We’ve been here before at this point in League Championship Series history before. Well, sort of anyway. We’ve seen a Theo Epstein team fall into a 3-0 series hole against New York and climb all the way back. We’ve seen a Toronto-Kansas City series look all but over and have someone rally back. Is there any hope of a reprise here, or will there be pennant celebrations in KC & Queens—as soon as today?
Let’s start with the National League, since everyone is no doubt aware of the historical reference I made there. Of course Theo was GM of the 2004 Boston Red Sox. Now he’s again with a franchise that’s gone through a long championship drought, again needing four straight wins—the last two on the road in New York—and again has a World Series opponent that will presumably be from Missouri looming.
Theo’s Cubbies were mostly helpless at the plate last night against Mets’ ace Jacob de Grom, who made a couple mistakes that turned into solo home runs by Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler, but otherwise was pretty much untouched. It wouldn’t be a Mets’ playoff game these days if Daniel Murphy didn’t hit another home run. And it wouldn’t be the Cubs if a huge run didn’t score under strange circumstances.
With the scored tied 2-2 in the sixth, two outs and Yoenis Cespedes on third for the Mets, Chicago reliever Travis Wood struck out Michael Conforto. Only the ball got away from Miguel Montero. Conforto reached first, Cespedes scored the lead run and the Mets won 5-2.
The inning should have been bigger after Soler badly misplayed a sinking line drive to right off the bat of Wilmer Flores. Conforto would have scored easily, but the ball got caught up in the ivy and by law, that’s a ground-rule double with the runner stopping at third.
I agree with the heated disgust shown by New York manager Terry Collins, but as I understand it, his rage should be directed at an outdated rulebook that doesn’t allow umpires the discretion to wave a runner home when it’s obvious to everyone watching that he would have scored. Heck, in a bigger park, that ball had inside-the-park home run written all over it. Fortunately, even though the inning ended without further damage, the poorly constructed rule didn’t cost the Mets.
What are Chicago’s chances. Let’s start with the basics—win tonight. New York sends rookie Steven Matz to the mound who was solid in limited regular season duty and decent in his playoff start, though he lost to Clayton Kershaw in Game 4 of the Division Series. Regardless, the Cubs have to feel like they can beat him.
Then Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta get the ball for Games 5 & 6. Regardless of the fact both pitchers lost in Citi Field to start the series, if the Cubs don’t believe they can win behind these two, what was the point of ever believing in the first place.
That would bring us to Game 7. The Mets have a great hole card, something the Yankees of 2004 did not have, and it’s a reliable ace to pitch a deciding game at home. The Mets would have de Grom lined up on regular rest. But they would also have the weight of the world on their shoulders if this series was still going by that point. It’s anybody’s guess how they would respond.
“Don’t let the Red Sox win tonight.” Those were the words of Boston’s Kevin Millar before Game 4 of that historic 2004 ALCS. Millar reminded everyone that if the Red Sox survived Game 4, they had aces, Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling in reserve for the next two games. And in a Game 7 all bets were off. The Mets would be wise to heed that advice today and don’t let the Cubs win tonight. It’s not that I think Chicago will rally if they win Game 4, but there’s no question that winning tonight against Jason Hammel is the most stress-free path the Mets have.
Let’s move over to the American League, where the Blue Jays and Royals have played the 1985 ALCS in reverse. In that series, Toronto opened with two wins at home. Kansas City answered with a Game 3 win on their home field. The Jays responded with a Game 4 win on the road that appeared to ice the series. The Royals survived on their home field and then improbably won two straight on the road to take the pennant, a feat that’s only happened three times since (’04 Red Sox, ’03 Marlins, ’91 Braves).
This year’s Kansas City team put themselves in this commanding position, by simply unleashing against R.A. Dickey and the rest of the Toronto pitching staff. This was an area I thought the Blue Jays would an edge, the middle of the rotation starters. I was more than a little wrong.
The four hitters that batted 9-1-2-3 in the KC order combined to go 11-for-16 yesterday with three additional walks and hitting two home runs. That’s Alex Rios, later substituted for by Paulo Orlando, who continued where Rios (who homered) had left off, setting it up for Alcides Escobar, Ben Zobrist (who started the scoring with a two-run blast in the first) and Lorenzo Cain.
Ned Yost went all-in for this road win. Chris Young was pulled an out shy of an official victory, leading 5-2 with a man on base and two outs in the fifth. Yost turned to his renowned bullpen who passed the baton the rest of the way to the finish as the offense piled on more insurance than any team could need.
How about Toronto’s chances of turning the 1985 tables and celebrating in Kansas City by week’s end? We can give the Blue Jays a good shot at winning this afternoon if only because they’re at home. They do have to find a way to solve Edinson Volquez, who was masterful in Game 1. But that was quite a departure from Volquez’s career norms.
David Price would take the mound for Game 6 and in spite of his postseason problems, there are worse situations to be in then turning to Price to save your season. Recall that last year, in a similar spot for Detroit against the Baltimore Orioles, Price pitched extremely well—only two runs in eight innings. But a lack of run support gave him a 2-1 loss.
That would set up a Game 7. The dynamic here would be different than in the National League. Teams have rallied from 3-1 down before, so I don’t know that the Royals would feel the game “I can’t believe we might blow this” kind of pressure the Mets would. The media won’t be filled with stories of a 1985 reprise in the same way that a 2004 Theo Epstein reprise would dominate national discussion if the Cubs rally.
And Kansas City has the same hole card as New York—their ace, Johnny Cueto, on the mound on regular rest on his home field for Game 7. Cueto didn’t look anything like an ace in Game 3. But if Toronto even gets to this position it will be because Volquez returned to his career norm, rather than his most recent postseason start, today. The same phenomena would work in reverse with Cueto and we would expect him to pitch well.
That’s why I’d give the Cubs a slightly better chance of rallying than the Blue Jays, even though Chicago has an extra game to win. But just we’re so clear, I don’t actually expect either of these teams to rally at this point. The Mets and Royals are ready to close in.