NEW YORK — The Mets are one win closer to their first World Series appearance since 2000, as New York took the opener of the National League Championship Series against the Cubs with a 4–2 win at Citi Field. Let by Matt Harvey on the mound, New York held a red-hot Chicago offense in check, while unexpected postseason heroes Daniel Murphy and Curtis Granderson keyed the offense as it took down Jon Lester.
Here are three thoughts from the Mets' NLCS Game 1 win:
Harvey stars in brilliant outing
After all the fear and anger over pitch counts, innings limits and postseason availability, Harvey’s first career playoff start in NLDS Game 3 was something of a dud. Facing the Dodgers at home, the righthander managed just five inefficient innings, allowing three runs and laboring through Los Angeles’s lineup, though he did pick up the win thanks to New York’s outburst on offense.
NLCS Game 1, however, was another matter entirely. Harvey retired 12 in a row to start the game, taking a perfect game into the fifth before hitting Anthony Rizzo with a pitch to lead off the frame. The Cubs finally managed to do some damage to Harvey in that inning, with Starlin Castro doubling over Juan Lagares’s head in center to drive in Rizzo, but the rally came to an abrupt end as Chicago tried to score Castro on a single to left by Javier Baez; Yoenis Cespedes threw out the Cubs’ second baseman at the plate by roughly 10 feet. Baez eventually got to third on a stolen base and a throwing error by Travis d'Arnaud, but Harvey stranded him.
From there, Harvey ran into trouble only twice more. In the seventh, he put two on with one out on a walk and an infield single on a ground ball he deflected as it skipped by him. He then dispatched of Baez on three pitches, striking him out on a high fastball, before getting pinch-hitter Tommy La Stella swinging on a diving changeup. Manager Terry Collins stuck with his righty for the eighth, where Harvey retired pinch-hitter Chris Coghlan and Dexter Fowler before Kyle Schwarber unloaded a solo homer to deep right center to make it 4–2. That ended Harvey's night as the sold-out and boisterous Citi Field crowd serenaded him with “Har-vey!” chants.
"He was absolutely on top of his game," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said of Harvey after the game. "His command was outrageous."
Utilizing a tough mix of four-seam fastball, changeup, slider and curve, Harvey had the Cubs off-balance and guessing all night. He struck out six of the first 12 hitters he faced and nine overall, got 16 swings and misses, needed just 97 pitches to get 23 outs and let only three runners reach scoring position. It was a much-needed effort after the shaky NLDS debut, and one that should get him back in the good graces of Mets fans after a tumultuous September.
Murphy, Granderson come through again
Murphy, the Mets’ veteran second baseman, came into the NLCS swinging the hottest bat of any regular: Over the course of five games against the Dodgers in the NLDS, Murphy hit .333/.333/.810 with three homers and five runs driven in. In the do-or-die Game 5, he almost single-handedly lifted the Mets, driving in the game’s first run, scoring the tying run and homering for the go-ahead run.
In the NLCS opener, Murphy immediately took charge. With none on and two out in the bottom of the first, he took two pitches, then blasted a 1–1 cutter from Lester into the upper deck in rightfield for his fourth home run of the playoffs to make it 1–0 Mets. That his bomb came off the lefty Lester suggests just how hot Murphy is right now. On the season, he hit just .254/.284/.349 against southpaws with only one homer, but since the start of the postseason, he’s gone deep three times off lefties, tagging Clayton Kershaw twice before adding Lester to his list.
As for Granderson, the rightfielder continued his own scorching stretch with a 1-for-3 night, including a fifth-inning single off Lester with two on and two out to break a 1–1 tie. It was his eighth hit in 21 postseason at-bats, giving him a .381 average to go with three walks; he now has at least one hit in five of his six games this postseason. He later added a sacrifice fly in the seventh to give the Mets their fourth and final run of the night.
The unexpected engines of the Mets’ offense, Murphy and Granderson need to stay hot, as most of the lineup around them has gone cold. David Wright went hitless ahead of Murphy and is now just 1 for 18 this postseason, albeit with six walks. Cespedes has fallen into a small slump; since his NLDS Game 3 homer, he’s just 1 for 14 with seven strikeouts. After going 2 for 18 in the division series, meanwhile, Lucas Duda found himself on the bench for the championship series opener, with Michael Cuddyer taking his spot at first base. Collins claimed he went with Cuddyer because of the veteran’s career numbers against Lester, but Duda’s 11 strikeouts in 20 plate appearances so far this postseason likely had more to do with that; as it was, Cuddyer went 1 for 3 with a single before Duda replaced him in the seventh.
Though the Mets did manage to scratch out four runs on the night and have put up 26 in six games so far, 13 of those came in the NLDS Game 3 rout of the Dodgers. For the most part, New York’s offense has been rather subdued, and things won’t get any easier on Sunday when NL Cy Young contender Jake Arrieta takes the mound looking to even the series. The Mets need more than Granderson and Murphy to keep their title hopes alive.
Cubs’ offense falls quiet
The NLDS against the Cardinals was a home run bonanza for the Cubs’ young lineup, which bashed 10 round-trippers in four games off St. Louis pitching. Against Harvey and the Mets’ bullpen, however, they were easily stymied, managing just Schwarber's solo shot among five hits to go with three walks (one intentional), totaling two runs. At-bats were short and unproductive, as Harvey mowed the Cubs down through 7 2/3 innings before handing the game off to Jeurys Familia, who converted the four-out save.
Before the game, Maddon talked about keeping a team with little playoff experience loose and calm ahead of what promised to be a nervy and difficult opener.
“From the beginning of the year, we’ve been trying to impress upon them to not treat any day differently, to apply the same amount of weight to every game,” he said.
Schwarber’s home run aside, though, the offense couldn’t find its rhythm. Chicago didn’t find it necessary to manufacture rallies against the Cardinals, relying instead on the long ball. Whether that approach will carry against a much tougher Mets pitching staff, however, remains to be seen.