LOS ANGELES — The scent was unmistakable, the aroma of champagne mingled with beer that wafted down the hallway from the New York Mets’ clubhouse. It was the smell of victory. After years of devastation and frustration, the Mets are reacquainting themselves with celebration, so much so that they now compare and contrast their clinching parties like connoisseurs.
“Hmm,” reliever Tyler Clippard said, sniffing the air as his teammates sprayed bubbly everywhere. “It smells even better than Cincinnati in here.”
Cincinnati was where the Mets clinched the NL East championship on Sept. 26th, their first since 2006. They partied so hard in the visitors clubhouse at Great America Park that afternoon that when the Washington Nationals arrived to play the Reds two days later, they could still smell the fumes from New York’s championship celebration. But that was just a warmup for Thursday night at Dodger Stadium, where the Mets earned a spot in the NLCS against the Chicago Cubs with a 3–2 win over the Dodgers in the win-or-go-home Game 5 of the National League Division Series.
Afterwards there were players belly-flopping on the clubhouse floor that was slick with alcohol, doing what they called “beer slides” across the room. With the old Mets, someone would have probably strained an oblique and headed to the disabled list with that kind of recklessness. But these are the new Mets, confident and charmed.
“They’re young,” veteran right fielder Curtis Granderson said, smiling at his teammates. “Let them have their fun tonight. They earned it.”
They did earn it, but youth can wait. We will get to them soon enough. The Mets would not be preparing to host the Cubs in Game 1 on Saturday without the contributions of one of their longest-tenured players, second baseman Daniel Murphy. It wasn’t just that Murphy hit the decisive home run, a solo shot off Zack Greinke in the sixth that broke a 2–2 tie. It was that Murphy helped beat the Dodgers with his head, which is something no one is used to seeing from him.
With the Mets down 2–1 in the fourth, Murphy was on first when Lucas Duda walked. He jogged to second, then took off on a dash for third when he saw that the Dodgers, who had been in a shift against the lefthanded-hitting Duda, had left the base unoccupied. Murphy is a solid, professional hitter who also often happens to be, shall we say, imprudent on the base paths.
“Sometimes it seems like he thinks he’s invisible out there on the bases,” says third baseman David Wright, the only Met who has been with the team longer than Murphy. “He’ll do something out there that makes you say, ‘What was he thinking?’ But he’s such a tough player who will do anything to win. Even his mistakes are always made out of an attempt to be aggressive, so you can’t fault him.”
This time, Murphy’s aggressiveness paid off. He took off for third and hoped that no one called timeout. “Because then I go sprinting to third base and I look like a buffoon, and I didn’t want that to happen,” he explained. Instead, he looked like an alert, aggressive base runner, and he scored the tying run when Travis d’Arnaud followed with a sacrifice fly.
Murphy was one of the few Met vets to make a major contribution. Wright and Duda were 0 for 7 with a walk in Game 5 and a combined 3 for 34 in the series. But it was the Mets’ young talent, the youngsters who have grown up so much this season, that helped lead the way in Game 5, doing things they had never been asked to do before.
Jacob deGrom, their second-year ace who was starting the deciding game of a playoff series for the first time, wasn’t nearly as dominant as he had been in Game 1 when he struck out 13 in seven shutout innings. But he was tough and resourceful, working his way out of jam after jam, like a pedestrian dodging cars in traffic.
“It had to be frustrating for him because it wasn’t so much that he was struggling,” said catcher d’Arnaud. “They were just hitting good pitches. I had to tip my hat to them. But in the dugout he was the same Jake, not worried at all. He just kept going out there and making the important pitches when he needed to.”
Then there was Noah Syndegaard, the rookie who lived up to his “Thor” nickname by throwing lightning bolts when he relieved deGrom in the seventh. It was his first major-league relief appearance—he last entered in relief in 2012 in the minor leagues—and there was some concern from the Mets’ brain trust about whether it was fair to throw such a young player into a spot he hadn’t had much chance to prepare for. Manager Terry Collins consulted his pitching coach, Dan Warthen, about it before the game.
“I said, ‘Do you think the kid can handle it?’” Collins said. “And [Warthen] said, ‘By all means.’ So he talked me into it. We brought [Syndergaard] in and he was about as good as you can possibly ask for in that spot.”
Syndegaard threw two-seam fastballs that hovered around 98–100 mph and mixed in the occasional off-speed pitch, like the breaking ball that finally struck out the Dodgers’ scalding-hot cleanup hitter, Justin Turner. It was an example of the polish and finesse that the Mets’ contingent of hard-throwing young pitchers possesses.
“That’s what makes them really good,” said Dodgers manager Don Mattingly. “Syndegaard, [Matt] Harvey, deGrom. They all use their off-speed pitches. They’re not just going to come out and pump fastball as you all day long.”
Syndegaard blew the Dodgers away with a scoreless inning and seemed capable of handling the eighth, but Collins turned instead to his closer, Jeurys Familia, and asked him to complete a two-inning save, which he had never done in his career.
“We have one of the best closers in all of baseball,” Collins said. “You have to go to him. You’d be kicking yourself if they scored a run off somebody else in a game that means everything. So we stayed with the plan and it worked.”
Things didn’t go according to plan early. The Mets scored a run in the first on a Granderson walk and Murphy double, but deGrom allowed a pair in the bottom of the inning on four straight Dodger singles. deGrom appeared to be on the ropes, but the Dodgers never could land the finishing blow. Then Murphy went to work with his bat and his legs, and the Mets’ kid pitchers proved they’re not kids anymore, and suddenly, this team that was supposed to be a year away is only eight victories away from a World Series title.
In the Cubs, they will face a team that is in some ways their opposite. Just as the Mets are built on young power arms, the Cubs, with Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber as just a few examples, have a foundation of young power hitters. Chicago hasn’t won a Series since 1908, and the Mets have the more than their share of misery in their history as well, including the great collapses of 2007 and ’08.
After six straight losing seasons, it’s not surprising that before Game 5, Collins said that the Mets had so far surpassed expectations that any further success in this postseason would be gravy. But it was clear that he and his players weren’t thinking that way anymore after dispatching the Dodgers.
“One day,” said Harvey, who will be the Mets’ Game 1 starter against the Cubs. “We give it the rest of today and then we get back to work. There’s more we want to accomplish.”
This isn’t a dream anymore. It isn’t a long shot. The Mets know a championship is realistic. They can smell it as distinctly as that bubbly-and-brew aroma that’s becoming so familiar. The Mets are like one of those fastballs from deGrom, or Syndergaard, or Harvey or Familia. They are approaching fast and hard, and the Cubs better be ready.