National League Wild Card Preview: Aces Wild
The Mets enter the playoffs without 75% of their vaunted starting rotation from last October, yet here they are. The Giants stumbled to the postseason by playing some of the worst baseball of any team in the second half, yet here they are.
And now, these two flawed squads are playing a one-game, win-or-go-home ballgame for the right to likely get slaughtered in a five-game series against the Chicago Cubs.
How the Mets Got Here
New York finished 87-75 and came in second place in the National League East, 8 games behind the Washington Nationals. The Mets never really challenged the Nats for the division title, and they battled it out with the Giants and St. Louis Cardinals in a three-way scramble for the two wild card spots.
Things got off to an ominous start right from the beginning. Matt Harvey struggled out of the gate and was lost for the season in July because of a shoulder injury. Late in the year, both Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz underwent surgery and were ruled out for the rest of the year, as well. So New York enters the playoffs with a rotation of Noah Syndergaard, Bartolo Colon, Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman.
The offense was led by a number of star players, including the outstanding Yoenis Cespedes. The slugging outfielder had another great season, bashing 31 homers with an .884 OPS. Neil Walker and Asdrubal Cabrera also had solid seasons for the Mets. Unfortunately for New York, their big midseason addition, Jay Bruce, did not provide the kind of spark Cespedes did for them last year. In 50 games, Bruce batted just .219/.294/.391 with 9 jacks and 5 doubles.
Despite all that, the Mets finished up the season by winning 7 of their last 10 games to clinch the top wild card spot.
How the Giants Got Here
Put bluntly: San Francisco is lucky to be playing in this game at all.
The Giants went into the All-Star break with the best record in baseball, boasting a 57-33 mark with a .633 winning percentage. In the second half, they did a complete 180, going 30-42 for a .417 winning percentage, the worst in baseball. They had a run differential of -11 in the second half, compared to a +73 run differential in the first half. They finished 4 games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League West, and had they missed the postseason, they would have become the first team in the wild card era to miss the playoffs after going into the All Star Break with the best record in baseball.
The big problem for San Francisco in the second half was a bullpen that could not lock down games. In all, Giants' relievers led baseball with 32 blown saves and 9 losses in games in which they went into the 9th inning with the lead. In September alone, they lost five times when they went into the final frame with the lead. But hey, bullpens don't really matter much in the playoffs, right?
Luckily for them, the Cardinals had their own problems down the stretch, allowing the Giants to clinch the second wild card spot on the final day of the season.
Battle of the Aces
Tonight's wild card game comes down to each team's best pitcher. San Francisco is giving the ball to Madison Bumgarner while Syndergaard is throwing for New York.
Syndergaard has been as good as ever this season despite pitching much of the second half with bone chips in his right elbow. He's still throwing high-90s gas with a collection of hard breaking stuff that is almost impossible to hit. He made two starts against the Giants this year, going 1-1 with a 2.63 ERA. He struck out 12, walked 4 and gave up a .159/.229/.227 slash line against San Francisco over the two games.
As a whole, Syndergaard finished with a record of 14-9 while fanning 10.7 batters per nine innings and leading the National League in FIP (2.29) and home runs allowed per nine innings (0.5).
Bumgarner had a monster first half, posting a 1.94 ERA in 19 starts and striking out 10.1 batters per nine. The second half was a different story. The left-hander put up an ERA of 3.80 in 15 starts while his strikeouts per nine dipped to 9.7 Overall, he finished 15-9 with a 2.74 ERA and 3.24 FIP while striking out 10.0 batters per nine.
And like Syndergaard, Bumgarner faced the Mets twice, going 2-0 with a 3.27 ERA in 11 innings, striking out 13 and walking 6. He allowed New York's hitters to bat .279/.367/.372 against him in those two starts.
We cannot discount Bumgarner's past performances in the postseason. In 14 games (12 starts), Bumgarner has a 2.14 ERA in 88 1/3 innings with 77 strikeouts and just 13 walks.
Syndergaard against Bumgarner in a do-or-die matchup is a dream scenario for every baseball fan. That alone makes this game a must-see event.
Our models indicate the Mets have a 54.0% chance of winning tonight's game. It's in Citi Field, where New York went 44-37 this season, just a shade better than their road record. The Giants, meanwhile, played pretty well on the road in 2016, going 42-39 away from San Francisco.
As you would expect with a pair of stud hurlers on the mound, the implied total for each team is under 3.10 as Vegas expects a tight, low-scoring affair.
Such a game could ultimately be decided by the bullpens, and if that is indeed what happens, it could be very bad news for the Giants.