- San Francisco begins the quest for its fourth World Series title this decade, and the road to the Fall Classic begins in New York against the defending National League champions.
We know what you came to see in the National League wild-card game: Madison Bumgarner versus Noah Syndergaard. That matchup of two aces would’ve been enticing enough in the regular season; in a win-or-go-home playoff game, it’s downright intoxicating. But while that duel is the main attraction, there’s plenty else worth your attention as the Giants and Mets meet at Citi Field tonight at 8:00 p.m. ET, as San Francisco’s quest for another even-year title goes up against New York’s dream of a second straight pennant.
Madison Bumgarner (15–9, 2.74 ERA) vs. Noah Syndergaard (14–9, 2.60)
This is as marquee a matchup as it gets. In Bumgarner, the Giants roll out not only their best pitcher and a Cy Young contender, but also the man who carried them to a championship two years ago with one of the greatest displays of playoff pitching ever. In Syndergaard, the Mets counter with a pitcher who combines extreme velocity with reality-defying movement on his offspeed and breaking pitches—the kind of player you’d create in a video game and then feel guilty about unleashing on hitters.
Bumgarner wrapped up arguably the best regular season of his eight-year career in 2016, as the 27-year-old lefty set full-season career bests in ERA, innings (226 2/3), strikeouts (251), strikeout-per-nine rate (10.0), ERA+ (149) and WAR (5.0). But Bumgarner’s season was the story of two halves: a brilliant stretch from April through mid-July in which he posted a 1.94 ERA over 129 2/3 innings; and a bumpy post-All-Star-break span where his ERA touched 4.00 and he gave up 14 homers in 97 innings. Just nine of Bumgarner’s 14 turns in the second half were quality, though his final outing—7 1/3 innings, three runs against the Dodgers last Friday—was a return to form.
This is October, however, and when the calendar flips, Bumgarner is Christy Mathewson reborn. In his postseason career, the lefty has a miniscule 2.14 ERA in 88 1/3 innings, including a ridiculous 1.03 mark in 52 2/3 frames in 2014. That started with a dominant wild-card game performance in Pittsburgh, where he threw a complete-game shutout against the Pirates to begin San Francisco’s run to its third World Series in five years.
Could Syndergaard use tonight’s game as a Bumgarner-like launching pad of his own? The 24-year-old righthander certainly has the tools. His fastball sits at 98 mph and touches 100 with regularity. His slider makes hitters look drunk. His changeup dips and darts. All that added up to a strikeout-per-nine rate of 10.7 this year, the fourth-best figure among all qualified starters. His stuff is almost impossible to square up, too: Syndergaard’s home-run rate was an MLB-best 0.5 per nine.
Like Bumgarner, however, Syndergaard slipped in the second half, albeit not terribly. The biggest issue was a rise in walks and a slight drop in strikeouts, some of which can likely be tied to the elbow discomfort he experienced in June, a month in which he posted his worst stats of the year. Unlike the rest of the Mets’ rotation, however, Syndergaard was able to avoid the surgeon’s table.
One other thing to keep in mind with Syndergaard: his propensity to allow stolen bases. The big righty gave up 48 stolen bases on the season—18 more than second-place Jimmy Nelson—with just nine runners caught, an 84% success rate that was 11th-worst among all big league starters. The absence of Eduardo Nunez, who swiped 40 bags on the year between the Twins and Giants, will hurt, but expect San Francisco to try to take the extra base whenever possible against Syndergaard.
The Giants’ lineup has changed little from the group that last made the postseason. Six of the eight position players who started Game 7 of the 2014 World Series—centerfielder Gregor Blanco, second baseman Joe Panik, catcher Buster Posey, rightfielder Hunter Pence, first baseman Brandon Belt and shortstop Brandon Crawford— are still on the roster, and all but Blanco should be in the starting lineup tonight. The big changes come in center and at third base. The former was the domain of Denard Span for much of this season, but injuries and poor performance dropped him into a platoon with the well-traveled Gorkys Hernandez. At third, trade pickup Nunez replaced Matt Duffy in July (with Duffy subsequently shipped to Tampa Bay in a deal for Matt Moore), but a hamstring injury will keep him out of the wild-card game. Former top prospect Conor Gillaspie, who proved a solid bat off the bench in 101 games with San Francisco, will play in his stead.
As a group, the Giants were middle of the pack offensively, but the team’s power has disappeared. San Francisco’s 130 homers on the year were the third fewest in baseball, ahead of only the anemic Marlins and Braves, and no regular cracked the 20-home-run mark. That outage was particularly pronounced in the second half, when the Giants slugged just .388 as a team.
The Mets, meanwhile, are a long way from the Opening Day lineup they hoped would take them back to the playoffs. Injuries knocked David Wright and Neil Walker out for the year and sidelined Travis d’Arnaud and Lucas Duda for long stretches of it. As such, Yoenis Cespedes has been the offense's only reliable engine throughout the season, and he's responded with a team-high 133 OPS+ and 31 home runs. He’s been joined of late by Asdrubal Cabrera, who set NL pitching on fire in the second half with a .309/.362/.549 line and 11 home runs in 56 games, and by Jay Bruce, who slumped horribly upon joining New York from the Reds at the trade deadline but closed the season by hitting .263/.333/.513 in September and October.
To that trio, you can add veteran mainstays Curtis Granderson and Jose Reyes, as well as lesser lights like rookie T.J. Rivera (filling in for Walker at second base) and James Loney (subbing for Duda at first). Despite being lefthanded, Loney is expected to draw the start at first base against the southpaw Bumgarner, who has been murder on same-side hitters in his career (a .553 OPS against). The Mets as a whole have hit lefthanded pitchers slightly better than righties this year (.755 OPS versus .726), but lefties Loney, Granderson and Bruce are likely in for a long night.
Bullpen and defense
The Giants’ bullpen in the second half can best be summed up in three words: Avert your eyes. San Francisco relievers blew nine saves after the All-Star break, most at the hands of closer Santiago Casilla, who finally lost his job in September to Sergio Romo. Those struggles helped turn the Giants from the NL West leaders into a team barely hanging onto a playoff spot by late August, though the unit rebounded down the stretch and ended up posting a better ERA in the second half (3.33) than the first (3.94).
With Casilla deposed, Romo returns to the role he held during the team’s 2012 World Series run. Rookie Derek Law and hard-throwing Hunter Strickland are manager Bruce Bochy’s top righthanders, and trade deadline acquisition Will Smith is the go-to lefty. None of those four have been automatic in the second half, though Bochy would likely prefer being able to stick to them, which would allow him to avoid dipping into the likes of Javier Lopez and George Kontos, to say nothing of the irascible and flammable Casilla.
On the Mets’ side, Collins’s go-to is Jeurys Familia, who took over as the team’s closer last year. Despite leading the majors with 51 saves, Familia has seen his stats dip in his second season, particularly regarding his control: His walk rate has jumped from 2.2 per nine in 2015 to 3.6 this year. Familia’s workload was heavy—he finished an MLB-high 67 games and threw 77 2/3 innings—but Collins will not hesitate to ask him for more than three outs.
Behind Familia is righty Addison Reed, who has been unhittable as the Mets’ top setup man, but Collins quickly runs out of trustworthy options after those two. Hansel Robles throws hard but lacks control, and lefties Jerry Blevins and Josh Edgin are for situational use only. Should Syndergaard falter early or the game go into extras, Collins has brought Bartolo Colon and Robert Gsellman as his long men, but Mets fans will hope neither takes the mound.
One potential hinge point for the game will be defense. The Giants are one of the league’s best teams at turning balls in play into outs, with a Defensive Efficiency of .702, third best in baseball. The Mets, however, are all the way down at .678, fifth worst in the majors. Most of their problems are on the left side of the infield, where Reyes and Cabrera have struggled, and in the outfield, where Cespedes and Bruce plod. That’s in sharp contrast to San Francisco, which boasts plus defenders at every position—particularly Crawford at shortstop and Posey behind the plate—aside from centerfield and leftfield, where the declines of Span and Angel Pagan, respectively, have been noticeable.