Are the Chicago Cubs and New York Mets destined to meet in this year’s National League Championship Series? It would be great for Major League Baseball, if so.
By Bryan Pol
Like Julius Caesar at the Battle of Zela, the Chicago Cubs entered Steel City in hopes of extending their riveting run in 2015.
And like Caesar, they came, they saw, they conquered, doing so swiftly and efficiently.
Better yet, it was NL Cy Young hopeful Jake Arrieta who delivered an historic performance—he is the only pitcher in MLB history to toss a complete game shut-out whilst accumulating 10 or more strikeouts and zero walks—that ousted the Pittsburgh Pirates, who entered Wednesday night’s one-game, wild card elimination tilt with the second best record in the majors, in a 4-0 victory for the Chicago Cubs.
The result, the Cubs’ first playoff win since 2003, solidified an NLDS matchup with the St. Louis Cardinals, who boast the best record in the majors, the only club to win 100 games in 2015.
Opposite the Cubs/Cardinals series is Mets/Dodgers, a series that delivers a rematch of the 2006 NLDS, which begins on Friday in Los Angeles.
Despite what the Mets will feature in Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey, and Steven Matz, all slated to pitch in Games 1 through 4, the rotation enters this postseason with absolutely ZERO playoff experience.
Regardless, the Mets, who won the National League East by seven games over the Washington Nationals, their first division title since 2006, come into October riding the wave of a rejuvenated Curtis Granderson, a healthy Travis d’Arnaud, the return of David Wright, a timely call-up in Michael Conforto, and the hot bat of Yoenis Cespedes, all of whom made the Metropolitans the highest scoring team in the NL since the All-Star Break.
In spite of the Mets and Cubs entering their respective series without homefield advantage, each team is arguably a prohibitive favorite to advance to the NLCS.
Such a prospect would be tremendous for the sport of baseball, and would revive the pennant chase of 1969, in which New York won 100 games en route to an NL East title over the “cursed” Chicago Cubs, who once lead the Mets by 17 1/2 games, by eight wins in the division.
While the Cubs have not won a World Series since 1908, and have not appeared in the Fall Classic since 1945, the Mets are in need of relative exorcism themselves.
New York, still reeling from the financial turmoil of the Bernie Madoff scandal, have not properly recovered from their loss to the Cardinals in the 2006 NLCS, due in part not so much to Carlos Beltran never taking the bat off his shoulder on a called third strike to Adam Wainwright in the series’ seventh game, but by the woes of Aaron Heilman, who yielded a back-breaking home run from Yadier Molina in the top half of the ninth, effectively negating one of the best catches one may ever see in October.
Although worthy of winning a World Series in 2006 (the NLCS victors, the St. Louis Cardinals, would dispatch the Detroit Tigers in five games), the Mets would never again return to the postseason for as long as they played at Shea Stadium, enduring collapses in 2007 and 2008, both at the hands of the Florida Marlins on the final day of the regular season: in 2007, the Mets relinquished a one-time 6 1/2 game lead for the division to the Philadelphia Phillies, and in 2008, they lost their wild card position to the Milwaukee Brewers.
Late season collapses and financial calamities notwithstanding, Matt Harvey, recently truant to a mandatory practice session on Monday, will take the mound in Game 3 of the NLDS on Monday, the first postseason contest in Citi Field history.
While Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers’ Game 1 starter, a three-time Cy Young award winner and one-time MVP (he is one of only ten pitchers to accomplish the feat of winning an MVP and a Cy Young in the same season), is one of the most dominant pitchers of his era, he is otherwise ordinary, if not dreadful, in the playoffs, mustering a poor 1-5 mark and a 5.12 ERA over eleven appearances, eight of them starts. Even so, Kershaw retains an advantage over his Game 1 opponent Jacob deGrom, a second year pitcher making his first career postseason start. Consequently, a driven Jacob deGrom will not back down from a Cy Young hopeful like Kershaw, as deGrom himself beat Zack Greinke on July 26, a 3-2 Met victory, despite not factoring into a decision.
That said, the Mets have substantial advantages in Game 3, with Harvey facing Brett Anderson, and Game 4, with Matz potentially pitching against Mike Bolsinger or Alex Wood. Matz, still suffering back spasms, might be replaced by Sean Gilmartin on the NLDS roster, and Bartolo Colon or Jonathan Niese may take the call in a spot start, if necessary.
Regardless of who starts, Games 3 and 4 will be held at home before an electrifying Citi Field crowd that has not experienced postseason baseball in nine years.
Furthermore, the Mets, with closer Jeurys Familia and setup men Tyler Clippard and Addison Reed, along with Jonathan Niese, Erik Goeddel, and Bartolo Colon (if he makes the roster over Matz, who pitched well at Port St. Lucie on Thursday–manager Terry Collins has until 10:00 AM on Friday to submit his choices), boasts a deep, versatile bullpen that is considerably better than the Dodgers’.
While the Mets enter the playoffs with the best four-man rotation, New York’s upward trend was triggered by general manager Sandy Alderson’s bold acquisition of outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, whose torrid September (his slash line was .300/.345/.673, good for an OPS of 1.017) commandeered the Mets to a division title, effectively burying the Nationals for good during a three-game sweep of Washington, in which Cespedes was 6-for-14 with two homers and seven RBI.
Despite having the best record in baseball, the Cardinals will play this October without starting pitcher Carlos Martinez, out with a strained shoulder, and in spite of “optimism” for his possible return to the lineup, St. Louis will not have their star catcher Yadier Molina at 100 percent, as he is nursing a torn ligament in his thumb.
Jon Lester, signed by the Cubs in the offseason to anchor a staff that had not seen postseason action since 2008, will be on the bump opposite John Lackey. Game 1 of their first round series, to occur on Friday, will feature former teammates in Lester and Lackey, and two workhorses who have seen their share of postseason series, with championship rings (Lester in 2007 and 2013 with the Red Sox, Lackey in 2002 with the Los Angeles Angels and 2013 with the Sox) to show for their stupendous efforts: in 18 postseason starts, Lackey is 7-5 with a 3.08 ERA, while Lester is 6-4 with a 2.57 ERA in 12 playoff starts.
David. Bring out all the reinforcements. I need it LOUD. https://t.co/vxhbjNVqBm
— Jake Arrieta (@JArrieta34) October 5, 2015
Although Arrieta will not go in Game 1, he may yet get two appearances in the NLDS, a start in one (Game 3 at Wrigley Field, seven years removed from the Cubs’ last turn in the playoffs), perhaps a relief appearance in another, if the series goes five games, a decided advantage no matter who the Cardinals trot out, be it Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha, or Jaime Garcia. Already off to a blistering start, Arrieta may be an incarnation of Madison Bumgarner, the San Francisco Giants’ leading man who proved integral in their winning the 2014 World Series.
The ever-stoic Arrieta, who welcomed raucous cheers from the Pittsburgh crowd and delivered a gem, proved he will simply not let a playoff series of high tension and drama get the best of him, even if vitriol spewing from the opposing fans will be of his own creation: two wayward pitches that allowed Francisco Cervelli and Josh Harrison to reach base precipitated a beaning of Arrieta and a benches-clearing brawl in the top of the seventh, a prospect relatively unheard of in the postseason.
While Dexter Fowler, age 29, who homered to put the Cubs up 4-0 and oust starter Gerrit Cole from the game, is the relative elder statesman on the Cubs, many of the Chicago Cubs’ youngsters do not appear to be fazed by the October atmosphere, much in the fashion this season is not affecting their trusty ace. Kyle Schwarber, a utility player who, in starting the season at Double-A, plays between the catcher and outfield positions, amassed three RBI on Wednesday against the Pirates, including a two-run blast that rattled Cole beyond recognition.
Between Anthony Rizzo, Addison Reed, Starlin Castro, Kris Bryant, and Jorge Soler, who average a shade over 23 years of age, there is no playoff experience of note on the roster, although such puerility may be to their advantage, given that this club has little to lose and is nearly a year or two ahead of schedule, much the way the Mets are. Never mind that they have a baseball savant and motivator in manager Joe Maddon to lead them.
Lost in the wake of Arrieta’s dominance is the magnificent season first baseman Anthony Rizzo had in 2015. If not for Bryce Harper’s transcendent season, Rizzo would have had more than a puncher’s chance of garnering this year’s NL MVP award, given his sterling resume and ledger. At 25, Rizzo is clearly the Cubs’ best and most seasoned bat, and the youngsters around him have thrived off of his imposing presence in the lineup.
With the Mets and Cubs’ respective National League Division Series to commence on Friday, New York has a legitimate chance of having Dodger manager Don Mattingly unceremoniously fired with yet another first round exit in the postseason, while Chicago has the opportunity to stick it to their division rivals, who have perennially looked back on the Cubs in their proverbial rearview mirror for decades.
Should both clubs reign victorious, the Mets and Cubs will be doing the sport of baseball and its fanbase a tremendous favor in progressing their compelling October storylines.
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