-game lead the Mets hold entering play Friday seems both comfortable for them and manageable for the Braves to overcome, but there’s no telling where the race goes from here. The Mets have a very kind September schedule that includes 16 straight games against losing teams, but there are never any guarantees. The Braves' schedule is a little tougher, but, again, no guarantees.

And remember: Whoever wins the division gets a first-round bye in new expanded playoffs, avoiding a tricky three-game wild-card series. That could be even more motivating than ice cream.

Even if the race appears to be headed in one direction by this time next week, or even this time next month, just wait a few days and it’s likely to swing back in the other direction. And all we’ve seen so far says that the see-saw will likely continue until the season’s final week, when they meet again for those three games in Atlanta.

So enjoy it, baseball fans. Both these teams are already postseason-bound. But how they get there in September could be just as entertaining as anything that happens in October.

Source: https://www.sportingnews.com/us/mlb/news/braves-mets-nl-east-playoff-race-ice-cream/qtoomii2d84cb6h4ukt6xfxn