Updated October 22, 2015
We’re accustomed to the World Series being the domain of a pitching hero. History repeatedly confirms that an elite starting pitcher is likely to dominate the most powerful of batters.
A year ago it was Madison Bumgarner carrying the San Francisco Giants. The year before it was Jon Lester who had the golden arm, winning his two starts in leading Boston past St. Louis.
This postseason has brought extraordinary pitchers to the national – and international — stage: Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, David Price, Dallas Keuchel and — most impressive and, it turns out, most bittersweet — Jake Arrieta, 29-year-old righthander for the lovably cursed Chicago Cubs.
The New York Mets do not have anyone as renowned as the aforementioned maestros. But they have what no other team has – indeed, what perhaps no team in decades has had – a starting four of high-strikeout, low-walk power-ballers, young and yet surprisingly crafty. Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz all could be the ace of most teams.
The best Met, marginally better than 26-year-old Harvey, is 27-year-old DeGrom, who beat the Los Angeles Dodgers’ pair of Hollywood-casted blond icons, Greinke and Kershaw, in the National League Division Series.
DeGrom, he of the wild curling dark locks, went on to extend his postseason perfection to 3-0 (1.80 ERA, 27 strikeouts in 20 innings), as the Mets swept the Cubs out of the league championship round.
To give you an idea of the quality of pitching in today’s baseball world, the righthanded Greinke and lefthanded Kershaw were a combined 35-10 this season, with ERA’s of 1.66 and 2.13 respectively. These numbers would have stood out in any of this sport’s 150 or whatever years.
You can hardly blame the Dodgers’ vast brain trust for eternally thinking they’ll advance out of the divisionals with Spahn, Sain & Pray for Rain.
In the NLDS, Greinke and Kershaw pitched well, yet DeGrom pitched slightly better. So the Mets moved on to the NL Championship Series, in which the Cubs were favored, for having baseball’s most magical pitcher.
Arrieta’s complete-game shutout of the Pittsburgh Pirates won the wild-card game and landed the Cubs in the NLDS with St. Louis. At that point he was on the hottest streak in history: 17-1 with a 0.81 earned-run average.
But in Game 2 against the Mets, the first three batters he faced scored. He threw 30 pitches in that inning, none faster than 93 mph – 4-5 less than his normal top speed.
Which led to reports of arm fatigue, with his 249 innings this year. Asked why Arrieta suddenly lost effectiveness, Cubs manager Joe Maddon said, “It’s his workload in general.”
So now we understand why the Mets monitored the pitch counts and stretched their rotation to six men for much of the season. General manager Sandy Alderson wanted the arms strongest when it counts the most.
The Mets entered the NLCS at their best, while Arrieta was losing speed and the Cubs’ No. 2 starter, the postseasonally accomplished Lester, could not be counted on to toss the ball to first base to hold a runner.
The mere sight of Daniel Murphy, who went first-to-third on a walk against LA, had to be terrifying to Lester.
Not to mention that second baseman Murphy erupted – Amazin’ly — into a monstrous slugger, homering in six straight games – MLB record – leading into next Tuesday’s World Series opener off Broadway.
The Cubs, hoping for their first World Series since World War II, dug a 0-2 hole with Lester and Arrieta. Lester, hero of Boston Strong in 2014, exited this playoff stage 0-2, to complement a wobbly 4.50 ERA.
Whether the Mets face scrappy Kansas City or crashy Toronto in a Fall Classic that’s likely to be wintry, they will be well armed and well rested with their four dynamic starters, aged from 24 to 29 and all throwing 97s.
The 6-4 Syndergaard, who has clocked 101, is nicknamed Thor for his Danish heritage and his resemblance to a Norse god. Against the Dodgers he threw a clutchy scoreless inning of relief in addition to his starters’ minutes.
In the American League, the favored Toronto Blue Jays fell behind 3 games to 1 to the reigning AL champion Kansas City Royals. But the Jays resisted Game 5 elimination behind Marco Estrada, who’s pitched well enough — 2-1, 2.33 ERA in the postseason — to suggest he could be this year’s Bumgarner – with a stronger supporting cast.
The 32-year-old Estrada has emerged from obscurity to show the most poise of any postseason starter. He’s walked just one batter in 19 1/3 innings. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is 15-1.
Alas, the Jays have been let down by their ace, the 30-year-old lefty Price. He seemed worth his $20 million salary with his 9-1 burst down the stretch that was instrumental in securing the AL East. But his postseasons continue to be misereable. He’s 0-7 all-time as a starter in the postseason, which is a big-league worst.
He blew a 3-0 lead in the seventh inning of his first start in KC. Now he tries again, as he starts the Jays’ second elimination game on Friday night.
Of course, sometimes when a superstarter does epic work, his team still loses.
Keuchel, Houston’s 20-game winner and Cy Young candidate, could not have been more heroic: six shutout innings, on short rest, to win the wild-card in the ultimate pressure of Yankee Stadium. He went on to win his start against the Royals. But the Astros, whose time has not yet come, still lost the series.
Baseball is the least predictable of sports, which may be its greatest charm. Either the Jays or Royals are capable of winning a best-of-seven against anybody. But regardless of who the Mets face on Tuesday night, I like their chances with their power arms and the suddenly powerful, always pesky Murphy. If a starting pitcher dominates this Series, it’s more likely to be a Met.