NLCS Preview: Can The Cubs Continue Their Unexpected Run?

Fred Merkle.

That is all anybody needs to know about the last time the Chicago Cubs faced a New York team with a World Series berth on the line.

The year?  Why, 1908, of course.  That number stands out in the mind of every Cubs fan.

On September 23 of that year, the Chicago Cubs and New York Giants met in a very important contest.  The clubs stood in a virtual first place tie in the National League, with 2 weeks left in the regular season.  The Cubs put Jack Pfiester on the mound against Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson.  Mathewson was up to the task, allowing only a Joe Tinker home run in the fourth inning.  However, Pfiester matched him, giving up only an unearned run (due to a Tinker error) in his 9 innings.  But the home team mounted a rally with 2 outs in the bottom of the ninth at the Polo Grounds as Art Devlin stood at third base and the 19 year old backup first baseman Fred Merkle, who had singled, was at first.  Shortstop Al Bridwell ripped a ball into center field, and Devlin cheerfully crossed home plate with what seemed to be the winning run.  Seeing this, Merkle stopped his jog towards second base and went to join in the Giants’ celebration.  The Cubs’ second baseman, Johnny Evers, took note of this and frantically went into the crowd to retrieve the baseball and stepped on the base, forcing Merkle out and creating a 1-1 tie game which was to be replayed after the completion of the regular season, on October 8, if needed to resolve the pennant.  Unfortunately for the Giants, the game was, indeed, necessary.  The Cubs emerged victorious in that game, 4-2, and secured their second consecutive National League pennant and went on to defeat the Detroit Tigers in the World Series.

In 1969, the tables were turned, and the upstart Mets caught up to the Chicago Cubs, who were ahead by as many as 10 games as late as August 13 of that year.  Did the Mets just catch fire (.776 winning percentage from August 13 to the end), or did the Cubs, who led from Opening Day (.400 after August 13) choke?  In the eyes of baseball pundits, it was the latter.  In the eyes of many Cubs fans, the Devil possessed the New York club.

Now it is 2015, and Chicago and New York once again meet with the World Series on the line.  Long forgotten are the Polo Grounds and all the participants in that late-season game.  Long gone are the black cats of Shea Stadium and Ron Santo clicking his heels.  Now we have two teams standing who were not widely expected to be in this spot at this point on the calendar.

The Mets and Cubs were both seen as vastly improved ball clubs.  The two teams combined for a 152-172 (.469) record in 2014.  Improvement, many predicted, would have meant .500.  Well, how about a combined 187-137 (.577)?  The Mets overcame the favorites (Washington Nationals) in the NL East, prevailing by 7 games and then dispatching the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS, 3 games to 2.   The Cubs, on the heels of their 97-65 record, coasted to a Wild Card spot, and thoroughly dominated the St. Louis Cardinals 3 games to 1 in the other NLDS.  Now, once again, it stands as New York vs. Chicago.

Both teams relied heavily on their vaunted pitching staffs.  42 year old veteran Bartolo Colon (14-13, 4.16 ERA) provided a steadying influence on an otherwise young group.  Colon is unlikely to start a game against the Cubs, but would surely be in the bullpen as he was in the NLDS.  The Game One starter will be 26 year old Matt Harvey (13-8, 2.71), who successfully returned after Tommy John surgery.  As the season came towards a close, Mets management put Harvey on a strict pitch/innings count in an effort to preserve his arm for 2016 and beyond.  If the club entertains any thoughts of success in the current post-season, those restrictions need to be lifted and Manager Terry Collins needs to be given the green light to let him go as deep into a game as necessary.  The key to the Mets’ success in this series, however, most definitely is held in the left hand of rookie Steven Matz, who will get the call in Game Two.  He was very good in 6 starts with the Mets, but has only 35 Major League innings under his belt.  It will be interesting to see how he handles the pressure of the LCS.  In his one appearance against the Dodgers in the LDS, he was largely unimpressive (5 ip, 6 H, 3 ER).  Because the LDS went 5 games, 2014 Rookie of the Year Jacob DeGrom and 2015 Rookie Noah Syndergaard will not be available until the series moves to Chicago on Tuesday.

On the other side of the matchup, the Cubs lead with Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta.  Some people have criticized Cubs’ manager Joe Maddon’s decision to go with Lester over the prohibitive Cy Young Award favorite Arrieta in the Opener. I say these are people who do not understand baseball.  For one, Lester last pitched in the Opener against the Cardinals last Friday.  He will now go Saturday on 7 days rest.  If Maddon chose to go with Arrieta first, Arrieta would have been going on a standard 4 day rest schedule while Lester would be at 8 days.  Too much time between starts can be just as harmful to a pitcher’s mechanics as not enough.  By going Lester before Arrieta, Arrieta still gets a reasonable 5 day rest.  Furthermore, while Lester seemingly had a less than expected season (11-12, 3.34), he was quite often the victim of horrible run support, finishing sixth lowest in the NL.  Plus, THIS moment is exactly what team president Theo Epstein had in mind when he signed Lester to the $155 million contract.  He has a career 2.66 post-season ERA and 1.024 WHIP.  When the leaves begin to fall, and the National TV cameras are turned on, Lester steps up.  Behind those two, Maddon has not announced his plans.  It would seem that Kyle Hendricks is in position to go on Tuesday and either Jason Hammel, who limped to the finish line or late-season acquisition Dan Haren would go on Wednesday.  If the Cubs have their backs to the wall, and find themselves down 2-1 or 3-0, I would not be surprised if Maddon deviates from plan and goes with Lester on short rest in Game Four.

The bullpens may just be where there is the clearest advantage for one team.  The Mets rely heavily on closer Jeurys Familia.  In the clincher against the Dodgers, Familia went 2 innings to close things out, unheard of in today’s game of specialist relievers.  This is due partly on the fact that he was fairly well-rested and partly because Collins really did not have anyone else very reliable to handle the 7th and 8th innings.  Late-season pickups Tyler Clippard and Addison Reed were hittable against the Dodgers and Colon ended up being the bullpen workhorse.

For the Cubs, everybody from castoffs Trevor Cahill and Clayton Richard to closer Hector Rondon made contributions all season and against the Cardinals.  In fact, the least effective reliever may have been the closer (Rondon) who still ended up saving 2 of the 3 victories. Once the ball is taken from the starter’s hand, the Cubs’ pen has greater potential to hold the lead (when ahead) or stem the tide (if behind) than their New York counterparts.

In the field, neither team particularly stands out, although the Mets did commit only 88 errors (5th in the NL) to the Cubs’ 111 (12th).  Center fielder Juan Lagares is the Mets’ best defender, as he catches most balls hit anywhere near him and has a cannon of an arm.  For the Cubs, Addison Russell’s move to his natural position of shortstop resulted in a highlight reel of plays, led by this gem against the Cardinals in September.  Unfortunately, he injured his hamstring against the Cardinals, leaving Javier Baez to take over.  Not to be outdone by Lagares, Cubs’ right fielder Jorge Soler has embarrassed his share of base runners, as well.  The pitch framing capabilities of Miguel Montero and heads up leadership of David Ross behind the plate may be what pushes the Cubs over the top in this matchup.

And then we have the bats.  Much has been made of the fact that the Cubs went 7-0 against the Mets in 2015.  That is all well and good, but that was before the New Yorkers acquired Yoenis Cespedes from the Tigers.  Once Cespedes joined the team, the entire Mets team started hitting and scoring like a real Major League offense.  Additionally, David Wright was not healthy and available for the 7 games against the Cubs.  With the mid-season additions, former NL Batting Champion Michael Cuddyer has become a valuable bench piece for the Mets.  There is plenty of pop (177 home runs, .400 team SLG) in the lineup.  Catcher Travis D’Arnaud, Right fielder Curtis Granderson, first baseman Lucas Duda, and Cespedes provide the bulk of that power while the underrated middle infield duo of Daniel Murphy and Wilmer Flores keep things moving.  Off the bench there are Cuddyer, rookie Michael Conforto, and Kelly Johnson.  Kevin Plawecki will back up D’Arnaud.

Yet, the Cubs are also not the same team anymore.  Jorge Soler missed most of the action against the Mets, and Kyle Schwarber only could watch it from his perch in Tennessee (AA team for Cubs).

For the Cubs, it is all about timely hitting.  This team led the league in both walks (567) AND strikeouts (1518).  They also added 171 home runs, and set a team record with 9 players in double figures (Led by Anthony Rizzo with 31).  The most dangerous part of the Cubs’ power is that when they start to hit home runs, they tend to do so in bunches.  Rizzo is unquestionably the leader of this offense while center fielder Dexter Fowler is the catalyst in the leadoff spot.  Fowler set career highs in runs, hits, home runs, and walks while providing solid defense.  Probable National League Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant will be at third base and Baez and former scapegoat Starlin Castro will man second base.  After being “benched” late in the season by Maddon, Castro had a sizzling September offensively.  Flanking Fowler in the outfield will be Soler and hulking rookie Kyle Schwarber.  Montero has had his share of clutch hits all season, but has struggled this far in the playoffs.  In reserve are Tommy LaStella, Chris Denorfia, Austin Jackson, Chris Coghlan, and Ross.  There has been a lot of speculation as to what Maddon will do with the roster spot created by the Russell injury.  While some have called for Jonathan Herrera, i just don’t see it.  He hasn’t had any meaningful playing time since mid-season.  Coghlan is a capable second backup infielder (after LaStella) while Denorfia and Jackson are solid in the outfield.  That roster spot most likely will go to a pitcher, likely Haren or Jason Motte.

Terry Collins, who entered the season most definitely on the hot seat, did an admirable job with a shuffling roster.  In most any other season, he would be given very strong consideration for Manager of the Year.  But this was not any other season.  What Joe Maddon did for the Chicago Cubs in 2015 is immeasurable.  His predecessor, Rick Renteria, did as well as could be expected with the cards he was dealt in 2014.  There was no reason to expect him to not return to help this very young team keep moving forward in 2015.  No reason, that is, until the Tampa Bay Rays allowed Andrew Friedman to defect to Los Angeles, thereby making Maddon a Free Agent.  Theo Epstein could not pass up the opportunity to grab him at any price.  That price was $5 million per year, while also paying the remainder of Renteria’s deal.  In just the first year of his Deal, Maddon has affirmed his place as one of the best managers in franchise history by being the conductor of the piecemeal orchestra that are the Cubs.

I see the Cubs hitting the ground running in Game One, and not looking back.  The Mets just looked over matched in virtually every phase of the game.  The Cubs’ arms are collectively better. The hitters are capable of more.  The infield makes spectacular plays.  Every arrow points in one direction of the ledger.

Harry Truman was President.

There were only 48 states in the Union.

World War II had recently come to an end.

Bing Crosby (“Going My Way”) won the Oscar for Best Actor.

And the Chicago Cubs played in the World Series.

The year was 1945.

70 years later, something thought impossible is on the brink of becoming reality.

The Chicago Cubs will defeat the New York Mets, 4 games to 1 to return to the World Series.

–Omar V Gobby

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