NLDS preview: Dodgers, Mets bring arsenal of aces to playoff matchup
The Dodgers have baseball’s first $300 million roster, but they might also have the worst overall offense of any of the ten playoff clubs. While the Cardinals scored 20 fewer runs than the Dodgers’ 667 (L.A. ranked 19th overall, St. Louis 24th), St. Louis spent great swaths of the regular season without four of its best hitters in Matt Adams, Randal Grichuk, Matt Holliday and Stephen Piscotty, all of whom missed between 59 and 102 games and all of whom are now healthy.
The Dodgers have had injury issues of their own, particularly involving Howie Kendrick and Yasiel Puig. While both will be available for the NLDS, Kendrick’s strained hamstring (which put him on the disabled list for six weeks through Sept. 19) still hampers him, and Puig has appeared in just two games since late August. Besides, Puig’s third season wasn’t nearly up to the standard of his first two, as he hit .257 with 11 homers, 38 RBIs and three steals in 78 games.
With All-Star rookie Joc Pederson showing no signs of pulling out of a horrible second-half slump in which he hit just .175 with five homers and a .595 OPS, the Dodgers’ lineup features exactly two truly intimidating hitters: Adrian Gonzalez (.275, 28 homers, 90 RBIs) and rookie shortstop Corey Seager, who has 27 big-league games under his belt.
The Mets ranked just two spots ahead of the Dodgers on the runs leaderboard, but their offense almost entirely changed—in constitution, health and production—after Aug. 1, and it wasn’t all due to the trade deadline acquisition of Yoenis Cespedes. Between the beginning of August and the end of September, New York crossed the plate more often—316 times, or 5.8 per game—than anyone save the Blue Jays. Cespedes, of course, had an elite .870-plus OPS during that stretch, but so did rookie Michael Conforto, Lucas Duda, Curtis Granderson and Daniel Murphy. October has so far been somewhat troubling, as the Mets totaled two runs in four games—and were no-hit by the Nationals’ Max Scherzer in Sunday’s season finale—allowing the Dodgers to win home field advantage in this series. But New York had long before put the gas explosion that was the 2015 Nats in its rearview mirror, and with renewed motivation, should have the better offense—decidedly so. EDGE: Mets.
For New York, an awful lot hinges on the stiff back of Steven Matz. The 24-year-old southpaw, who is 4–0 with a 2.27 ERA in his six career starts, is the fourth member of the Mets’ quartet of young aces, and the club tentatively plans for him to start next Tuesday night’s Game 4. But his availability will not be determined until Thursday, perhaps Friday. If Matz cannot go, 42-year-old Bartolo Colon would be an option to start Game 4, but the greater likelihood is that manager Terry Collins would turn to Game 1 starter Jacob deGrom, who has never before pitched on less than four days' rest.
DeGrom, Matz, Matt Harvey and Noah Syndergaard have only ever pitched in four consecutive games once, and it happened two weeks ago, when the Mets swept a four-game series against the Reds. That triumvirate worked 26 innings in which they struck out 34 batters, walked none and combined for an ERA of 2.77. New York would very much like the chance to repeat that experience.
Can two aces ever be better than four? Perhaps, when those aces are Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. The Cubs’ Jake Arrieta might win the NL Cy Young Award, but Kershaw (16–7, 2.13 ERA) and Greinke (19–3, 1.66 ERA) are two of the game’s three best starters. If manager Don Mattingly taps Kershaw—who just became the first 300-strikeout pitcher since 2002—for Game 4 on short rest, the Mets would potentially have to face them twice apiece
Neither of the Dodgers’ other options—Game 3 starter Brett Anderson (10–9, 3.69 ERA) and potential Game 4 starter Alex Wood (12–12, 3.84)—is anything better than average, though both are lefties, like Kershaw, and the Mets have several big lefty bats. But it might not matter. Neither will the fact that Kershaw’s postseason ERA, 5.12, is nearly 2 1/2 runs worse than his regular-season standard, as it’s difficult to imagine that he will turn in another disaster outing along the lines of those he experienced against the Cardinals in 2013 and again last October, when he combined to allow 15 runs in 10 2/3 innings. Even if Matz proves healthy, the presence of Kershaw and Greinke gives the Dodgers the slight rotational advantage. EDGE: Dodgers.
Both clubs have excellent closers: Kenley Jansen (36 saves, 2.41 ERA) for the Dodgers and Jeurys Familia (43 saves, 1.85 ERA) for the Mets. Both also have one dependable setup man: J.P. Howell (1.43 ERA in 65 appearances) for the Dodgers and Tyler Clippard (3.06 ERA in 32 outings after being acquired from Oakland) for the Mets. Other than that, it’s been a whole lot of mediocrity, at least during the regular season. In this series, though, the Mets’ bullpen appears to have the greater depth, thanks to veteran starters-turned-relievers Colon and Jonathon Niese, as well as Addison Reed, the failed former Diamondbacks closer who had a 1.20 ERA in 15 appearances after coming to New York in an overlooked deadline trade. EDGE: Mets.
The Pick: Mets
It goes without saying that Harvey will have to beat Anderson in Game 3 for New York to have a chance to win the series. Even then, the Mets might have to win two of four games started by Kershaw and Greinke—a considerable task, but one they’ve already accomplished this year, as they went 2–2 in the four regular-season games they played against the Dodgers that were started by the duo, all of which came before their post-Aug. 1 offensive overhaul.
The Dodgers’ other shortcomings mean that significant stress will be placed on the arms of Kershaw and Greinke, and even those of us who are regularly closer to perfection than most can still crack. The Mets are built to exploit any fissure, and if Kershaw and Greinke are anything less than their relentless best—a strong possibility, given the circumstances—the series will go to New York.