By Matt Straub
In 2006, a heavy favorite lost the NLCS when one of its best players took strike three. In 2015, the favorites lost when a rally ended with a called strike three.
Nearly a decade ago, it was the New York Mets who lost a series they should have won. Carlos Beltran took strike three with the bases loaded and the winning run and a ticket to the World Series on first. Instead, the 83-win St. Louis Cardinals ended up winning the whole thing.
I’m a big believer in the baseball Gods. I don’t say no-hitter during one unless I’m trying to break it up. When the TBS camera found Yoenis Cespedes wearing his NL champions shirt with his goggles on before the last out was recorded, I knew the next batter would reach, which is what happened.
The baseball Gods, however, can be benevolent as well as vindictive. They knew they owed the Mets one for what happened in 2006, and payback came Wednesday night when the Mets won the NLCS on a called strike three.
For as much as people like me enjoy romanticizing baseball, there were other factors besides supernatural forces which helped the Mets win the NL pennant for the fifth time in their history. So let’s break down just how the Mets got the job done, going through two of the best teams in the NL on the way to the Fall Classic Tuesday night.
The New System: The extra rounds of playoffs have made baseball closer to the NCAA Tournament than it has ever been. No, the MLB playoffs aren’t as bad as the NBA and NHL, where half the sport makes the postseason, but things are certainly different than the old days. Now, with more spots available, getting hot in October matters more than being hot all year. The Mets aren’t nearly as bad as that Cardinals team was in 2006, but they definitely picked the right time to get hot. The Cubs were the better team, as evidenced by going 7-0 against the Mets in the regular season, but that doesn’t matter in October.
Daniel Murphy’s Explosion: Speaking of getting hot at the right time, Daniel Murphy had never hit more than five homers in a month in his career. He has hit more than that in nine playoff games. Teams which win in October usually have someone who plays above and beyond their capabilities to help ride them to the top. In the Mets’ case, the little infielder who was going to be gone at the end of the year made himself a ton of money this winter and got to the World Series in the process.
The Dark Knight Showed Up: Matt Harvey had to be embarrassed into pitching in October, but he was terrific once he got shamed into taking the ball. As soon as he was able to put aside the thought of injury and just let his competitiveness guide him, he was a hero again.
The Other Kids Stepped Up: Jacob deGrom proved he was an ace by overcoming control issues to find ways to win. To me, what he did in his last two playoff starts was much more impressive than the days where he’s dealing and dominating people. He won on guts and guile. And he wasn’t alone. The Mets are full of young pitchers who proved ready for the big stage sooner than some might have thought they’d be. They held the Cubs to a .164 average in the NLCS, the lowest by a team in the NLCS ever.
Closing The Deal: It wasn’t always pretty, but the Mets’ bullpen got it done. Sure some of the relievers in the postseason were really starters, but what matter is getting the job done. The Mets’ bullpen had a 1.64 ERA against the Cubs. New York hammered Chicago’s starters, but its bullpen’s ability to hold on to leads was the difference. The one reliever who stood out above them all was closer Jeurys Familia. I called him a potential liability in the series. Instead, he was a force.
Trader Sandy: Mets GM Sandy Alderson looked at his team in the early part of the summer and knew he had to do something. Realizing his team had a chance thanks to the Nationals’ struggles, he went out and got three hitters and retooled his bullpen. Cespedes was a Godsend for a month after arriving, carrying the Mets long enough for the Nationals to collapse. The garbage lineups the Mets were putting on the field in the first half of the season weren’t going to cut it, so Alderson went out and got Cespedes and, in an under the radar attack which was just as big, greatly helped the team’s depth with a number of smaller moves. He also went out and helped a bullpen which needed it.
Manager Of The Year: Terry Collins helped the Mets stay afloat in the first half of the year, then molded the new roster together after all the trades both on the field and in the clubhouse. The team seems to truly like each other, and getting a group of 25 professional baseball players to get along is a manager’s toughest and most important job. Collins guided the Mets deftly through the Wilmer Flores non-trade and the tarp game. Perhaps the worst week in Mets history was quickly followed with a spurt, showing how well Collins was able to keep his team strong mentally. They were steady like their manager, and now they’re going to play for a world championship. Only the baseball Gods saw this coming.