By Steve Silverman
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The New York Mets have an opportunity to make a statement Friday night, and if they are smart, they will follow the lead of the Chicago Cubs.
The Cubs were forced to play in the Wild Card game, and that was seemingly a one-game shotgun affair that could have gone to the Pittsburgh Pirates just as easily as it ended up going to the Cubs.
These were two excellent regular season teams, and the Pirates ended up with a one-game lead over Chicago, and that’s why the play-in game was in Pittsburgh.
The Pirates had their ace on the mound in Gerrit Cole, and while he could not hold his own against Jake Arrietta, Cubs manager Joe Maddon knew that if the Pirates pitcher had been at his best, the game could have been scoreless until the seventh, eighth or ninth innings and could have been decided on any flukish occurrence.
But that did not happen because the Cubs came out of the gate with a hunger and a sense of purpose. Dexter Fowler led off the game with a with a line-drive single and he stole second. When slugging rookie Kyle Schwarber dumped a single to left field, the Cubs had a 1-0 lead before the first out had been recorded.
That early run helped remove the fluke factor from the game. The Cubs had Bob Gibson, er, Arietta on the mound and the game was essentially over. All Arietta needs is one run to win, and he got that run just a few minutes into the game.
The Cubs were loose with Arietta on the mound and once they had the lead, they knew the game was theirs. When Schwarber deposited a two-run homer in the Allegheny River in the third inning, it was just a matter of taking care of business on defense. When they snuffed out the only hint of a rally that the Pirates had in the sixth inning on a great defensive play by shortstop Addison Russell, the travel plans to St. Louis became official.
On Friday night, the Mets have a chance to make a statement against the Dodges in Game 1 of the NLDS. They are on the road, just as the Cubs were, and they are facing the ace of the Dodgers’ staff.
Clayton Kershaw has been the best pitcher in baseball since the 2011 season. When it comes to wins, strikeouts and simply dominating hitters over a five-year period, nobody in the current era has come close to matching him.
But Kershaw’s record in the postseason has been ordinary. He has been beaten up by the Cardinals for the last two years, and he has had a hard time performing when the lights are brightest.
How much longer will that be the case?
Barry Bonds couldn’t hit in the postseason, either, but then came 2002. He hit .294 and slugged .824 in the division series for the Giants, and then followed that with a .273 and .727 showing in the NLCS.
Then came the World Series against the Angels. Bonds simply tormented them with his bat as he hit .471 and slugged 1.294 while bombing four home runs and walking 13 times.
The Angels pulled out that series in seven games, but there was no stopping Bonds as he hit the ball with a vengeance. Bonds had hit .176 or less in three of his previous five postseason series prior to his 2002 showing.
The point is that greatness can’t be kept down forever, and Kershaw is much more likely to pitch like a virtuoso in this series rather than the ordinary guy he has looked like in previous postseason efforts.
That’s why the Mets have to get to him early. They need to scratch out a run or two in the first or second inning any way they can.
Jacob de Grom is fully capable of shutting down the Dodgers, but the longer the game goes on even terms, the more it favors the Dodgers. If Kershaw is pitching a shutout through five innings, it’s going to be difficult to break through.
The Mets may not be a team that regularly scratches out runs with infield hits, sacrifices and aggressive baserunning, but that’s just what it is likely to take against Kershaw.
The modern gameplan in baseball is to let the sluggers slug, but throw that philosophy out in the postseason when pitchers like Kershaw and Zach Greinke are on the mound. Get an early run any way you can, and then watch deGrom take care of business.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy