Mets Clinch Wild Card Spot in Playoffs

Yes, the Mets sprayed each other with champagne. It seemed almost obligatory.

“In some respects,” Al Leiter said, “it’s a bit frustrating because coming out of spring training we anticipated this.”

They were happy to be going to the playoffs for the second straight year, a first in the team’s history. Still, the Mets feel they could have played better this year and won the National League East.

That’s why there was no wild celebration when they beat the Braves 6-2 Wednesday night, a day after Atlanta clinched its ninth straight division title.

“It’s good just to get it over with,” Mike Piazza said.

Rick Reed (11-5) limited Atlanta to four hits in eight innings, Derek Bell made a spectacular catch in right field, pinch-hitter Darryl Hamilton singled in the go-ahead run in the fifth and Edgardo Alfonzo hit a two-run homer on the next pitch for a 4-1 lead.

“This is just one step,” Reed said, “Last year, it was a tough battle for us. Once we won the game in Cincinnati, a lot of steam was let out.”

Ready For the Next Step

Last year, New York needed to beat the Reds in a tiebreaker playoff on the day after the regular season was scheduled to end. This time, the Mets clinched with four games to spare, eliminating Los Angeles, its final wild card rival.

“We’ve been at this step before,” said Reed, who struck out seven and walked one. “We’ve been to the next step. We have to get to the step after that.”

After the Mets beat Arizona in the first round of last year’s playoffs, Atlanta eliminated New York 4-2 in the NL championship series. For 11 months, the Mets have been thinking about that.

They even clinched before the crosstown New York Yankees, who have lost 11 of their last 14, delaying them from ensuring their sixth straight trip to the post-season.

The Mets will begin the playoffs Oct. 4 at San Francisco or St. Louis. The Braves start a day earlier against the Giants or Cardinals. Match-ups will depend on final records.

“Everyone said we’ve struggled, and this is our 90th win,” Mets manager Bobby Valentine said.

‘They Deserve It’

After Andruw Jones put the Braves ahead with a first-inning homer, Bell may have saved another home run in the fifth, leaping and catching Jones’ drive to the top of the right-field wall in the fifth.

“I thought it was gone,” Reed said. “I let out a lot of air. I didn’t think he had a chance.”

Bell left the game with a bruised left knee and a bloody gash on his left shin. His replacement, Hamilton, got a key hit in the bottom half of the inning.

With the score 1-all against Kevin Millwood (10-13), rookie Timo Perez lined a two-out pitch into the right-field corner and stretched it into a triple. Hamilton blooped a pitch into short center for the go-ahead run, and Alfonzo sent the next pitch into the left-field bleachers, his seventh homer in 14 games.

“They deserve to have their day in the sun,” Mets nemesis Chipper Jones said. “They played good all season. We certainly didn’t want them to do it in front of us, but they deserve it.”

Millwood finished the poorest of his three full seasons in the major leagues, giving up five runs and six hits in 5 1-3 innings and forcing in the Mets’ first run with three walks in the fourth, including one to Todd Zeile with the bases loaded.

Resting Up

New York thought the Braves might have been flat after their clincher. Atlanta (94-64) still is competing with San Francisco (94-64) and St. Louis (93-65) for home-field advantage, but also wants to rest up for the playoffs.

“We’d like to have the best overall record,” Chipper Jones said, “but at some point you say, ‘let’s take what we have and go from there.“‘

New York can’t wait to get another chance to beat the Braves. The Mets want to expunge last year’s playoff loss.

“We respect them as a good team,” Valentine said. “And before it’s all over, we hope we will gain their respect.”

Game Notes

John Rocker was booed by fans in the left-field bleachers during batting practice but didn’t get into the game. … Mets OF Benny Agbayani hit against soft-toss pitching and intends to take regular batting practice Thursday. He is bothered by a sore hamstring. … Bell said he should be back in the lineup Saturday. … Chipper Jones left in the sixth because of turf toe in his left big toe. … Armando Benitez allowed Andres Galarraga’s leadoff homer in the ninth. … Before last year, the Mets’ only trips to the playoffs were in 1969, 1973, 1986 and 1988.