Welcome back to October, Mets fans! Technically we’ve already seen New York play two games in October this season, but with all the scoreboard watching and pennant racing, those felt a lot like September baseball. Now it’s time to really get down to business with a one-game, winner-take-all Wild Card round against the San Francisco Giants.
The last time the Mets and Giants met in the postseason, it was the year 2000 and New York was fighting to get back to the National League Championship Series. Although the Mets lost Game 1 of that Division Series in San Francisco and blew a three-run, ninth-inning lead in Game 2, they escaped the Bay Area with the series tied and finished their opponents off at Shea Stadium thanks to a walk-off home run by Benny Agbayani and some of the best pitching we ever saw from Bobby Jones.
The players, managers, and storylines are all different this time around, but the Mets still plan on taking advantage of their home ballpark, where they have gone 44-37 this year. That’s just one game better than their record away from Citi Field, but hopefully New York will have some road games coming up as well.
With San Francisco’s best pitcher on the mound, the game plan for Terry Collins should be the same as it has been all season: Take advantage of the starter’s mistakes with a home run or two, and then ride your own starter to victory. Like everything in this beautiful game, that’s easier said than done, especially when the Giants will be deploying Madison Bumgarner, a dominant left-handed starter who is among the best hurlers in the game.
The matchup seems to favor San Francisco because the Mets get a lot of their power from left-handed hitting. However, it’s very doubtful that Collins will adjust the starting lineup very much. Juan Lagares was the only right-handed hitting outfielder to make the Wild Card roster, and he has only made five plate appearances since returning to the Mets from the disabled list in late September.
Even if we were more confident in Lagares’s ability to swing the bat, it’s likely that the Mets would stick with Curtis Granderson and Jay Bruce anyway, since both have been so hot lately. Granderson was a riding a wave of eight hits in three games before Sunday’s virtually meaningless contest in Philadelphia, while Bruce has transformed from a nearly useless entity into New York’s secret weapon during his current eight-game hitting streak.
None of that means that the dynamic duo will necessarily come through against Bumgarner, but that’s why the Mets will have two switch-hitters as well as Yoenis Cespedes in the first three spots of the batting order.
If the Mets do need a right-handed pinch-hitter at some point, the first bat off the eight-man bench could be Eric Campbell. Despite the utility man’s .173 batting average in 88 plate appearances this year, he has come up big as substitute lately. Campbell famously drove in a run on September 20 when Collins had him hit for an ice-cold Bruce. Three days later, he came through with another RBI single when used in place of Michael Conforto.
Another lefty that the Mets might need a pinch-hitter for is James Loney, as he’ll be starting at first base on Wednesday night with Lucas Duda left off the roster. It might be true that Loney has been quite lousy after the All-Star break (.656 OPS), but he has come through big lately with home runs that helped New York pull off key victories in Miami and Philadelphia. Hopefully one of 2016’s most unlikely heroes will pull another rabbit out of the hat in the Wild Card game.
The Mets’ hot hitters do not have the platoon advantage on Bumgarner, but the opposite is true for the Giants and Noah Syndergaard. Left-handed first baseman Brandon Belt in particular has been hot with three multiple-hit games in his last six and a .938 OPS in September. He’s been one of the guys responsible for waking the Giants up after they looked like they were sleepwalking through late July and all of August.
Another guy who is tremendously important to San Francisco’s offense is Brandon Crawford, who busted out with nine hits in a three-game stretch from September 27 to September 30. Like Belt, the shortstop is also a left-handed hitter who has been one of San Francisco’s most consistent offensive threats all season. Neither of those players is likely to steal a base at any given moment (although against Syndergaard you never know), but former Mets outfielder Angel Pagan might do just that. The shining star of Puerto Rico has 12 hits in his last eight games and has swiped 15 bags in 19 tries this year. Plus, the switch-hitter has been slightly stronger as a left-handed batter in 2016.
Someone who won’t be stealing any bases on Wednesday is Eduardo Nunez, who was left off of the Wild Card roster due to a hamstring injury. Instead, Conor Gillaspie will man the hot corner for San Francisco, but that’s not necessarily great new for the Mets. The Wichita State alumnus and former White Sox infielder is running with a five-game hitting streak since he started getting regular playing time on September 27.
All that’s to say, the Giants may have fallen apart in the second half of the season, but they’re still plenty dangerous, even if we don’t mention obvious threats like Buster Posey and Hunter Pence. Both stars may very well be major factors in the winner-take-all affair.
Important stats: 226.2 IP, 251 K, 54 BB, 26 HR, 2.74 ERA, 3.24 FIP, 1.02 WHIP
Favorite pitches: four-seam fastball (91 mph), slider (87 mph), curveball (75 mph), two-seam fastball (91 mph)
In six career starts against the Mets, Bumgarner has pitched very well with a 3.29 ERA, 46 strikeouts, and 14 walks. The good news is that much of that action was against Mets lineups that looked very different than this Mets lineup. If you narrow the sample down to 2016, Bumgarner has pitched six innings of scoreless ball at Citi Field and a clunker at AT&T Park in which he allowed a grand slam to Justin Ruggiano before the Giants rallied back for a 10-7 victory. In other words, no current Mets player has driven in a run against Bumgarner this season, except for Jay Bruce, who homered off of him back when the slugger was still a mere trade rumor on July 27.
Check out the story Chris McShane just wrote for a more detailed scouting report.
Important stats: 183.2 IP, 218 K, 43 BB, 11 HR, 2.60 ERA, 2.29 FIP, 1.15 WHIP
Favorite pitches: four-seam fastball (98 mph), sinker (98 mph), slider (91 mph), changeup (90 mph)
Like Bumgarner, Syndergaard has faced Wednesday's opponent twice already this season. Back on May 1, he allowed four runs in five-and-two-thirds innings at Citi Field against the Giants in a 6-1 defeat. Pence did most of the damage with a two-run home run and an RBI single. However, Thor would have his vengeance on August 21 when he pitched eight scoreless frames in San Francisco to lead New York to a 2-0 win. With the Mets having dropped two games below .500 just two nights before, you can argue that the great outing helped turn the campaign around.
The spotlight will be on both managers in this game if it’s close entering the final three innings. That’s because on Tuesday night Baltimore skipper Buck Showalter decided to use someone besides his best relief pitcher during the game’s deciding moments. If the same fate befalls one of the managers in this game, my money would be on Bruce Bochy. It’s not that he’s a worse manager than Terry Collins — I think most baseball fans would say he’s better — it’s that when playing on the road some managers have a hard time realizing that it’s not always a good idea to save your best reliever for a save situation that might never come.
Bochy has also had a shaky bullpen this year. Just recently he was forced to remove Santiago Casilla from the closer’s role after the 36-year-old veteran blew three saves in September with a 5.87 ERA for the month. Sergio Romo, who last served as San Francisco’s closer in 2014, is back in the role after pitching consistently since coming off the DL (elbow strain) in early July. The other guys we’re most likely to see tonight are lefty Will Smith, who was acquired from the Brewers at the trade deadline and hasn’t allowed a run since August 18 against the Mets, and the pair of Hunter Strickland and Derek Law. While Smith should be brought in to counter any left-handed pinch-hitters that the Mets bring out, Strickland and Law are Bochy’s most reliable right-handed setup men.
Although the Giants have gone with three lefties on their Wild Card roster, the Mets have opted for only two, those being Jerry Blevins and Josh Edgin. That means Josh Smoker gets left out even though he worked more innings down the stretch than Edgin did. With neither of those guys being particularly reliable, New York went with the guy with the most big league experience, but fans will be hoping to avoid both of them. Ideally, Collins will get six or seven good innings out of Syndergaard and only have to turn to Addison Reed and Jeurys Familia to close out the game, perhaps with some Blevins, Fernando Salas, and Hansel Robles mixed in.
Prediction: Mets win.