Mets topple Cubs' best, avoid '06 repeat
New York upends Arrieta to take commanding NLCS lead
NEW YORK -- George Santayana, the Spanish-born American philosopher, issued this warning in the early 20th century: "Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it." Doubtful Mr. Santayana anticipated his words would one day be applicable in baseball. Today, though, we have evidence that they have been applied, perhaps unwittingly, in the game.
In flattening the Cubs in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series on Sunday night, the Mets -- wily old historians that they are -- performed as if they have been introduced to Santayana's concepts and enjoyed implementing them. Consequently, they now are in position to make this October another fall of frustration for the team that prefers not to recall its autumnal past. In arrears after two games, the Cubs may be the ones who are doomed.
The Mets not only defeated the Series favorite, 4-1, they won the game started by the Cubs' premier starting pitcher: Jake Arrieta. The Mets won the game they weren't supposed to win, the one the Cubs pretty much assumed would be theirs.
How they accomplished that feat matters little; that they overcame the Cubs' lethal pitching weapon means they have one less challenge as they pursue a place in the World Series. On a night when they could see their breath, the Mets also caught a glimpse of baseball's final engagement and fixed their gaze on it.
A similar scenario developed in 2006, in the Mets' most recent appearance in the NLCS. They won the first game in the best-of-seven series against the Cardinals at home. And the following night they were in position to win Game 2, started by their opponent's best pitcher, Chris Carpenter. The Mets led, 6-4, through six innings. And their preferred bullpen sequence was available. Nine more outs, and they would fly to St. Louis with one leg up on Tony La Russa's bunch and merely one more challenge from Carpenter pending.
And they lost.
The Cardinals scored twice in the seventh, staging a rally that members of that Mets team still find quite disturbing. Two innings later, Billy Wagner surrendered a three-run home run to So Taguchi, and the Mets' advantage in the Series evaporated.
Wagner was the losing pitcher, no question. But the Mets' closer lost only the game. Guillermo Mota lost the Series. When the NLCS was over, manager Willie Randolph agreed with that assessment.
Mota had allowed a two-run triple by pinch-hitter Scott Spiezio that resulted in the tie score in the seventh.
The back story was this: Mota's first two pitches to Spiezio were changeups that prompted savage swings. Mets catcher Paul Lo Duca signaled for a third changeup out of the strike zone. Mota resisted. Lo Duca signaled for the change a second time. Again, Mota shook off his veteran catcher.
"What we try to do," Lo Duca said later that night in a hushed clubhouse, "is have the pitcher throw the pitch he can commit to. In the end, it's his preference, his decision."
And Mota's decision -- to throw a fastball to a renowned fastball hitter with an 0-2 count and two runners on base late in a tight game -- cost the Mets nearly as much as the home run Yadier Molina hit against Aaron Heilman to decide Game 7.
* * * *
Nothing so nasty occurred Sunday night at Citi Field. The Mets ambushed Arrieta in the first inning, scoring three times before he retired a batter. They played clean baseball behind winning pitcher Noah Syndergaard and his four successors, and won the game they didn't win nine years earlier.
In 5 2/3 innings, Syndergaard had the Cubs wondering whether he was a clone of Matt Harvey. He didn't pitch as deep into the game as Harvey had in Game 1, but Syndergaard too missed a lot of bats in dominating the Cubs' predominantly left-handed-hitting lineup. Harvey struck out nine in 7 2/3 innings, Syndergaard put down nine in two fewer innings. He allowed one baserunner in the first and third innings and two in the sixth, and Cubs manager Joe Maddon was left hoping for "several one-game winning streaks."
Dazzling Daniel Murphy continued his 2004 Carlos Beltran act in the first, hitting a two-run home run after David Wright had doubled in Curtis Granderson. After three batters, Arrieta had allowed one more run than he had surrendered in his final 10 starts of the regular season. He hadn't allowed a run in the first inning of his final 26 regular-season starts.
But there he was, pitching from behind almost before he could break a sweat. One of the leading candidates for the NL Cy Young Award, Arrieta is mostly unfamiliar with deficit pitching. It's a different animal with a margin for error so thin it has no other side. He persevered, but in the end, he was responsible for all the Mets' runs and a damaging Cubs loss.
The first-inning deficit "held up pretty well for them throughout the game," Maddon said, smirking. The Mets endured no Mota moments. The Cubs challenged in the sixth inning, when they scored just their third run in two games. They had two hits in the 3 1/3 innings after Syndergaard threw his 101st and final pitch.
So now this series moves to where the Cubs are supposed to have an advantage. It can't be the notorious winds that blow off Lake Michigan and chill Wrigley Field. The Mets won in similar conditions Saturday and Sunday nights. And it's not as if facing Jacob deGrom in Game 3 is the Cubs' preferred course of action.
"That's why it was so important to win tonight," Wright said. "You have to like where we are. We couldn't be any better off after two games. ... To be able to have that advantage in this Series, come out and take care of business against [Jon] Lester and Arrieta [in the] first two games at home. ... I think it's big for us moving forward."
No one is disputing that.