Forget about the Cubs' 7-0 record against the Mets this season. It doesn’t matter anymore. The Cubs and Mets haven’t faced one another since the July trade deadline, in which the Mets made the move for bomb-hitting, bat-flipping Yoenis Cespedes, who has turned into a superstar since coming to Queens. Since being traded from Detroit, Cespedes has hit 17 home runs with 44 RBIs and a .942 OPS, helping the Mets score almost two more runs per game than they were plating in the first half of the season.
The Mets also are much healthier than they were earlier in the season, as catcher Travis d’Arnaud and third baseman David Wright are now in the lineup after battling injuries. The Mets are getting younger as well as healthier. Top Mets prospect Michael Conforto was called up with 56 games left in the regular season, and the first-round pick has delivered, hitting .270/.335/.506 in 194 plate appearances, adding outfield depth alongside a rejuvenated Curtis Granderson.
But the Mets aren't the only team in this series that aren’t the same as they were back in July. The Cubs’ deadline deals weren't as notable as the Mets’, but their demeanor has gone from “Yeah, we’re young and pretty good” to “Yeah, we’re young and really good, and we know we can win.” And that is a dangerous mentality, a direct result of manager Joe Maddon’s laid-back, “have fun” demeanor. More than a mentality though, is the Cubs’ deep lineup of thumpers. From top to bottom Chicago can put the ball out of the park at any given at-bat.
Two storied franchises with rabid and desperate fan bases in two of baseball’s biggest markets is exactly what we want to see in the postseason. Christmas has come early.
Chicago Cubs vs. New York Mets
Saturday, Oct. 17
Jon Lester vs. Matt Harvey
Sunday, Oct. 18
Jake Arrieta vs. Noah Syndergaard
Tuesday, Oct. 20
Undecided vs. Undecided
Wednesday, Oct. 21
Undecided vs. Undecided
Thursday, Oct. 22
Undecided vs. Undecided
Saturday, Oct. 24
Undecided vs. Undecided
Sunday, Oct. 24
Undecided vs. Undecided
Three Things to Watch
1. Mets’ Rotation
October has a tendency to turn great pitchers into rather marginal pitchers — ask David Price and Clayton Kershaw. That same sentiment doesn't seem to pertain to the young hurlers of the New York Mets' starting rotation. Led by Hanson band member look-alikes, Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard, the Mets have a one-two rotation punch to match with the Cubs' Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester. But the Mets also hold the trump card in their No. 3 starter, Matt Harvey.
Harvey has been in the spotlight for more than his rocket right arm as of late. Reports of him partying the night before and consequentially missing a mandatory team workout prior to Game 1 of the NLDS led to many pundits questioning Harvey’s dedication to his team, comments that were echoed (by more of what he didn’t say, than what he did) by Mets captain David Wright. Harvey’s tardiness is only compounded by the ongoing discourse between his agent Scott Boras and Mets’ brass over his client's pitch count and innings limit. Harvey only pitched five innings in Game 3 of the NLDS before being pulled by manager Terry Collins. Granted, the Mets did have a seven-run lead at the time. But the question still looms, how much will Harvey’s questionable availability come into play if the NLCS goes the distance?
Harvey’s pitching compadres, deGrom and Syndergaard were fantastic against the Dodgers in the NLCS. deGrom started Games 1 and 5. In Game 1 deGrom’s fastball reached speeds upwards of 97 and 98 MPH regularly, as the former Stetson Hatter whiffed 13 Dodgers over seven shutout innings. In Game 5, deGrom’s fastball location was off and the speed wasn’t as fierce, topping out in the mid-90s. But deGrom’s breaking ball, especially his slider, was more than enough to make up for his fastball’s shortcomings, as he was able to go six innings and surrendered just two runs.
After an okay start in Game 2, giving up three runs, while walking four and striking out nine in 6 1/3 innings, Syndergaard came on in relief of deGrom in Game 5. Syndergaard did give up a walk, but touched triple digits multiple times on the radar gun, as he fanned two and shut the door on the Dodgers in his first career relief appearance.
The Mets’ pitching carried them though the dog days of summer, before the offense was reinforced and played catch-up in August, but facing a Cubs offense that features top-to-bottom power is going to be the toughest task of the season. Should make for great baseball theater.
2. Cubs’ Young, Scorching Hitters
The myth that postseason experience matters when October rolls around has been busted by both of these teams. For the Cubs, their young lineup swatted their way through the Wild Card game in Pittsburgh and through the deep Cardinals rotation in the NLDS, hitting 12 home runs in five games, 11 of which came against St. Louis.
While most ball clubs have one or two guys that can hurt you with a long ball regularly, the Cubs literally have an entire lineup card full of players that can touch ‘em all in any at-bat. But the most fascinating part about Chicago’s dangerous lineup is just how young most of these Cubs are. Maddon was completely comfortable starting four rookies in the field for a majority of the season. While one of those rookies, shortstop Addison Russell, will miss the NLCS with a tender hamstring, he will be replaced by Javier Baez, who had just 80 plate appearances in the regular season. But Baez, like the other Cub rookies, can bring the thunder with the lumber, as evidenced by his opposite-field, go-head three-run home run in Game 4 of the NLDS off of the Cardinals’ John Lackey.
Alongside Baez, will be rookie outfielders Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler, who combined for an average slash line of .554/.684/1.401, a mean OPS of 1.893, and a total of nine RBIs and five home runs — including the monster shot Schwarber smashed in Game 4 of the NLDS that remains atop the right field video board at Wrigley Field.
Joining Baez in the middle infield will be Starlin Castro, the Cubs’ former starting shortstop. Since his mid-season benching, Castro has been playing a reinvigorated brand of baseball, solidifying the Cubs’ defense and adding pop at the plate. Castro, at 25, is considered a seasoned vet alongside 26-year old first baseman, and the heart and soul of the Cubs, Anthony Rizzo. Rizzo was really struggling at the plate in the NLDS before his Game 3 blast off of Kevin Siegrist... and then again in Game 4 when Rizzo victimized the same St. Louis reliever again, this time breaking a 4-4 tie in the bottom of the sixth with a solo no-doubter, giving the Cubs a lead they would not relinquish.
While Rizzo and Schwarber pack the punch from the left side of the plate, most of the Cubs' right-handed power lies in the bat of the probable NL Rookie of the Year, Kris Bryant. Bryant only hit .150/.190/.400 with seven strikeouts against the Cards in the NLDS, but it seems like the stud third basemen has the Mets' number this season. In 26 plate appearances against New York this season, Bryant hit .381/.500/.762 with a 1.262 OPS and two home runs. Numbers aside, the Cubs' bats are going to need to remain hot against this flame-throwing Mets rotation.
3. X-Factor: Bullpens
The Mets and their stellar stable of young starting pitching have a slight edge over the Cubs' starting rotation, simply because New York’s regular No. 3 and 4 starters (Harvey, Steven Matz) have big-game capability. The same can’t be said as soundly for their counterparts — Kyle Hendricks or Jason Hammel.
Both Hendricks and Hammel were pulled early in their NLDS starts for relief help. Hendricks went just 4 2/3 innings in Game 2 before Maddon called on Travis Wood, Trevor Cahill and closer Hector Rondon to finish off the Cubs' first win of the series. Hammel started Game 4, but only went three innings before Maddon went to his bullpen. Maddon’s move proved to be vital as the mix of Wood, Cahill, Rondon, Clayton Richard, Justin Grimm, Fernando Rodney and Pedro Strop combined for six innings of work, giving up just two runs on five hits, with one walk and 13 strikeouts, but most importantly, the Cubs’ bullpen sealed the series, saving Maddon from using Lester or Arrieta for a winner-take-all Game 5.
In the dugout, Mets’ manager Terry Collins, like Maddon, can use someone with starting experience to come in to eat innings in relief. Maddon can call upon Richard, Wood or Cahill, while Collins used Met fan favorite, 42-year-old Bartolo Colon three different times in the NLDS with decent success. In addition to adding bats to the lineup before the trade deadline, the Mets also added Tyler Clippard and Addison Reed to their bullpen. A setup man and closer during his time in Washington and Oakland, Clippard hasn’t been the same pitcher he was with the Nationals or A's, as his FIP jumped up to 4.65 with New York. Reed has taken over the setup role, but pitched poorly in the dramatic Game 2 seventh inning that lead to four Dodger runs after the now-famous non-slide from Chase Utley that broke Mets’ shortstop Ruben Tejada’s leg.
Collins has already shown that he is willing to throw the bullpen rule book out the window when it comes to big-game situations. In Game 5 of the NLDS, Syndergaard warmed up three different times before being inserted in the seventh inning. In that same game, Collins used his fantastic closer Jeurys Familia to earn the six-out save, something Familia has never done before. The lineups and rotations for both of these teams will steal the headlines in this NLCS, but it is the bullpens that could be the biggest factor in what decides who makes it to the Fall Classic.
This series could very easily swing either way as this matchup between two very good teams, with lots of young talent could be the best of the postseason. The difference in this series could be very marginal, and really could come down to one swing of the bat. And the Cubs, despite their free-swinging ways, have been too hot to pick against. But don’t be surprised if this series goes seven games — we could only hope to be so lucky.
Prediction: Cubs in 7 games
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. An avid baseball fan, Rose also takes time to do some play-by-play work for the radio broadcasts of Middle Tennessee State Blue Raider baseball games. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.