It is another big October weekend coming up. A week later, here we are with exciting playoff baseball. There are eight teams left vying for the World Title. The excitement of the two wildcard games lived up to the hype. The Blue Jays went extras to prevail over the Orioles. The Giants used some more Even Year Magic to stun the Mets at Citi Field in a game fans in NYC are still talking about.
So let’s get to it!
-It’s not so much a surprise that Madison Bumgarner carried the Giants past the Mets going the distance for a shutout 3-0 victory. The San Francisco ace has ice water in his veins. When it comes to October baseball, there simply isn’t a better pitcher. The 2014 World Series MVP continued to dial up zeroes keeping a better hitting Mets team off the scoreboard. He needed 119 pitches to help San Francisco advance to an NL Division Series date with the 103-win Cubs.
-As usual, the Giants do it with unsung heroes. Once, it was Marco Scutaro. This time, it was fill in third baseman Conor Gillaspie. An original Giants’ first round draft pick who wound up a starter for the White Sox a couple of years ago, he eventually fell down and was on the Angels for a song. He signed with the Giants and got another chance. He wasn’t even supposed to start but deadline pick up Eduardo Nunez was injured. Gillaspie filled in nicely for him down the stretch coming in swinging a hot bat.
-When he came up in the top of the ninth against lock down Met closer Jeurys Familia with two runners on and one out, Gillaspie was the last guy you’d expect a home run from. Sure enough, the left-handed hitting third baseman turned around a high sinker sending it into orbit to silence the 43,000-plus in Flushing. A player who only hit six homers in 101 games all year took Familia yard. He had only given up one long ball.
-Baseball can be unpredictable. Expect the unexpected. In this case on a nice Wednesday night where Bumgarner and Mets’ flame thrower Noah Syndergaard went pitch for pitch, it was a guy who wasn’t supposed to be here. But Gillaspie made it count and then showed plenty of emotion rounding the bases. He later indicated he wasn’t someone who does that but the occasion was special.
-Interestingly, Bumgarner was on deck. Had Gillaspie not come through, he is likely pinch hit for. Who knows what happens. Given the fragile state of the Giants’ bullpen, it probably would’ve tilted in the Mets’ favor. Perhaps it was fate. To hear my pumped up father emphatically scream, “Bleeping house money! Bleeping house money!” it was pretty accurate. Considering the awful second half they had, the Giants weren’t supposed to be here. But they righted themselves the final week by winning six of the final seven including a home sweep of the NL West champion Dodgers to get in.
-The thing about the wildcard is it works. It’s do-or-die. Either you deliver or you’re history. In Baltimore’s case, Buck Showalter failed them by not going to dominant closer Zach Britton. I understand he was saving him for a save situation. But once Ubaldo Jimenez got in trouble, he should’ve went with his best. Instead, he left Jimenez in for one more batter and watched Edwin Encarnacion hit a long three-run walk off bomb that still hasn’t landed.
-The Jays rode that momentum by hammering Cole Hamels for seven runs in a 10-1 blowout win at Texas. Jose Bautista stayed hot driving in four including a three-run shot. Troy Tulowitzki and Josh Donaldson also had big games. They were backed by eight-plus of one-run ball from Marco Estrada, who had a good season.
-For the Rangers, it comes down to Game 2. They don’t want to go down 0-2 with the next two at Rogers Centre. Game 2 features Yu Darvish against Jays’ southpaw J.A. Happ, who had a very good year winning 20 games. Darvish finished strong. Undoubtedly, Texas needs him to be at his best and get the offense going. Happ faces some dangerous righty bats in Adrian Beltre, Rougned Odor, Carlos Beltran and Jonathan Lucroy.
-One other point on the Mets’ loss. It was eerily similar to the one suffered 10 years ago to the Cardinals. Only the stakes were much higher as it was Game 7 of the NLCS at Shea Stadium. On Wednesday night, another outfielder made a great catch saving a run. This time, it was Curtis Granderson tracking a Brandon Belt deep drive to center. He kept going and made an amazing running catch into the wall to strand a runner in the top of the sixth.
-Ironically, it was Endy Chavez’ catch over the wall in left that took away a home run from Scott Rolen in the same inning against the Cardinals. Jose Reyes was part of both games. In the post game, he noted how Granderson’s catch reminded him of Chavez’s. In each case, the Amazin’s suffered the same cruel fate with a reliever giving up a big blow in the top of the ninth. In ’06, it was Aaron Heilman serving one up to then unknown St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina. At least he became an All-Star. This time, it was the Mets’ best in Familia giving it up to Gillaspie. That is baseball.
-You do have to wonder what the heck Yoenis Cespedes was thinking in the last half of the ninth. Bumgarner had just missed badly with his first two pitches. You’re down three. Cespedes swung at the next pitch and flied out easily to right. At that point, the Mets need base runners. He should’ve been taking. The overly aggressive Cespedes looked badly against Bumgarner, who twice fanned him on pitches out of the strike zone. He can opt out and become a free agent. Early hints are he will and might not return.
-Bumgarner didn’t have his A-plus stuff. He struggled in the middle innings after only using 21 pitches the first three innings. But the Mets were unable to deliver the big hit. They missed some chances. That’s also what makes Bumgarner so tough. He doesn’t give into the pressure. He battles through. It explains why he’s been so clutch in October. It will be an interesting subplot to see him face Jake Arrieta in Game 3 of the NL Division Series. How will he fare against a potent Cubs lineup featuring Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Dexter Fowler, Addison Russell and Ben Zobrist?
-As for Syndergaard, he put on a wonderful performance befitting of an ace who will win a Cy Young in the future. Boasting a 99 MPH heater, the Texas native who idolized Josh Beckett was splendid for seven innings. The Giants couldn’t touch him. In fact, Syndergaard didn’t allow a hit until the sixth when Denard Span went up the middle for a base hit. Syndergaard fanned 10 and was superb. The Giants did run up his pitch count making it a certainty he was done after whittling out of the seventh with 108 pitches (70 strikes).
–Addison Reed came in in the eighth and got in and out of trouble. He loaded the bases before getting Hunter Pence swinging on some high cheese. The set up man was excellent all season.
-Everyone knew Terry Collins would go to Familia in the ninth. There is no save situation in a tie game for the home team. At that point, you go with your best. Familia wasn’t sharp leaving a pitch up that Brandon Crawford hammered to the gap in the opposite field for a lead off double. Angel Pagan failed to lay down a sacrifice bunt with Familia coming back to strike him out on high heat.
-The key at bat came from Joe Panik. Ice cold down the stretch after returning from injury, the St. John’s alum fouled off a tough pitch and worked a walk on a 3-2 count. That set the stage for Gillaspie. He did the rest.
-Of course, Bruce Bochy had no one warming in the Giants’ pen. This was Bumgarner’s game. The same as it was in a road wildcard win over the Pirates. Also a shutout. With how little is in that pen with Sergio Romo taking over the closer duties, it’s no wonder Bochy doesn’t trust it.
-Game 1 is Friday night with Johnny Cueto opposing Jon Lester at Wrigley Field. That should be a surreal scene. The Cubs were 16 games better in the standings than the Giants. They boast a lethal lineup, deep pitching that also includes NL Cy Young candidate and Game 2 starter Kyle Hendricks. Plus a strong pen featuring Hector Rondon and triple digit closer Aroldis Chapman. Everything points to the Cubs. Bumgarner can’t start more than one game. The Giants do boast Cueto, who had a strong year. But Game 2 is either Jeff Samardzija or Matt Moore.
-If there are x-factors in this series, for the Cubs it’s tough number one hitter Fowler and Jason Heyward. For the Giants, we’ll go with Buster Posey, who had an off year. He’s a former MVP.
-The other NLDS features the Dodgers at the Nationals. It will be a scintillating match-up between a pair of aces in Clayton Kershaw against Max Scherzer. If both are on, the over/under on combined strikeouts is 21. These are two of the best. Kershaw who still hasn’t had his October moment but has three Cy Youngs. Scherzer, who has one and did win 20 games with a 2.96 ERA while striking out a major league-leading 284. This is as good as it gets.
-It should be a great series. The Dodgers have an edge in pitching with Rich Hill going in Game 2 against Gio Gonzalez. The lineups are about on par with the Nats featuring Daniel Murphy, Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon and dazzling rookie Trea Turner. Danny Espinosa supplies pop and Jayson Werth boasts championship pedigree. The Dodgers boast the NL’s top rookie Corey Seager, Justin Turner, Adrian Gonzalez and Yasiel Puig. They also have Joc Pederson and overlooked catcher Yasmani Grandal. Chase Utley has the championship experience and always puts together good at bats.
-Both teams possess excellent closers. The Nats with Mark Melancon, who they stole from the Pirates. The Dodgers with Kenley Jansen. They are two of the game’s best. Give the edge to LA’s bullpen with converted reliever Joe Blanton setting up along with Pedro Baez and situational lefty J.P. Howell. They also boast Kenta Maeda as their Game 3 starter. He should have an edge over the Nats’ Tanner Roark, who had a good season.
-The x-factor could be 20-year old top prospect Julio Urias. He averaged more than a strikeout per inning. Manager Dave Roberts limited his innings mixing in some starts with relief appearances. Is Urias ready for prime time? For the Nats, I’ll go with A.J. Cole or Reynaldo Lopez. Each is young and could be used out of the pen in middle relief. Both are considered a big part of the Nats’ future in the rotation. Blake Treinen sets up.
-There are four games Friday. The first at 1 EST with Toronto at Texas. Boston at Cleveland follows for Game 2 at 4:30 EST. An hour later, it’s the Dodgers at the Nationals in Game 1 of the NLDS at 5:30 EST. The Giants and the Cubs are at 9 EST with first pitch 9:15 on the East Coast. That’s 8:15 Central in the Windy City. If you can’t get pumped for this, then you’re not a baseball fan.