The Mets are one win away from their first World Series appearance in 15 years. On Tuesday night, Jacob deGrom and New York once again stymied the Cubs, while Daniel Murphy continued his absurd postseason home-run binge, as the Mets downed Chicago, 5–2, to take a 3–0 lead in the National League Championship Series.
With the Mets a victory away from clinching the pennant, here are three thoughts on a wild and crazy Game 3 at Wrigley Field:
Murphy stays hot, and rest of Mets join in
What is there left to say about Daniel Murphy? “Red-hot” doesn’t even begin to describe the Mets second baseman, who hit his sixth home run of the postseason in the third inning off Kyle Hendricks. With two out, no one on and the game tied 1–1, Murphy got a sinker from Hendricks that stayed up and promptly launched it to centerfield for his third round-tripper of the series to give the Mets the lead.
It’s been a vicious one-man assault on the postseason record books for Murphy. Tuesday's homer made him the Mets’ all-time franchise leader in playoff home runs, pushing him ahead of Mike Piazza, and he is now tied with Carlos Beltran for most consecutive postseason games with a home run at five. For the playoffs, he’s now hitting a gargantuan .363 (.417 in this series) with nine RBIs, and five of his six homers have broken a tie or given the Mets a lead.
Unlike New York's last three playoff games, however, Murphy didn’t have to carry the offense alone. Against Hendricks and seemingly the entirety of the Cubs’ bullpen, the Mets scratched and clawed their way to five runs through a ragged combination of singles, stolen bases and suspect defensive work by Chicago. New York seemingly ran its way out of a run in the first after Curtis Granderson reached on an error and was then caught stealing, but the Mets managed to score anyway after Wright singled and then scored on Yoenis Cespedes’s two-out double to the left-center gap; the veteran third baseman took off running with the pitch.
After Murphy’s homer in the third, things got truly crazy for the Mets in the sixth. Cespedes singled off Trevor Cahill to start the frame, was bunted over to second by Lucas Duda (!) and stole third. With two outs, Michael Conforto struck out on a curveball in the dirt, only for the ball to get away from Miguel Montero behind the plate, allowing Cespedes to score the tying run.
For as strange as that was, however, things only got weirder. With Conforto on first, Wilmer Flores lashed a Cahill fastball to right, where the ball skipped by a diving Jorge Soler and rolled all the way to the rightfield wall. Conforto made it home easily, only to be called back to third after umpires ruled that Flores’s ball, which had disappeared into Wrigley’s outfield ivy, was a ground-rule double. An irate Terry Collins argued the call to no avail, and the Mets ultimately ended up stranding the runners after deGrom flied out to end the inning.
Luckily for the Mets, the lost run on Flores’s double didn’t matter in the end. In the seventh, two more New York runs came across on a bloop double by Wright, an infield single by Murphy, a single by Cespedes that clanked off Kyle Schwarber’s glove in left to drive in Wright and an RBI groundout by Duda to score Murphy. That proved to be all the Mets would need.
deGrom bends but doesn’t break
Much like NLDS Game 5, Tuesday’s start against the Cubs looked like it could be a short one for deGrom. Handed a 1–0 lead before he took the mound, deGrom needed seven pitches and a dubious called third strike on Dexter Fowler to get his first out, then gave up a solo home run to Schwarber that carried out to the first row of seats in leftfield. That Schwarber managed to push his homer to the opposite field at all was borderline amazing: The ball was so far off the plate that the Cubs’ beefy rookie practically had to throw his bat at it. According to ESPN Stats and Info, it was further outside (10.5 inches) any home run hit by a lefty had been all season. It took deGrom 29 pitches to get through the frame, as he ran the count full three times but was helped by the combination of Travis d'Arnaud’s excellent framing behind the plate and umpire Ted Barrett’s slightly large strike zone.
From there, the Mets’ righty managed to avoid further trouble, giving up only a third-inning walk to Schwarber and a fourth-inning solo homer to Soler over his next six frames. Like Schwarber, Soler went opposite field with his shot, taking a 3–1 fastball and rocketing it into right to tie the game at 2–2. That was as much as the Cubs would get, though, as deGrom retired the next 11 batters in a row; he finished the night with two runs allowed on four hits and a walk with seven strikeouts and just 100 pitches thrown. He registered 19 swings and misses on the night, threw 24 of his 28 four-seam fastballs for strikes and, after that laborious first inning, hardly broke a sweat, needing just 71 pitches over his final six innings and only 29 in his last three.
It was yet another excellent outing for a Mets starter, as the team’s rotation has effectively shut down the Cubs’ lineup. Between deGrom, Game 1 starter Matt Harvey and Game 2 starter Noah Syndergaard, New York’s starters have gone 20 1/3 innings and given up a total of five runs on 11 hits and four walks, striking out 25. Rookie lefty Steven Matz will look to add to that total on Wednesday night in Game 4.
Cubs on the brink
The odds are now bleak for Chicago in the NLCS: Down 0–3 in the series, the Cubs not only face elimination in Game 4, but also know that, even if they do stave off the end for one more game, they still need three more wins against a Mets rotation that has been nearly untouchable all series. The Game 4 situation is dire enough on its own, as Jason Hammel will take the ball for the Cubs for his second start of the postseason after managing just three inefficient innings in his NLDS Game 4 turn.
Barring the game of Hammel’s life, it will be on manager Joe Maddon to stitch together a game once again using his bullpen of misfit toys. In Game 3, he was forced to get 15 outs from six different relievers, though only Clayton Richard, Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon got through the game unscathed. Cahill, Travis Wood and Justin Grimm combined to allow three runs in two innings, a figure that would have been worse had Flores’s ground-rule double not vanished into the ivy. All six will likely be available for Game 4—Cahill threw the most pitches of any reliever on Tuesday with 18—and Maddon could possibly call upon either of Jon Lester or Jake Arrieta for an inning if needed.
All the pitching moves in the world won’t help the Cubs if the offense doesn’t get back in gear, however. After Tuesday’s defeat, Chicago has managed just five runs in 27 innings of play, with just three homers (two from Schwarber and all with no one on base), six extra-base hits, five walks and 29 strikeouts. Fowler (.273 batting average) and Soler (.250 in eight at-bats) are the only players above the Mendoza line for the series, and the 3-4-5 hitters in Maddon’s lineup—Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro—are a combined 6-for-33 with two extra-base hits.
The hole the Cubs have dug is likely too deep to escape—remember, the 2004 Red Sox are the only team to come back from 0–3 in a seven-game series in major league history—and the tools simply aren’t there for Maddon to make any magic happen. His rotation is depleted, his lineup has gone ice cold and his bullpen is unreliable. But even though this NLCS will be an ignominious end for a Cubs team that exceeded expectations all year, given the young core that Theo Epstein and company have built, expect to see Chicago continue to battle for the NL pennant for a long time to come.