Cubs vs. Mets: Keys for Each Team to Win NLCS Game 1
The National League Championship Series will begin Saturday night at Citi Field as the New York Mets play host to the Chicago Cubs, with the first pitch of Game 1 scheduled for 8:07 p.m. ET.
The Cubs topped the rival St. Louis Cardinals in four games in their division series matchup, while the Mets needed all five games to take care of the Los Angeles Dodgers, with Jacob deGrom leading the team to victory in the decisive Game 5.
The Cubs swept both regular-season meetings between the two teams, going 7-0 with a plus-16 run differential, but it's fair to say this is a completely different Mets team than the one Chicago faced in the middle of May and then again in early July.
With Yoenis Cespedes added at the deadline, Michael Conforto promoted from the minors and David Wright back healthy, the offense is now a legitimate weapon, while the four-man rotation of the Mets continues to be a serious weapon.
Meanwhile, the Cubs put on an impressive power display during the NLDS, as they homered 10 times and scored 20 runs over the final three games of the series after being shut out in Game 1.
As both teams look to set the tone for the entire season with a Game 1 victory, let's take a look at three keys to victory for both the Cubs and Mets in advance of this year's NLCS getting underway.
Mets: Production from Michael Cuddyer or Juan Lagares
Michael Conforto enjoyed a terrific rookie season for the New York Mets, giving them a much-needed offensive boost at the start of the second half when they promoted him from the minors.
However, chances are he won't be in the lineup for Game 1 with left-hander Jon Lester on the mound.
Conforto hit .214 with a .481 OPS in just 14 at-bats against left-handed pitching during the regular season, and he was out of the lineup in all three games started by a lefty in the division series.
Michael Cuddyer got the start in left field in Game 1, while Juan Lagares started in center field in Game 3 and Game 4, with Yoenis Cespedes sliding over to left field.
With the power bat of Conforto out of the lineup, getting some sort of contribution from whoever replaces him between Cuddyer and Lagares would be a real boost for the offseason.
Both players put up solid numbers against left-handed pitching during the regular season.
- Cuddyer: 99 AB, .273/.357/.343, 4 2B, 1 HR, 5 RBI
- Lagares: 121 AB, .273/.333/.438, 7 2B, 3 HR, 15 RBI
As long as we're on the subject, it's also worth noting that Lucas Duda has hammered left-handed pitching this season to the tune of an .878 OPS with 11 doubles and seven home runs in 123 at-bats.
That's a substantial improvement over last season, when he struggled to a .180 average and .516 OPS in 111 at-bats against southpaws.
Cubs: Javier Baez Stepping Up at Shortstop
Few spots on the field are more important than the shortstop position, and the Chicago Cubs will be without starting shortstop Addison Russell for the entirety of the NLCS after he suffered a strained hamstring in Game 3 of the NLDS.
Then again, not many teams have the luxury of calling on Javier Baez to replace their injured shortstop.
It was an up-and-down year for the 22-year-old, but he showed enough in a September call-up to earn a spot on the postseason roster, and he's already made his mark.
Baez replaced Russell midway through Game 3 of the NLDS and went 2-for-2 the rest of that game. Then he followed that up by going 2-for-3 with a huge three-run home run hitting out of the No. 9 spot in the lineup in the decisive Game 4.
On top of his bat, he's also a slick fielder, though he did make a throwing error in Game 4 when he shorted a throw to first base on a relatively routine play.
That did nothing to change manager Joe Maddon's opinion of him, though.
"I have all the confidence in the world in him," Maddon told Patrick Mooney of CSN Chicago. "He’s an outstanding defender."
Baez will likely serve as a second table-setter of sorts out of the No. 9 spot in the lineup once again, and as long as he doesn't try to do too much and plays within himself, he has a chance to be a serious X-factor.
Mets: Early Runs Against Jon Lester
After a rocky first month of the season, Jon Lester has looked very much the part of the ace the Chicago Cubs were hoping for when they signed him to a $155 million deal during the offseason.
He allowed a run in the first inning of his Game 1 NLDS start but settled in for six straight scoreless frames from there before the St. Louis Cardinals finally got to him in the eighth inning.
Getting on the scoreboard early will be a key for the Mets in Game 1 of the NLCS, as teams have been able to get to Lester the first time through the lineup this year, but he has done a nice job settling in from there.
Let's take a look at his inning-by-inning numbers during the regular season:
- 1st: 4.50 ERA, .254 BAA
- 2nd: 3.94 ERA, .276 BAA
- 3rd: 2.84 ERA, .200 BAA
- 4th: 2.61 ERA, .211 BAA
- 5th: 2.20 ERA, .226 BAA
- 6th: 3.20 ERA, .219 BAA
- 7th: 4.91 ERA, .296 BAA
- 8th: 0.00 ERA, .250 BAA
- 9th: 5.40 ERA, .286 BAA
With that in mind, pushing across some early runs would seem to be in the Mets' best interest, and Curtis Granderson could be just the guy to help them do it.
No one on the Mets roster has faced Lester more in his career, as Granderson saw plenty of him during his time in the American League with the Detroit Tigers and New York Yankees.
He enters the game 12-for-44 (.273 BA) with two doubles and two home runs against Lester in his career, and he'll no doubt be penciled into the leadoff spot in the order once again, so he'll have a chance for some early fireworks.
Cubs: More Fall Dominance from Jon Lester
Jon Lester may have been susceptible to giving up early runs during the regular season, but he hasn't given up much of anything over the course of his postseason career.
In 91.1 career playoff innings, the 31-year-old has gone 6-5 with a 2.66 ERA, 1.051 WHIP and a ratio of 24 walks to 82 strikeouts.
He was the tough-luck loser in Game 1 of the NLDS, as John Lackey simply outpitched him on the other side of things, but he threw the ball well enough to win with five hits and three runs allowed in 7.1 innings of work.
That came on the heels of a fantastic conclusion to the regular season, when he had a 2.19 ERA, 0.703 WHIP and .169 opponent batting average over his final five starts.
As far as this specific head-to-head matchup, Lester faced the Mets twice during the regular season, pitching well in both games:
- May 11: W, 6.0 IP, 5 H, 3 ER, 4 BB, 6 K
- July 1: ND, 7.0 IP, 5 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 7 K
Of course it has to be mentioned that both of those games came prior to the acquisition of Yoenis Cespedes, and it has been a completely different lineup since the Mets added him in the middle.
However, the Cubs have to feel confident handing the ball to Lester in Game 1 as they look to start the series off on a high note.
Mets: Dominance from Matt Harvey
Doctors recommended a strict 185-inning limit for Matt Harvey at the beginning of the season, and agent Scott Boras very publicly backed that number, but it's fair to say the NLCS qualifies as an extenuating circumstance.
After throwing 189.1 innings during the regular season and then adding another five to that total in his Game 3 start in the NLDS, Harvey will be off the leash the rest of the way.
He wasn't great against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS, allowing seven hits and three runs (two earned) and throwing 97 pitches before being pulled after five innings of work.
However, he was terrific at Citi Field all year (17 GS, 8-3, 2.27 ERA) and really hit his stride in the second half (12 GS, 5-2, 2.19 ERA), so that one so-so start probably isn't worth reading too much into.
He was also fantastic in his one start against the Chicago Cubs earlier this year, settling for a no-decision but allowing just three hits and striking out nine over seven scoreless innings.
"Citi Field is going to be rocking, and it's going to step their game up even more," Harvey said when talking about the Cubs, per Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune. "We're ready for them."
Cubs: Anthony Rizzo Staying Hot
Anthony Rizzo took his game to another level during the regular season, hitting .278/.387/.512 with 38 doubles, 31 home runs and 101 RBI for a 6.2 WAR to establish himself as a bona fide superstar in the league.
However, his postseason did not get off to a great start.
Rizzo entered Game 3 of the NLDS at 0-for-10 in his first three career playoff games, and he ran that to 0-for-12 before taking Kevin Siegrist deep in the fifth inning for his first postseason hit.
He would wind up going 3-for-5 with two home runs to close out the series, and that could be the start of a hot streak for the 26-year-old.
How big of a difference does it make when Rizzo is making an impact in the middle of the lineup?
The Cubs were 22-7 in games where he homered this season and 45-16 when he drove in at least one run, so while Dexter Fowler may be the catalyst, it's fair to say that as Rizzo goes, so goes the Cubs offense more times than not.
Rizzo is 1-for-4 with a double and a walk against Game 1 starter Matt Harvey in his career, and he'll be looking to add to those numbers with a big NLCS debut.
All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com, unless otherwise noted.