The Cubs will encounter the Mets this weekend for the first time since watching them celebrate their World Series berth on Wrigley Field last October.
The Mets owned the Cubs in last year’s NLCS — holding them to just eight runs in the four-game sweep. The trio of Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard and Jacod deGrom on the mound made the Cubs’ fearsome lineup look futile en route to the fall classic. The better team won.
After the celebratory champagne bottles had been cleaned up and the tears of young Cubs fans had been wiped away -- life continued on the next morning in Chicago. The youthful Cubs would be back, fans thought, and many believed the rivalry born in 1969 was finally back. It was time for the Giants and Cardinals to step aside. The Mets and Cubs were now the class of the National League.
Eight months later, oh how the narrative has changed. So much for circling this one on the calendar months ago.
What happened to the Mets?
The Mets lineup isn’t the same. Second baseman Daniel Murphy, who destroyed the Cubs, hitting .529 with four home runs in that four-game series, signed with the Washington Nationals in the offseason. Michael Conforto, who looked like a budding young star last year with sky-high potential was just demoted to Triple-A. Long-time third baseman David Wright is on the disabled list — again — and won’t be getting off of it any time soon. Finally, slugger Lucas Duda hasn’t played a game since May 20 due to a lower back injury.
The Atlanta Braves, who have the worst record in the National League, are the only team who have scored fewer runs this season than the Mets. Their 29th-ranked offense is scoring just 3.58 runs per game compared to the Cubs 5.35 runs a game, which ranks third in the league.
But, as many know, the Mets pitching is what really makes them go. The Cubs will see Steven Matz, deGrom, Bartolo Colon and Syndergaard. The only starter they won’t see is Harvey, who is nicknamed “The Dark Knight,” but his 4-10 record and 4.55 ERA this season are far from super.
Although the quartet of pitchers above has pitched brilliantly (the staff boasts the second best ERA in the bigs), when you can’t score runs, you can’t win ball games. It’s that simple.
Yoennis Cespedes is the offense. It’s sort of like Prince and The Revolution. Nobody went to see the band for anyone other than Prince. But, in the same way that you can’t rock n’ roll without a drummer, a base guitar and a couple of other musicians, you can’t field a baseball team without all nine positions. Prince was the Revolution. Cespedes is the Mets offense.
He’s been great, hitting .289/.359/.555, with 18 blasts and 45 runs driven in. However, with no protection in the lineup, most teams can easily pitch around the Mets’ power hitter. That, or just give him a free pass to first base. Expect the Cubs to do the ladder, just like they did with Nationals’ superstar Bryce Harper.
The mighty Cubs
The story for the Cubs is completely different. Some were concerned after they dropped six of seven games last week, but they seem to be back on track after scoring 27 runs in a three-game sweep of the Reds.
It’s clear that they miss their offensive spark plug and center fielder Dexter Fowler, who’s been on the 15-day DL since June 20th with a hamstring injury, but 22-year-old Albert Almora is proving his defensive prowess while also hitting .286/.327/.449 in his absence. Nonetheless, the Cubs are looking forward to having their leadoff hitter back and healthy soon.
There’s no such thing as a sophomore slump for Kris Bryant, he’s hitting .280/.372/.560 with 21 long balls. He caught fire this month, with ten home runs and a 1.060 OPS in June.
Anthony Rizzo, who’s batting .284/.407/.576 this season, complements Bryant perfectly in the middle of their order. Offseason acquisition Jason Heyward has struggled at the dish, but is making his presence felt in the outfield. The team’s other notable winter signing, utility-man Ben Zobrist, has finally cooled off as the weather has warmed up, but he’s still proving to be worth the money, slashing .299/.409/.470 on the year.
John Lackey (7-4, 3.29 ERA), Jason Hammel (7-4, 2.58 ERA), Jake Arrieta (12-2, 2.10 ERA) and Jon Lester (9-3, 2.03 ERA) are slated to pitch the series. The Cubs' starting staff has the lowest combined ERA in the bigs by a wide margin. Their 2.54 ERA trumps the Mets 3.30 ERA.
So much for the Mets having baseball’s best staff.
The Cubs do need help in the bullpen. With plenty of trade bait, expect them to make a move or two in the pen before the Aug. 1 deadline.
The Cubs continue to climb further and further up the NL central ladder and now lead the reigning division champion Cardinals by 11 games. While the Mets, losers of 11 of their last 17 games, trail the Nationals by six games in the NL East.
There’s a lot of baseball left to be played — the Mets aren’t in panic mode just yet, and it’s not like the Cubs can write off the rest of the season. A lot can happen in three months of baseball.
But, for now, rather than this being a preview of an NLCS rematch, this just looks like another midsummer matchup.
A matchup that one team needs immeasurably more than the other.