Time alone will determine whether the Mets and the Cubs develop a history between them comparable to that between the Yankees and the Red Sox for so many decades. Neither team wants to think about things like that right now.
The Mets want to think about preparing for and even winning the World Series. The Cubs want to think about how they’ve still got a brighter immediate future now than their own arduous history or their dispatch from this postseason suggest. Neither thought is entirely untenable.
This time, the Cubs didn’t get the shove thanks to a billy goat, a black cat, an extraterrestrial mistake on the field, or a fan in the stands, to run down just four of the kind of Twilight Zone presences so often said to have humbled if not humiliated them. These Cubs—maybe the National League’s second most surprising team of the season behind these Mets—simply got it the old fashioned way.
They got clobbered by a team who retooled just enough midway through the season and went from nothing special, albeit on the fringe of the race in a National League East division that wasn’t much to fear in the first place, to never better in winning the pennant.
But to add insult to injury the final nails into the 2015 Cubs’ coffin were hammered by one Met who went from nothing special to never better in the space of one postseason. With more, possibly, to come.
The way the Mets were keeping the Cubs throttled all night—any Cub runs seemed almost like excuse-us runs and wouldn’t be anywhere close to close enough—they didn’t need Daniel Murphy to take another long-distance swing.
Hell, they were happy enough that he scored one of a couple of insurance runs in the second inning, when he singled David Wright to second and followed Wright home aboard Lucas Duda’s line double to make it 6-0, Mets. But they weren’t going to say no when Murphy followed another walk to Wright in the eighth by hitting a 1-1 service from Fernando Rodney over the center field wall.
What did the announcers say when Murphy hit one out in his fifth consecutive postseason game? “This guy’s unconscious!” On Wednesday night, then, Murphy was positively catatonic. Even if his bomb was merely the exclamation point and not the game changer.
“I got a chance to play with Babe Ruth,” Curtis Granderson crowed analogically after the game. “That’s what I’m going to tell people when I’m old and gray.”
“The guy’s on a different planet now,” said Duda.
“Who is this guy?” Mets manager Terry Collins said was almost the number one question he’s been asked lately.
Don’t ask Murphy, though. “I can’t explain it,” has become his stock answer to just how on earth he went from a so-so second baseman who could hit a little bit to the second coming of Rogers Hornsby, Bobby Doerr, and Ryne Sandberg.
The Cubs may have hoped against hope that Jason Hammel could keep the Mets’ current juggernaut from doing what they finally did Wednesday with their smothering 8-3 win. The pitcher whose first half of the season showed a 1.00 WHIP wasn’t in the house. The pitcher whose second half, compromised by a hamstring injury, showed a 1.49 WHIP and a 5.10 ERA after the All-Star break, was.
That’s one big reason why the Mets had the Cubs in a 4-0 hole before the Cubs even came up to bat Wednesday. With Granderson aboard on a leadoff single, Hammel bagged Wright on a three-pitch swinging strikeout and Murphy on a foul popup, but he didn’t get a borderline strike against Duda on 2-2.
What he got after a foul off was to watch the next pitch sail over the center field wall, and to watch Duda, busting out of a postseason slump with a roar, barrel around the bases like a man who’d just been pardoned for a crime he didn’t commit. There’s nothing like becoming the first man to produce five runs in the first two innings of a postseason game to feel liberated.
What Hammel got after that was to watch the 0-1 pitch he threw to Travis d’Arnaud sail into the right center field bleachers. Hammel would get a mere four outs before Cubs manager Joe Maddon handed the game to his bullpen. His relief Travis Wood had the dubious pleasure of surrendering Duda’s two-run double, meaning the beefy Mets first baseman accounted for about two-thirds of the Mets’ clinching scoring.
“I felt like I sucked for about three months,” said Hammel—who’d returned to the Cubs last winter after being dealt to Oakland at the 2014 non-waiver deadline—after the game. “The first half was amazing. [Then] the injury and then I was a different guy.”
These poor Cubs were different guys against the Mets than they’d been to get to the NLCS in the first place. These Cubs were different than the ones who’d shoved the Pirates away in the wild card game behind Jake Arrieta pitching a small masterpiece. Different than the ones who bludgeoned their longtime rival Cardinals out of the division series.
Oh, were they going to give the upstart Mets a run for their money no matter how many child prodigies they sent to the mound. Oh, were they going to hit those kids clear into Lake Michigan. Cub Country hadn’t been that optimistic since . . .
Then they ran into Matt Harvey keeping them throttled for the most part in Game One until Kyle Schwarber hit one into the right center field bleachers in the eighth inning, prompting Collins to bring in his stout young closer Jeurys Familia for a four-out save.
Then they ran into Noah Syndergaard on a day the Mets banged Cy Young candidate Arrieta around for four unanswered runs through five before Kris Bryant doubled home Dexter Fowler in the sixth, which gave the Cubs another futile date with the Mets’ bullpen.
Then they ran into Jacob deGrom keeping them to a pair of runs and otherwise toying with and teasing them until he handed the bullpen a 5-2 lead to protect and secure starting with the eighth inning.
And they ran into Steven Matz giving them nothing other than a measly RBI groundout (by Schwarber) through four and a third Wednesday night, before Collins brought in Bartolo Colon, working out of the pen this postseason, to stop a first and second rally dead before handing the real bulls the game and the sweep to protect and defend.
Their biggest men in the clutch were brought down by the Mets’ staff for the most part. Bryant’s postseason showed a .176 batting average with two bombs. Anthony Rizzo, an MVP candidate, hit .188 with two bombs in the postseason. Together Bryant and Rizzo drove in seven runs. Schwarber and Dexter Fowler showed prodigious power, but Schwarber’s a catcher by trade who was out of position playing left field and Fowler needs more learning in how to maneuver center field.
Their pitching weaknesses—behind Arrieta and Jon Lester the Cubs had nothing much to make the other guys nervous, and the Mets even managed to pry those two apart at just the right moments—were exploited almost ravenously by these tenacious Mets.
And losing Addison Russell for the postseason exposed the Cubs’ infield shallowness; his stand-in Javier Baez hit barely a buck and showed far more narrow defensive range. Baez projects as a future second baseman, and he could land that job if the Cubs think about moving Starlin Castro on behalf of acquiring much-needed pitching depth.
But this was a season in which the Cubs learned how to win all over again. Maybe next season will be the one in which they’ll expect to win. Can they? Don’t bet against them if they tighten up where needed. This will be the first winter in years that Cub Country goes home feeling like the better is coming. Isn’t it?
“This is where you get exposed and figure out how to truly win,” said Lester of the Cubs’ now-finished postseason. “We did it twice, came up a little short here, but it’s only going to make us better. Guys will come into spring training more hungry. They know how to win now. They know how to compete day in and day out. Guys will come in and expect to be in this position.”
“We’ll come in hungrier next year, but we learned a lot,” said Bryant, likely to be the National League’s rookie of the year. ”We hit a down point at the wrong time and they were swinging the bats well and pitching it. They just beat us.”
If you didn’t count a couple of shattering, almost too-Cubsian defensive mishaps in Game Three, not to mention the wild pitch strikeout that sent home what proved its winning Mets run, that about said it all. The Mets just beat them.
About the only thing the Mets didn’t have to throw at them or swing at them was a goat. If you didn’t count the clever placard one Met fan showed behind the dugout in the field boxes, of a pinstriped goat with a Cubs logo on its rump and Murphy’s head on its shoulders, that is.
“I had faith in what this organization was going to do,” said Wright, who could have escaped instead of signing an eight-year extension in 2012. “I had faith in these starting pitchers that were being hyped so much. And I truly believed that this organization was going to turn it around, and that I wanted to be a part of that.
“There’s no describing what it feels like to win in New York. I’ve had a small sample of that. A larger sample now. To be able to do this here means the world to me. It wouldn’t even come close doing it somewhere else. So, to me, it was a no-brainer.”
Imagine, then, how Collins must feel. Two decades ago he was damaged goods, having lost two clubhouses in Houston and Anaheim because he didn’t know the meaning of the long season. Treated every game like the fate of the free world, what was left of it, was squarely on the line. Couldn’t relax if you’d anesthetised him.
Now, after five patient years of learning to manage each game for itself while still maintaining his insistence on accountability, learning at last to deal with problems away from the press, and insisting equally on giving credit where it belonged while taking only a little for himself, Collins—who counts Sandy Koufax and Jim Leyland as among his closest friends—popped out of the Mets dugout after the win with a large bottle of champagne.
He shook it up a bit. Then, he aimed the spray at two sections of Mets fans seated behind their dugout. Then, as those fans began chanting his name, Collins ducked back into the clubhouse. This was bigger than him, and he’d made sure everyone knew it.
All Collins and his Mets have to worry about is the World Series now. Unlike others who sweep their way there, the coming break works to their advantage. Those child prodigies will be well enough rested after being somewhat extended in the first two rounds. So will Yoenis Cespedes, who came out early Wednesday with shoulder soreness but should be ready for the Serious.
That won’t be welcome news for whomever survives the American League Championship Series. But it could be immortality for the Mets. Even if Murphy could end up proving he’s only human, after all.
Some of the marks Daniel Murphy’s home run binge have set:
* He has the most home runs in a single postseason of any second baseman in MLB history.
* His six-game home run streak shattered the previous mark set by Carlos Beltran—whose binge got him a big contract with . . . the Mets!
* Hank Aaron hit six postseason homers . . . over seventeen games and 74 plate appearances.
* Murphy is the first Met ever to hit homers in six straight games. Regular season or postseason.
* He’s done in the postseason what Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, David Ortiz, Miguel Cabrera, and Jose Bautista have never done in the regular season.
* Murphy is one of only two players who have ever had at least one hit, scored at least one run, and driven at least one run in in seven straight postseason games. The other: Lou Gehrig.
* He’s the third man in baseball history to hit postseason homers against the season’s wins, ERA, and strikeout leaders, hitting bombs off Jake Arrieta (wins), Zack Greinke (ERA), and (twice) Clayton Kershaw (strikeouts). The other two: Frank Thomas (off Johan Santana, who led the majors in all three that year) and Mickey Mantle (off Sandy Koufax, who also led the majors in all three that year).