The last time the New York Mets and Chicago Cubs faced off in a series this big, we’d have to go back to 1984 when they were in a race for the NL East title under the old divisional alignment. The Cubs won that race, with Rick Sutcliffe winning the Cy Young Award and using it as a springboard to a future career as the most aggravating TV analyst in the history of professional sports.
Here’s a look back on how the Mets & Cubs won their Division Series over higher-seeded opponents and a look ahead to the National League Championship Series that begins Saturday night.
THE METS UPEND THE DODGERS
There were three big heroes for New York in their five-game series win over Los Angeles, that ended with last night’s 3-2 win at Dodger Stadium. Daniel Murphy is the hero in the news today, joining Jacob de Grom and Jeurys Familia. The key supporting actor was Curtis Granderson.
Murphy hit three home runs in the five games, every one of them off Clayton Kershaw or Zack Greinke. His first home run in Game 1 produced the first run of the series, and his final home run last night produced its last run. But beyond the power, it’s a heads-up play on the bases that ultimately made the difference.
Lucas Duda was at the plate last night with Murphy on first base in the fourth inning. Los Angeles led 2-1 and had momentum that made it seem like a bigger deficit. Duda drew a walk. The shift was on and third base was left uncovered. Murphy was alert, and bolted for third base. He scored on a sac fly and the game was tied.
It was the defining play of the series and underscored the difference between these two teams. The Dodgers can be counted on to give something away for free in October every year, as though it’s Halloween candy. Los Angeles, along with the Washington Nationals, are the two teams that undercut their own talent with intangible failings like these. The Mets spent all season beating out the Nats in the NL East. Now they’ve taken out the Dodgers.
The toughness New York brings to the table was underscored by de Grom. By rights, he should have been chased to an early shower last night, with a long offseason in front of him. The righthander had no fastball command was constantly on the ropes. What he had was heart. The kid kept digging deep and making a pitch when he needed to. After Murphy’s heads-up play got the Mets tied up, de Grom increasingly settled down and finished six innings.
It completes a series where de Grom beat both Kershaw and Greinke, in a Game 1 when he was brilliant and a Game 5 when he had to grind. I respected de Grom coming into this series. I love the guy now.
Jeurys Familia was simply dominant in the closer’s role, facing 16 batters in the series and retiring all 16, including a six-out save last night. In a series where neither team had a dominant bullpen, Familia’s excellence was a big difference.
And let’s not forget Granderson, who batted .389 and had a 5-RBI night when the Mets unloaded on Brett Anderson in Game 3, scoring 13 runs. The Mets win with pitching, but all year they’ve gotten just enough offense to survive. Granderson was the biggest reason why during the regular season and he joins Murphy as one of the reasons why in this Division Series.
Ultimately, the arguments on behalf of the Dodgers prior to the series boiled down to “Kershaw and Greinke.” Setting aside any of Kershaw’s past October failings, this simply disrespects other pitchers. Every team left in the playoffs has good arms in the 1-2 spots. Kershaw and Greinke were good, occasionally even great in all four of their combined starts. But you can’t expect to win every time they take the mound.
Game 3, when Anderson was on the mound against Matt Harvey, was a virtual giveaway game for the Dodgers and it was the difference, because de Grom could match up with the aces.
THE CUBS OUST THE CARDINALS
The big story was the way Chicago just crushed the baseball, especially when they got home to Wrigley Field for Games 3 & 4. They hit ten home runs for the series, six alone in the Game 3 win. Anthony Rizzo hit the blast that was the difference in the clinching fourth game. Rizzo, along with Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler, each went deep twice.
I won’t say I was expecting that sort of power display, but the basic fact that the Cubs can hit isn’t a surprise and the Cardinals could have survived this. What I did not expect was the quality the Chicago bullpen exhibited.
Cubs starters averaged barely five innings a start in a series where Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta were responsible for half the starts. St. Louis hit Arrieta well in Game 3, while neither Kyle Hendrick nor Jason Hammel could go deep into the game. If you had told me that at the start of the series, I would have expected this series to end in four games, but with the Cardinals doing the celebrating.
Instead, Joe Maddon got solid work from six different relievers, starting with Travis Wood, who was vital in holding off St. Louis in Game 2 and appeared again in each of the games at Wrigley. The bullpen, at least based on regular season performance is Chicago’s Achilles heel. If the relievers are going to pitch like this the next couple weeks, then we’ll see the kind of celebration that no one alive has seen before on the city’s North Side.
In spite of Chicago’s recent form, the overall power numbers look better for the Mets. The addition of Yoenis Cespedes and the emergence of Michael Conforto in left field have given New York a new offensive dimension. If you believe in riding with whomever is hotter—and there’s ample justification to do that—then the Cubs have the more potent offense. If you adjust for park effects and look at the seasonal numbers on the key individual players, then you lean to the Mets. Which is where I lean on offense.
The bullpen is basically a wash—each team has a good closer, Familia and Chicago’s Hector Rondon. The Cubs will look to win this series with starting pitching and in that regard, the NLCS lines up well for them. Jon Lester will pitch Game 1 and Jake Arrieta is lined up for Game 2. That would presumably bring both aces back in Games 5 & 6, with Lester potentially available for relief in a seventh game.
Meanwhile, the Mets won’t have de Grom available until Tuesday’s Game 3. Noah Syndergaard also worked an inning of relief last night. He could potentially pitch Game 2 on Sunday night but that’s still undecided. New York can turn to Matt Harvey for the series opener, who gave up three runs in five innings in his start against the Dodgers and completely lacks Lester’s postseason pedigree.
This NLCS looks very even to me. Las Vegas likes the Cubbies as a (-145) favorite. I’m surprised the number is that big—for comparison’s sake, Kansas City was only (-140) over Houston in the AL Division Series. And even straight up, I’m going to make a slight lean to the Mets to win in seven games, with de Grom getting the ball in Game 7 at Citi Field.