ATLANTA -- Looking across to Turner Field's home dugout this week, it would not be difficult for the Mets to catch a glance at what they're missing. Despite their flaws, the Braves have found ways to win close games time and again this season. The Mets, quite simply, have not.
So it went Tuesday, a night after the Mets gave away the series opener in Atlanta by committing three defensive errors in one half-inning. No such dramatics unfolded in the encore; the Braves simply out-hit and outpitched the Mets in a 5-4 victory.
"There's a reason why they're winning," Mets manager Terry Collins said of the Braves. "They do have a knack for it. Those are the kinds of players they have over there. Those guys -- Freddie [Freeman] and Jason [Heyward] and Justin Upton, they're tough in the clutch, boy. They're very clutch."
Most of Atlanta's opportunities took root in Mets starter Daisuke Matsuzaka's unsteadiness. Walking three batters and allowing seven hits, Matsuzaka did not enjoy a clean inning after the first, instead committing a series of what he called "unforgiveable mistakes." Christian Bethancourt opened the scoring with an RBI single in the second inning, then, after the Mets gained a brief advantage, Freeman tied the game with a run-scoring double in the third.
Atlanta took the lead for good an inning later on an RBI single by pitcher Mike Minor, later extending it on Andrelton Simmons' two-run hit. All five runs came with two outs, which vexed Matsuzaka, the leading candidate to lose his rotation job when Dillon Gee returns from the disabled list later this month.
"Today, the first two outs [of each inning] came pretty smoothly, pretty easily, but I just wasn't able to finish with that last out," Matsuzaka said through an interpreter. "Looking back, once the runners got into scoring position I just had to be a little bit more careful, which I wasn't able to do."
"We did some nice things offensively," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "We ran the bases, stole three bases. I think a couple of those stolen bases created some runs. But nevertheless, we kept the line moving and put some big hits [together] with two outs."
The Mets did plenty of their own damage against Minor on two-run homers from Curtis Granderson and Daniel Murphy, knocking the Braves starter out of the game in the fifth. But in a replay of Monday's action, the Mets simply stopped scoring in the middle innings, looking helpless against Atlanta's bullpen. As a result, they fell to a season-worst 10 games under .500 and a season-high nine games out of first, losing for the sixth time in seven games.
The Mets also fell to 10-20 in one-run games, while the Braves improved to 17-10. That alone accounts for nearly the entire nine-game margin separating these two teams, and Tuesday, the reasons why were plain to see. While all five of Atlanta's runs came with two outs, the Mets finished 0-for-3 with two outs and runners in scoring position.
The sample may have been small, yet was indicative of what has unfolded for both teams -- the seemingly playoff-bound Braves, and the rapidly fading Mets -- throughout the first half of this season.
"You're always trying to climb back in it," Collins said. "You've just got to hang in there. We can't tuck our heads between our legs and feel bad for ourselves."
Yet by the time Braves closer Craig Kimbrel slammed the door on the Mets, striking out the side in the ninth, another loss seemed like a foregone conclusion. The juxtaposition between the first-place Braves and fourth-place Mets was that stark, and the Mets were at a loss for how to close that gap.
"The answers can be somewhat simple, but they're not," Collins said. "It takes confidence. It takes an approach at the plate to use the field -- you see Freddie Freeman all the time getting hits the other way, Chris Johnson getting hits to right field. It's the same stuff we've talked about all year. It hasn't changed. It doesn't matter what the situations of the games are, what the scores are. That's what good hitters do."
Added Murphy: "If there was a magic formula to it, we would be doing it. I promise."