Lucas Duda’s bat awakens as Mets, Daniel Murphy finish off Cubs in NLCS
CHICAGO — The Mets waited for him for nearly two weeks. For most of that time, only Curtis Granderson and Daniel Murphy (especially, good god, Daniel Murphy) were hitting. That was understandable, because they were facing some of the best pitchers in the world—Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke twice apiece, then Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta—and it was also enough, because New York’s own starters were so dominant.
“We’ve got to have him produce some runs,” manager Terry Collins had said of his first baseman, the lefthanded-hitting behemoth who slugged 57 homers over the past two seasons. That quote from Collins, though, came on Oct. 15, prior to Game 5 of the NLDS against the Dodgers. Nothing had changed since. The Mets started him in each of their playoff games but one—he got a breather in the NLCS opener against the Cubs, against the difficult southpaw Jon Lester—and he’d produced just three hits, all singles, in 24 at-bats, to go with 13 strikeouts.
Still, Collins stuck with him. Duda is the streakiest of players. Between June 19 and July 24, he hit two home runs in 29 games. Between July 25 and August 2, he hit nine home runs in eight games. The problem with benching him is that you never know when one of his downswings will, all at once, turn, and rewardingly so.
The reward for the Mets came during Wednesday night’s NLCS Game 4. Duda went 3-for-4 with a homer. He drove in five runs by the second inning. And he assured the Mets of an eventual 8–3 victory—which clinched a 4–0 series sweep of the Cubs, and a first trip to the World Series in 15 years—almost by himself. “You show players you’ve got confidence in them, and I thought I did that with Lucas, knowing that if he breaks out, he can carry us,” said Collins. “And tonight he broke out.”
“That was probably the first time I hit the ball on the barrel, probably, in about two or three weeks,” Duda said, of his first-inning three-run blast off of the Cubs short-lived starter Jason Hammel. “It was definitely nice to hit one tonight, and here we are going to the World Series.”
The Mets are going there, starting next Tuesday night in either Kansas City or Toronto, thanks to a four-game effort, against an opponent that went 7–0 against them in the regular season and had the better overall record by seven wins, that was unexpectedly and completely annihilative. They never trailed in any of the 36 innings they played, becoming the sixth team to accomplish that feat in a best-of-seven series. “They did not let us up for air at any point,” said Cubs manager Joe Maddon.
New York’s starting pitchers rarely had to readjust their grip. Steven Matz’s outing in Game 4 looked positively disastrous when compared to what Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom had done, and Matz allowed a single run on four hits in 4 2/3 innings. But that was both explicable and, to some degree, expected, as the Mets’ young quartet of aces all throw very hard and very well. That Duda would break out could also have been anticipated, given the pattern of his career. What seemed to materialize out of the ether, and what no one saw coming or could explain, was what Murphy did this series.
The game was already out of reach in the top of the eighth inning when Murphy set a record by hitting a home run in his sixth consecutive game. It was an astonishing feat, and more astonishing still because it gave him seven playoff homers, after a regular season in which he hit just 14.
Most astonishing of all, though, was how he hit his latest bomb. Fernando Rodney, the Cubs’ reliever, has struggled this season, but he can still throw a fastball in the upper 90s and a changeup some 15 miles an hour slower. Murphy stepped to the plate looking for the change, but Rodney delivered straight heat: a 97 mph ball on the first pitch, a strike at 98 on the second. Surely, Murphy thought, Rodney would throw that changeup, at around 83 mph, with his third pitch. He didn’t; the pitch came in at 96. Nobody hits a fastball when they are looking for a slow change. Murphy swung anyway, and he did more than just hit it. “I don’t know how I got to the fastball,” he would say afterwards.
He got to it, quite simply, because he is as locked in as anyone has ever been at this time of year. “Daniel Murphy, I’ve not seen anything like this, I don’t think, ever,” Maddon said, adding Murphy's performance has been better than even a peaking Barry Bonds. “I saw Bonds in the 2002 World Series, where you did not want to throw a baseball to him as a pitcher. Right now it’s just incredible, line drive to left, homer to right or homer to center.”
Granderson, who hits two spots ahead of Murphy in the Mets’ order, reached even further back for a comparison. “I’m going to get the chance to tell people I played with Babe Ruth,” Granderson said. “That’s what it looks like.”
The Mets now look like a team stocked with greats, and as midnight approached they celebrated as one on the field of a stadium, Wrigley Field, that hasn’t hosted many such revelries. DeGrom had a cigar clenched between his teeth. Granderson, a Chicago native, was surrounded by at least a half a dozen other people whose shirts all read GRANDERSON. Bartolo Colon—whose 1 1/3 innings of scoreless work on Wednesday earned him a win and a first trip to the World Series at the age of 42—allowed his eyes to grow moist. Duda, whose teammates often poke fun at him for looking bewildered, looked bewildered.
Eventually, Murphy—whose heroics meant that he had additional MLB business, such as accepting the Most Valuable Player award, to take care of—emerged from the dugout. “MVP!” chanted the surprisingly large contingent of deliriously lingering Mets fans. “MVP!” It was then that the klieg lights at Wrigley were turned off. The Cubs’ wait, now at 107 years and counting, would continue. The Mets’ was over, and they celebrated its end in the murky light of the old ballpark.