By MIKE FITZPATRICK
NEW YORK (AP) — It’s been almost two decades since the Atlanta Braves advanced in the playoffs. After a sluggish conclusion to another rousing regular season, they’re positive this year can be different.
Mike Soroka recovered from a shaky start in his playoff tuneup, but the banged-up Braves limped into October with a 7-6 loss to the New York Mets in 11 innings Sunday when Dominic Smith hit a game-ending, three-run homer on his first competitive swing in more than two months.
Nine days after clinching their second consecutive NL East title, the Braves finally learned their postseason opponent when St. Louis won the NL Central with a 9-0 victory over the Chicago Cubs. Atlanta will open a best-of-five Division Series at home Thursday against the Cardinals, with Dallas Keuchel expected to start for the Braves.
“We’re ready to roll. It’s going to be fun,” veteran catcher Brian McCann said. “Very confident in everybody, top to bottom. We’ve got all phases of the game covered. We can beat you in a lot of different ways.”
Soroka, an All-Star this year, is lined up for Game 3 on the road — where the 22-year-old rookie is 7-1 with a 1.35 ERA that is by far the lowest in the majors.
“It was almost tough to focus on this outing because you know that’s the one you’re really thinking about,” Soroka said.
Atlanta lost five of its final six games to finish 97-65, seven games better than last season.
The Braves have lost nine straight playoff rounds since sweeping Houston in the 2001 NLDS. The only longer skid belonged to the Cubs, who dropped 10 consecutive rounds from 1910 through 1998.
“You’ve got to play mistake-free baseball in October,” McCann said.
Pitching for the first time in 10 days, Soroka was tagged for three runs and four hits in the first inning of the season finale.
J.D. Davis socked a two-run homer off the right-hander, who settled down after that and lasted 85 pitches. He gave up three runs and seven hits over five innings, with seven strikeouts and two walks.
“I felt good. I felt rested. Coming out there, I did a little too much at times — especially after a few days off,” Soroka said.
Smith came off the injured list Thursday after being sidelined since July 27 with a stress reaction in his left foot. He hadn’t gotten into a game until he replaced Pete Alonso at first base in the top of the 11th, mainly so the rookie home run king could walk off the field to one last ovation from Mets fans.
But lo and behold, New York put two runners aboard in the bottom half and Smith, batting in Alonso’s spot with two outs, drove a 1-0 pitch from Grant Dayton (0-1) over the right-center fence to give the Mets a three-game sweep and a thrilling finish to their second-half surge that fell short of a postseason berth.
An excited Smith flung his helmet with two hands between third base and home plate, then was swarmed and doused by jubilant teammates as his uniform top was ripped off by Alonso in a wild celebration.
“I’m still at a loss for words. For me, all I wanted to do was just get back this year,” Smith said. “I couldn’t have dreamed of anything like this.”
Moments later, the Mets took off their jerseys and gave them to fans after one more comeback win.
“It worked out really well. What a fun game,” manager Mickey Callaway said. “That game was very similar to our season. Think you could line it up pretty good. That was appropriate.”
New York went 46-26 in the second half and finished third in the NL East at 86-76 — a nine-game improvement over last year. Likely on deck in the coming days, a decision about Callaway, who could be fired after two seasons without a playoff trip.
Callaway said he’s been packing up his New York apartment since last week and will spend 19 hours driving home to Florida over the next two days.
“I don’t have any anxiety. I’m proud of what we did this year,” he said before the game. “I’m proud of how hard I worked, and I left everything on the field.
“We haven’t discussed anything in depth. Right now I have a contract for next year and I’m going to go home and prepare for next year.”
Adeiny Hechavarría hit two late homers for Atlanta, the first multihomer game of his career, and had an early RBI single. He and Adam Duvall connected on consecutive pitches from Walker Lockett in the 11th to give the Braves a 6-4 lead.
“I wanted to win that game bad though, the way the guys hung around and fought back,” Atlanta manager Brian Snitker said. “We didn’t make it, but we did everything we needed out of the bullpen and starting and the whole thing the whole weekend. The outcomes weren’t what we want, but we accomplished what we needed.”
Chris Mazza (1-1) got an inning-ending double play for his first major league win.
Hechavarría, released by the Mets in August and a late addition to the lineup Sunday, tied it 4-all with a leadoff homer in the ninth against Paul Sewald.
Rafael Ortega launched a two-run homer off Mets starter Noah Syndergaard. Joe Panik came off the bench and put New York ahead 4-3 on a solo homer off Shane Greene with two outs in the eighth.
TOAST OF THE TOWN
Alonso tipped his cap to the crowd of 31,523 when he was removed. He went 1 for 5 with a single and finished with 53 homers, becoming the only rookie since 1900 — and first Mets player overall — to win the outright major league home run crown.
The Mets drew 2,442,532 fans for the season, an increase over 2,224,995 last year.
Braves: 1B Freddie Freeman struck out and singled before being lifted. He returned Saturday from four days off to rest his ailing right elbow and said he has no restrictions. But he hasn’t homered since Sept. 1 and ended the season in a 5-for-39 slump (.128) with one extra-base hit since Sept. 11. … 3B Josh Donaldson was scratched from the lineup and replaced by Hechavarría. The Braves said they wanted Hechavarría, likely a backup infielder on the playoff roster, to get some time at third base heading into the postseason. … All-Star OF Ronald Acuña Jr. hasn’t played since Tuesday because of a tight left hip. He will work out this week to get ready for the Division Series opener. …. OF Ender Inciarte (right hamstring) and utilityman Johan Camargo (right shin) will miss the Division Series, weakening Atlanta’s bench.
Braves: Keuchel went 8-8 with a 3.75 ERA in 19 starts this season after signing in June. He was 4-2 with a 3.31 ERA in the postseason for Houston.
Mets: Open next season at home March 26 against Washington.