The table is set and the crowds in Queens and will be psyched for Game 1 of the National League Championship Series tonight at 8:07 p.m. You can also catch all the action live on TBS. Everyone watching both at Citi Field and on television will be looking forward to that young, exciting Mets pitching against those young, exciting Cubs sluggers, but is that really the big story?
It turns out that the Mets hit more home runs (not counting the postseason) than any other NL team after the All-Star break with 102. The Cubs, led by Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber, and Kris Bryant, were second with 94 round-trippers. New York may be known for its pitching, but it didn't dominate the final two months of the season without a strong offense.
That offense was dormant for much the NLDS, but that's not too alarming when you consider that the Dodgers only played one game without either Clayton Kershaw or Zack Greinke starting. The Mets were able to prevail anyway thanks to some hot hitting from an unexpected place.
Daniel Murphy carried the Mets with his bat as well as his cleverness in Game 5, but he also hit a crucial go-ahead home run in Game 1 and another homer off of Kershaw in Game 3. The three blasts were quite a jolt after Murphy went yard a modest 14 times during the regular season. He's really showing off his value in the postseason, but Murphy had already earned himself some attention on the potential free agent market when he slugged .449 (highest since his rookie year) in the regular season with only 38 strikeouts.
Murphy's production made up for the lackluster play of both David Wright and Lucas Duda during the NLDS. Although Wright came through with a huge two-RBI single in Game 1, that turned out to be his only hit of the series. At least the captain walked five times, though. Duda notched just a pair of singles during the series while striking out 11 times and walking twice. If the Mets are to hang with Chicago's offense in the NLCS, these are two guys that have to step up their games.
Meanwhile, one of the most underrated Mets in the regular season moved on to become one of the most underrated Mets in the postseason. That would be Curtis Granderson, who played in every game and went 7-for-18 with three walks and only one strikeout. Did I mention that he faced Clayton Kershaw in two of those games and scored the first run of Game 5 thanks to an infield single (a sign of grission)? He's a good leadoff hitter, guys.
Arsenal: fastball (92 mph), cutter (88 mph), curveball (75 mph), changeup (85 mph)
Compared to the aforementioned Kershaw, Cubs Game 1 starter Jon Lester doesn't seem like much of a threat, but he doesn't get as much credit as he should. Starting pitching is considered an advantage for the Mets in this series, but Lester is plenty capable of matching up to any of New York's flamethrowing youngsters. The veteran southpaw, who finished the regular season with a 3.34 ERA and 2.92 FIP, pitched some of his best games down the stretch with a 2.36 September ERA.
He followed that up with three runs allowed in seven-and-one-thirds innings versus St. Louis in Game 1 of the NLDS. That effort went unrewarded in a 4-0 Cubs loss, but with nine strikeouts and only one walk, Lester had a solid outing against a good Cardinals offense.
Lester also found success against the Mets this year. On May 11 at Wrigley Field, he allowed three runs in six innings during a 4-3 Cubs win that featured Bryant's first home run at the historic ballpark. In his one start at Citi Field, Lester was much better, with seven shutout innings on July 1 that allowed Chicago to hang on until Starlin Castro broke a scoreless tie with an infield single in the 11th.
Not scoring against the Cubs has been a theme for the Mets this season, as they posted just 11 runs in seven games played versus Chicago in 2015. Most fans aren't concerned since all of those matches took place before New York's extreme lineup makeover in late July, but maybe we should be a little more worried. With the way Lester has pitched lately, and with Jake Arrieta (only the best pitcher in the majors) looming in Game 2, the Cubs have a chance to get off to a fast start even on the road.
Arsenal: fastball (95 mph), cutter (90 mph), curveball (81 mph), changeup (89 mph)
A great 2014 campaign has given way to a legendary 2015 one for Arrieta, who is walking fewer opponents (about two per nine innings) and generating more ground balls (56 percent) than he did last year when he posted a 2.53 ERA and was worth five WAR.
This time around, Arrieta's ERA is 1.77 thanks to an unbelievable second-half run that has seen the right-hander allow just 12 runs in 15 starts. As if that wasn't good enough, Arrieta hurled a complete game shutout at Pittsburgh in the Wild Card game to punch Chicago's ticket to the NLDS.
Arrieta finally struggled in his one NLDS start when he gave up four runs to the Cardinals in fewer than six innings. It was the first time he gave up that many runs in any start since June. Still, Chicago's ace asserted himself with nine strikeouts in that game and the offense hit six home runs off the Redbirds to put the Cubs on top. If New York's Game 2 starter also struggles to keep the Cubbie bats in check, Sunday night could be a long one for Mets fans.
Speaking of Cubbie bats, there are some scary ones in manager Joe Maddon's lineup. Rizzo and Bryant are the big stars who get the top billing, but rookie slugger Schwarber stole the show during the 3-1 series win over St. Louis. After hitting .246/.355/.487 in 69 regular season games with a whopping 16 home runs, the Indiana University alumnus went 7-for-13 in the first two postseason rounds with three more homers, including this one from Game 4 that looked like it left the planet.
Schwarber does struggle against fellow lefties, which is why Maddon held him out of Game 2 versus Jaime Garcia, but the Mets will probably use right-handed pitchers in six of seven NLCS games. That's why it was a good move for the team to exchange Erik Goeddel for Sean Gilmartin to get another southpaw in the bullpen. Expect both Gilmartin and Jon Niese to see some high-leverage innings as Terry Collins tries to navigate the troublesome Chicago lineup.
The Cubs also made an adjustment to their postseason roster in between rounds. Addison Russell, who suffered a hamstring injury versus St. Louis, is being replaced by outfielder and pinch-running specialist Quintin Berry. Since Berry doesn't play shortstop, Russell's spot in the field will be filled by Javier Baez, the second-year player who saw more time in the majors last year than he did this year.
For a middle infielder, Baez has a strange profile in that he strikes out a bunch and hits for power. At Triple-A Iowa in 2015, the 22-year-old hit .324/.385/.527 with 13 home runs, but he only hit one homer in the majors after being called up on September 1. That didn't stop Baez from making an impact in the postseason, where he has four hits, a home run, and a stolen base in just five at-bats.
While Russell's defense makes him a more promising prospect, his absence might turn the Cubs into an even more dangerous offensive team. That will make the job tougher for Matt Harvey, who is making his first of two possible NLCS starts tonight. The right-hander looked as solid as ever during his last three starts of September, but in Game 3 of the NLDS, he needed 97 pitches just to get through five innings. Another outing like that could put some stress on a Mets bullpen that won't have Noah Syndergaard on tap like it did on Thursday.
As for New York's Game 2 starter, that information has not yet been released. The Mets could go with Syndergaard, who just threw 17 pitches on Thursday when he was on regular rest. The other option is Steven Matz, who was last used on Tuesday and looked good outside of the third inning that dinged him for three runs. Passing on Syndergaard would seem to be an overly conservative approach, but Matz is intriguing from a strategic standpoint given the left-handed power of Rizzo and Schwarber.
Prediction: Mets and Cubs split the first two games.