The decisive Game 5 of the National League Division Series pitted ace pitchers Zack Greinke and Jacob deGrom against each other, but it was a second baseman who hit .281 with 14 home runs on the season who played the role of hero.
Daniel Murphy drove in two runs for the New York Mets in their 3-2 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers on Thursday and finished a triple shy of the cycle. His solo home run off Greinke in the top of the sixth proved to be the difference-maker at Dodger Stadium, and deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Jeurys Familia did the rest of the work from the mound.
Jon Heyman of CBS Sports noted Murphy was a critical figure for New York throughout the series:
ESPN Stats & Info highlighted Murphy's place in club history, while Ace of MLB Stats pointed out that a Mets win with everything on the line has not happened in quite some time:
While Murphy was the obvious hero, deGrom's ability to escape trouble throughout his six innings of work kept New York within striking distance during the early stages. In all, deGrom allowed two earned runs and struck out seven while working around six hits and three walks. Greinke gave up three runs in 6.2 innings.
As for the Dodgers, it was a disappointing end to a season where the front office went all in for a title. Jon Paul Morosi of Fox Sports 1 and Gerry Fraley of the Dallas Morning News put the financial reality of Los Angeles' attempt into perspective following the loss:
The primary storyline entering the game was the showdown between the two star pitchers, but the Mets got to Greinke in the first inning. Curtis Granderson reached on an infield single and scored off Murphy's RBI double to give New York a 1-0 lead. Steve Gelbs of SportsNet New York noted it was business as usual for Murphy this series:
Greinke escaped the jam having given up only one run, and the Dodgers responded in the bottom of the first with two runs of their own. They tallied four consecutive hits off deGrom, including RBI singles from Justin Turner and Andre Ethier. J.P. Hoornstra of the Los Angeles News Group and Matt Ehalt of the Record pointed to deGrom's fastball as the issue:
The Dodgers threatened with two runners on and one out in the bottom of the third, but deGrom escaped with a double play. Ethier lined out as part of the frame after Turner doubled and was seen yelling at Los Angeles manager Don Mattingly once he returned to the dugout.
The missed chance proved critical, because the Mets tied the score at 2-2 in the next frame after Murphy singled and then took third on Lucas Duda's walk because the Dodgers infield was shifted with nobody covering third.
Murphy then scored off Travis d'Arnaud's sacrifice fly, and Ehalt pointed to the momentum swing after Los Angeles started the game two-for-nine with runners in scoring position:
The Dodgers once again threatened in the fourth and fifth innings but failed to score and fell to two-for-13 with runners in scoring position. Anthony DiComo of MLB.com and Marc Carig of Newsday praised deGrom's ability to avoid significant damage despite a number of high-stress innings:
While the Dodgers missed most of their opportunities, Murphy did not. He drilled a home run to give the Mets a 3-2 lead in the top of the sixth, and DiComo noted the second baseman was a one-man show, while Gelbs acknowledged the postseason anomaly:
The Mets turned to Syndergaard, who is normally a starter, in the seventh with the 3-2 lead, and Karl Ravech of Baseball Tonight commented on the decision:
Syndergaard worked a scoreless frame, and the biggest moment came when he stuck out Turner with a runner on, considering the third baseman's previous success in this series. Jayson Stark of ESPN commented on the performance:
The Mets gave the ball to Familia with the narrow one-run lead in the eighth for a six-out save after Syndergaard's dominant outing. Familia didn't have a single six-out save in his entire career, but the postseason is all about expanding roles and performing in the clutch. What's more, a quick eighth inning made things somewhat more familiar for the closer, as Morosi highlighted:
The Mets didn't score in the ninth, and it set the stage for Chase Utley to pinch hit for Joc Pederson. It was Utley's first appearance in this series since he broke Ruben Tejada's leg with a takeout slide, and the tension woke up the crowd, as Mike Vorkunov of the Star-Ledger noted:
Utley harmlessly flew out to right, and Familia clinched a date with the Chicago Cubs with a 1-2-3 inning to complete the save.
Next up is the National League Championship Series between the Mets and Cubs, which begins Friday in New York.
The Cubs' pursuit of their first World Series title since 1908 is the predominant storyline in these playoffs, but the Mets haven't won a championship since 1986 and would love to put an end to their fanbase's suffering as well.
The potential pitching matchups stand out with Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester on Chicago's side and a deep rotation that includes deGrom, Syndergaard, Matt Harvey and Steven Matz for New York. Chicago could have the early advantage because deGrom and Syndergaard both pitched in Thursday's game while the Cubs rested, but the Mets have more impressive arms to throw in a seven-game clash.
DiComo noted Harvey will pitch Game 1, while Lester will take the ball for the Cubs.
Even though Chicago will have Lester and Arrieta on full rest entering the NLCS, it could run into trouble when forced to turn the ball over to Kyle Hendricks or Jason Hammel, who both struggled in starts against the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Cubs did go 7-0 against the Mets this season, but they haven't played since July 2, which was before New York traded for Yoenis Cespedes and made its late charge in the National League East standings.
“It’s a completely different team,” Harvey said, per ESPN's Adam Rubin, in response to his team being 0-7 vs. Chicago. “We have a different mentality. We have a lot of different pieces."
“It’s going to be tough for them to play at Citi Field, where it’s been rocking,” Harvey added, per Rubin.
It's fair to say Chicago will face a much more confident Mets team with a spot in the World Series on the line.
Los Angeles was left thinking about what could have been following so many missed opportunities. Mattingly talked about the empty chances in his postgame press conference:
Yeah, yeah, we jump out there for two in the first and have guys out there and don't really scratch anything across. That always scares you in a game, and you hope it doesn't come back to haunt you later in the game that if you don't leave some runs out there that he had a chance to get. Yeah, we weren't able to go after that. DeGrom did a nice job of getting out of some trouble a number of times, but we had the pressure on him.
Attention on the Dodgers’ side of things also turned to the only other place it could following the season-ending loss—the future. Greinke has an opt-out clause in his contract and could become a free agent this offseason. He addressed that possibility, per Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times:
As for the victorious Mets, manager Terry Collins praised the hero of the contest in his postgame press conference:
Well, been around Dan Murphy for six years. He's a baseball player. He's a baseball junky. He loves to hit. He loves to play the game. Plays every night all-out. When he's swinging the bat, he's dangerous. When he's hot, he is really dangerous. The home runs, you know, I think Kevin Long gets a lot of credit. They got him to pull the ball a little bit more, and he's hitting the ball over the fence. That's the kind of power. But Kevin saw it, and together they worked hard at it, and now Dan's doing what he's been doing.
Murphy made the headlines, but deGrom’s ability to limit the early damage from Los Angeles also proved critical. He discussed his turnaround during his postgame press conference: “That was the last thing I wanted to do with us going up in the first inning was to go out there and give up the lead. But after that I just tried to calm it all down. I think I was a little amped up, and I just tried to make my pitches.”
While New York celebrated the victory in its locker room and reflected on the game, its key players also began to focus on the impending series with the Cubs.
David Wright discussed the matchup with the team that hit 10 home runs against the Cardinals in the Divisional Series, per Chris De Luca of the Chicago Sun-Times: “The Cubs are hitting balls out of Wrigley wherever they're landing.”
"This champagne tastes even sweeter having gone through what we've been through as an organization these last nine years," Wright added, per DiComo.
While Wright and his teammates had one eye on what’s to come, they also understood that beating a pitcher like Greinke on the road in an elimination game deserved a celebration.