Cubs ponder how to stop red-hot Murphy
NEW YORK -- It was the first inning. It wasn't the situation the Cubs would have preferred to see as Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy stepped up to the plate.
"He looks like the best hitter on the planet right now," said catcher Miguel Montero.
The Mets already had a run in with a runner on second and nobody out. First base was open but Cubs starter Jake Arrieta, who hadn't lost a game since July, went after Murphy. After getting him in a 1-2 hole, Arrieta threw a curveball down and in. Murphy lofted it into the seats in right, his fifth home run of the postseason.
"The biggest part of the night was the two-run homer," Arrieta said. "Murphy hit a pretty good pitch, which he's been doing pretty much all season. So the mistake to him was the turning point in the game. He's just swinging the bat tremendously right now. He's doing his damage."
The homer launched New York to a 4-1 win in Sunday's Game 2 of the National League Championship Series at Citi Field. And with the Cubs going back to Wrigley Field down two games to none in the best-of-seven series, it raised the question of what on earth they can do to contain Murphy.
In the third they tried walking him intentionally to get to Yoenis Cespedes, which wouldn't even have been a consideration a month ago when the newly acquired outfielder was playing well enough to create some MVP buzz. Even that backfired when Cespedes knocked in Curtis Granderson from third with an infield single.
After the reams of data that make up the modern-day scouting reports are digested, after the strengths and weaknesses and tendencies of each hitter are thoroughly dissected, one more visceral question is often asked.
Which guy in the opposing lineup will you not let beat you?
Murphy seems to be that guy right now. Yet simply refusing to give him anything he can hit isn't as simple as it sounds, even with a base open.
Before the game, backup catcher David Ross talked about managing the opposing lineup and how it's acceptable to walk certain guys if the matchup isn't in your favor. After the game, though, he said Murphy's at-bat in the first didn't fall into that category.
"The hard part is Granderson is getting on in front of him. And then you have David Wright in the two-hole. Their lineup, especially at the top, is kind of stacked and you have to work really hard," Ross explained.
"You're probably not going to pitch around a guy early on. I think we just have to do a better job of executing pitches. He's not missing mistakes. That's what good hitters do, especially when you're locked in. He's not missing mistakes and he's hitting them for homers."
Even with nobody on first?
"You can pitch around him. You can do what you want," Ross said. "But when you've got Jake Arrieta on the mound, you're not thinking about pitching around anybody. I'm not thinking about pitching around anybody if I'm catching. Not with that guy's stuff."
Montero, who was behind the plate, obviously agreed with that line of thinking.
"We were trying to put him away. If you're trying to put him away, you're trying to get him to chase," he said. "The pitch probably didn't have the same bite it normally does. A little too loopy, maybe. Other than that, what are you going to do?
"Obviously, his confidence is really high right now. He feels confident going to the plate. And there's no better feeling than that. So good for him. Not so good for us."
Montero doesn't believe the Cubs need to change their game plan against Murphy. They just have to execute the plan they have better. He noted that Arrieta, making better pitches, struck out Murphy in the fifth.
"He's real good. He's real good," Murphy said of Arrieta. "If you go and you pull up my third at-bat, he undressed me. So that AB right there, I got a pretty good pitch to hit 0-0 and I missed it. He threw me a good cutter that I hooked foul. Check swung on one. And I got a breaking ball that I was able to put a pretty good move on it.
"But Grandy started it with a great at-bat and David hammers one to drive him in and it kind of got us off on the right foot. I think you kind of saw how good Jake is over there because he really threw up zeros the rest of the game for them."
Still, baseball is a game of adjustments and the Cubs may have to start thinking about a different approach. Montero conceded that earlier this season, he thought nothing of pitching to Pirates superstar Andrew McCutchen because he was struggling at the plate.
"A month later, no chance. Because you know what? He got hot," the catcher said.
Murphy is red-hot right now. But Montero, like Ross, said that's only part of the story.
"They've got a couple guys in that lineup who can beat you. They make things happen. You've got Granderson leading off. He's been setting the tone for those. Plus you have David Wright. He hasn't had the best playoffs but you respect the guy because he's been so good for such a long time. So you can't just take anything for granted," he said.
"It's a combination of a lot of things. That's the name of the game. Somebody's going to beat you sometimes. And Murphy's doing great. He's probably the god of New York right now."
According to Arrieta, there's only one way to slow Murphy down.
"You have to minimize your mistakes. He's hitting the ball to the opposite field for some base hits and he's turning on some stuff inside for some slug and some power. So really we just have to obviously pick our spots to attack him. And when we're in big situations we have to minimize our mistakes," he said.
So far, at least, the Cubs haven't been able to do that with Murphy at the plate. And he has the .429 NLCS average and the 1.286 OPS to prove it.