October 6, 2016
NL Wild Card Game: You Can Predict Ball
We were promised greatness. Leading into this game, the prospective Madison Bumgarner vs. Noah Syndergaard matchup was supposed to be the clash of aces that makes for must-see baseball. The game’s most notorious postseason pitcher–one of the greatest of all time already–faced off against the hardest-throwing starting pitcher in the game, a young ace who carried his team on his back when every other Mets starter collapsed around him.
Baseball being baseball, and the Mets and Giants being two very weird ball clubs, there was a sense of impending ironic detachment; there was no way that the game itself could live up to the hype. Perhaps one team or the other would break it open early, and the aces would be chased before the fourth inning? But no, it was exactly what we’d longed for. Madison Bumgarner, the throwback lefty who eats innings like they are scrambled eggs and surges in October, threw nine not-quite-perfect and yet masterful innings, mixing up pitches and out-working and out-thinking each of the Mets’ hitters. And Noah Syndergaard, the hard-throwing phenom, threw seven brilliant innings, took a no-hitter through 5.2 of them, and left the game with 10 strikeouts and no runs allowed.
The aces did the heavy lifting, and it wasn’t until the ninth inning when the run-scoring began and everything came into focus, with the Giants winning and advancing to face the Cubs in the NLDS. Conor Gillaspie took Jeurys Familia long in the top of the ninth, putting a ball over the right-field fence to drive home Brandon Crawford and Joe Panik. The Mets’ bullpen was certainly a strength on paper, but bullpens are still bullpens, and Familia has a checkered playoff history. A nearly-anonymous Giant made the right play on the right day in an even year, and the universe unfolds in a way that makes sense.
Before that ending, before the Mets danced on the razor one time too many, there were the aces. The first three innings of the game were an absolute clinic in pitching, living up to every bit of the pre-game hype. Honestly, it was one of the greatest three innings of pitching–from both sides–that I've ever seen. Syndergaard looked exactly like the overpowering ace advertised, dialing his fastball and slider up to their greatest heights and displaying ace-like control. Meanwhile, Bumgarner took advantage of the Mets’ aggressiveness and faced the minimum through three on just 21 pitches. He elicited extraordinarily weak contact, with a run of popping out Yoenis Cespedes, Curtis Granderson, T.J. Rivera, and Jay Bruce consecutively. Where Thor blew pitches past hitters, Bumgarner deceived them, ruined them, turned powerful men into guys who looked like they should be playing American Legion ball, at least for a few innings. Bumgarner made hitters look bad, where Syndergaard make himself look great.
In the middle innings, both starters looked more human, but still terrific. Where Syndergaard saw his control slip away a little bit, he still didn’t give up a hit until the sixth. Meanwhile, the Mets' hitters finally started to make Bumgarner work. He threw more pitches than he had in the first three innings combined in both the fourth and the fifth innings. Though he continued to treat Cespedes like Kit from A League of Their Own–a steady diet of high fastballs that absolutely ruined the superstar–Bumgarner didn’t look quite as dominant as Syndergaard. He looked beatable, missing a spot here and there, allowing a hard-hit ball once in a while. Rivera hit a powerful double in the fifth, but Bruce struck out and Rivera later got caught in a rundown, ending much of a chance for a rally.
Syndergaard finally started allowing hard contact in the sixth, relinquishing his first hit of the game–a single slashed up the middle by Denard Span–before Span jumped out to a huge lead and stole second base successfully after his near-miss earlier in the game. Then, with their first runner in scoring position and two outs, Brandon Belt hammered the ball to deep center. Granderson looked every bit the part of his old Tigers self in the process of making a remarkable running catch and slamming into the wall in the deepest part of the stadium.
The Mets’ ace would survive the seventh, but it would be the right move to pull him with one of the best one-two punches in the National League waiting in the wings. He’d thrown over 100 pitches, and help was on the way. In the top of the eighth, Addison Reed--perhaps the player most emblematic of the 2016 Mets--loaded the bases to face Hunter Pence with two outs. Reed was a failed state when the Mets acquired him last year, having turned from a lights-out closer to a non-tender candidate with little value. In 2016, he was simply one of the best late-inning relievers in baseball, overshadowed by Familia’s saves and the troika of domination across town in the Bronx. It’s not often that a team intentionally walks a player to bring up the opposing cleanup hitter, but the gambit paid off as Reed blew a pitch by Pence for the strikeout.
Then the ninth, Familia came in to the game and immediately gave up a deep double to Brandon Crawford. Once again, the Mets were dancing on the edge of a razor, much like they had all season long. Almost entirely eliminated with a 60-62 record midseason. Almost unable to field a full pitching staff after injuries to Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, Jacob deGrom, and Steven Matz. He struck out Angel Pagan after a couple of failed bunts. He walked Joe Panik. And then Gillaspie did the thing that seemed to feel right, if not fair. The Giants were the best team in baseball during the first half of the season; they should be a playoff team. The Mets had flailed and failed and fallen just enough all season long to keep them on the bubble, a far cry from the 2015 team that relied on such powerful aces.
Meanwhile, Gillaspie circled the bases, a starting third baseman that certainly wasn’t supposed to be there at all. The Giants began 2016 with Matt Duffy at third, a breakout star after an insurgent 2015 campaign that saw him get Rookie of the Year consideration. After Duffy had an weak sophomore campaign, the Giants uncharacteristically shipped him to Tampa Bay for starting pitcher Matt Moore after bringing in Eduardo Nunez as his replacement. But Gillaspie, who spent 2015 as one of the worst parts of two bad teams (the White Sox and Angels) drew Travis Ishikawa duty as the unlikely hero after Nunez was too injured to make the Wild Card Game. He was the likely unlikely hero, in true Giants fashion.
By the time the bottom of the ninth rolled around, Bruce Bochy wasn’t about to allow for the most questionable bullpen in the west to take the hill. He let Bumgarner hit for himself, and the big lefty came out firing in the bottom of the ninth. Cespedes, the team’s best hitter by far–especially against lefties–popped out feebly to Pence in right. Granderson saw his signature share of pitches, but flew out to Pagan in left. The Mets’ season came down to Rivera, a boy from the Bronx who became The Man in Queens for a hot minute as the Mets’ hot-hitting second baseman. It was fitting. He wasn’t supposed to be in this position. Opposite him, on the hill, was Madison Bumgarner. Bumgarner absolutely should have been in that position. Rivera sent a fly ball to center, it was caught, and the game was over.
Bumgarner added to his legend by running roughshod over a Mets team woefully unequipped to face a left-hander of his skill, let alone his postseason pedigree. As tense as the game was, the result seemed fait accompli after it was all over. Of course Bumgarner would throw a complete-game shutout--it was a win-or-go-home game, and it was an Even Year. The Mets lived dangerously all season long, surviving injuries and close calls, but were outmatched by the steady, driving train that was the Giants’ seven-season strobe light of a dynasty.
Bumgarner is now the only player in major-league history with two complete-game shutouts in postseason elimination games. Ever. Sometimes the outcome feels already determined, sometimes we get the greatness we deserve. In the run-up to this game, I cringed at the thought of the Mets facing this remarkable left-hander in a do-or-die game. He and Gillaspie did; the 2016 Mets died. Sometimes you can predict ball.