One Game to Rule them All: The NL Wildcard
It’s finally here, October baseball. After 162 games, only five teams remain standing in the National League. For the Mets and the Giants, who square off Wednesday, game 163 will be the most intense game for either team up to this point. Their reward if they prevail? A chance to play the Chicago Cubs: certainly not the best thing ever, but definitely better than the alternative.
Since the one-game wildcard playoff was added in 2012, it has delivered some of the most thrilling moments in baseball. This particular match-up takes place between the two previous National League champions, both limping across the finish line in the regular season (quite literally for some Mets). The Giants come into this series under familiar circumstances, in 2014 they were also a part of the wildcard game, and became the only wildcard team to win the World Series since 2012. They looked primed to avoid this game altogether, finishing the first half of the season 6.5 games ahead of their division rival, the Dodgers. They lost control of the division and didn’t end up securing their playoff berth until their final regular season game, beating the Dodgers 7-1.
The Mets came into 2016 with one of the most anticipated rotations of 2016, but a combination of offensive struggles and injuries kept the team from achieving its full potential. Noah Syndergaard and Bartolo Colon are the only two pitchers from the Opening Day rotation who aren’t on the DL coming into the postseason. The offense took its fair share of hits as well, losing first baseman Lucas Duda and catcher Travis D’Arnaud to the DL for multiple months, along with losing captain David Wright and second baseman, Neil Walker for the year. The catalysts for their late-season surge, Yoenis Cespedes and Asdrubal Cabrera, also had DL stints. Despite this, the Mets stuck around against all odds, and are just one game away from returning to defend their National League pennant. They have the advantage of hosting this game at Citi Field, a site for so much of the Mets’ magical 2015 run.
The Pitching: Noah Syndergaard (14-9) 2.60 ERA vs. Madison Bumgarner (15-9) 2.74 ERA
The Mets and the Giants both sported fantastic pitching throughout 2016, ranking third and fourth in National League ERA respectively (funny enough, Syndergaard and Bumgarner also rank third and fourth in ERA in the NL). It’s only fitting that the teams send their biggest arms to face-off in this winner-takes-all game. Thor and MadBum squared off once in the regular season, all the way back in May. San Francisco ended up getting the win 6-1, but Syndergaard would exact his revenge on the Giants offense in August, tossing eight shutout innings at AT&T Park. While Syndergaard has the advantage between the two in terms of raw velocity, (averaging 98.29 mph per fastball vs. Bumgarner’s 90.95 according to MLB.com) Bumgarner has one of the most deceptive deliveries in baseball at his disposal. Both pitchers also aren’t afraid to swing away at the plate, hitting three home runs apiece during the regular season.
Given how tight this starting match-up is, the game may ultimately be decided by some clutch bullpen action. The Mets appear to have the advantage in this category this year. New York closer, Jeurys Familia led the entire MLB with 51 saves during the regular season, while set up man Addison Reed had 11 more holds than any other reliever in baseball. On the other side, the Giants bullpen blew 29 save opportunities throughout the regular season, which played a big part in their near collapse. Sergio Romo appears to be the Giants’ new closer heading into the postseason (they seem to have a thing for closers with beards in the postseason) and he’s slightly allayed the fears of Giants fans, converting four of four save opportunities since getting the position.
With how good the pitching is, batters on both sides will have their work cut out for them putting up any kind of production. Luckily, neither team is a stranger to close games, with the Giants going 28-27 in games decided by one run. The Mets were 25-22 in that department. Both teams had fairly weak offenses throughout the regular season, averaging slightly above four runs per game.
The real variance comes in how these teams produce their runs. The Giants take a much more cerebral approach to the game, playing small ball and manufacturing runs. They rank 4th in the National League in hits, despite ranking 9th in runs. They didn’t really have much of a power game whatsoever, ranking 13th in the NL in homers, with 130. Brandon Belt led the team with 17 big flies in the regular season.
The Mets have relied heavily on the long ball throughout the year. They ranked second in the National League with 218 home runs, 31 by team leader, Yoenis Cespedes. This reliance on the home run has led the Mets offense to be incredibly streaky throughout the season, but it can be a real menace to face this offense when it’s firing on all cylinders. Unfortunately for the Giants, it has been coming into this game. The Mets scored the second most runs of any NL team in September, and hit the second most home runs. The Giants offense was 12th in runs scored this month, and 14th in home runs.
Right now the Mets are my favorite to win this game. They’ve got the advantage of playing at home, and their offense has been worlds better as of late than the Giants. With that said, it is an even year, so it’s hard to really ever count the Giants out. I think that viewers will be in for a spectacular pitching duel, regardless of the outcome and it’ll definitely be a game worth watching.