For all the talk surrounding Atlanta's revamped lineup, bolstered bullpen and newfound confidence, the Mets still lead the National League East. They -- not the Braves -- have owned the division since Day 1. And they -- not the Braves -- remain the team to beat.
But now, they've been beaten.
And if the Braves weren't comfortable before this week -- though they certainly should have been after dumping their rivals in six of the first nine meetings -- Tuesday night's 7-3 thrashing of the Mets eased them even more.
With a pennant race imminent, that may be the worst news of all.
"I think they're [very comfortable] against us," said closer Billy Wagner. "We haven't played well enough to earn their respect."
Respect aside, the Mets have bigger worries on their list. Their pitching was shelled for 15 hits in Tuesday's game. Their lineup used nine innings to match what the Braves accomplished in two, and their division lead has now been pared down to 3 1/2 games.
And Atlanta trade-deadline acquisitions have already come through. First baseman Mark Teixeira did his part Tuesday with a sacrifice fly, and reliever Octavio Dotel chipped in with a perfect inning. Nothing to tip the scales of the pennant race just yet, but plenty enough to cause some worry.
"You look around baseball, [Teixeira's] probably the biggest acquisition any team made at the deadline," said right fielder Shawn Green. "He's going to make all their other hitters better."
And all opposing pitchers worse, as Mets starter Oliver Perez quickly learned. Groans floated into Shea Stadium when Perez threw two straight balls to Atlanta pitcher Buddy Carlyle in the second inning, then bubbled over when Carlyle shot a single up the middle.
This night, it seemed, would be filled with little other than hit after hit.
And while that base hit proved innocuous enough -- it served only to further a rally that was already far along -- it represented the most frustrating aspects of Perez's hot-and-cold series, all neatly packaged into one at-bat.
Sometimes Perez has it, sometimes he doesn't.
Yet Tuesday's outing can't be described so simply. Perez walked no one, eliminating the usual red flag for his struggles. The big blow, in fact, represented little more than bad luck. After bloop singles by Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones in the third, Jeff Francoeur lifted a pitch on the outside corner over the left-field fence, extending Atlanta's lead to 6-0.
Good pitch. Bad result.
"I know he hits everything," Perez said. "He swings at everything, and he has power. When he makes contact sometimes, he makes it hurt."
The Mets, meanwhile, could do little, scoring once on a double play and once on a groundout. Pinch-hitter David Newhan was the only Mets hitter to drive in a run with a hit, via a triple in the fifth.
So to win again, Perez would have needed to be brilliant. The lefty had beaten the Braves three times in three previous tries this year, holding a 1.31 ERA. He beat them once last year as well, and after this April, was 4-0 against the Braves since joining the Mets.
He was 0-5 against everyone else.
Perez chalked this loss up to Atlanta's better game plan. The Braves were jumping on first-pitch fastballs, and by the time he had time to adjust -- and he did adjust, striking out the side in the fourth to key his final two scoreless innings -- the damage was done.
"He really didn't throw as bad as it looked," said catcher Paul Lo Duca. "It was a really, really odd game."
But a typical result, given how this year has gone. And that's precisely what makes this week's series so important. These games give the Mets another chance -- and they've already squandered a third of it -- to put space between themselves and the Braves. Now, they must win two straight or face the prospect of losing a fourth straight series to their rivals.
"We've been playing well," said third baseman David Wright. "We went out there and we got beat. It's one game.
But those single games are adding up. Tuesday marked the easiest assignment. With Atlanta's twin aces, John Smoltz and Tim Hudson, scheduled to start the next two days, an opportunity against Carlyle seemed simple by comparison.
It wasn't. The Mets never solved him, and now they have a new problem to solve. They need to figure out if they're still better than the Braves, with only eight more tries to prove it.
"We'll see when the dust clears," said manager Willie Randolph. "Since we have so many games, why is this even an issue? We still have time to redeem ourselves."
Anthony DiComo is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less