Thursday, December 14, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays

Mets extend Cubs' drought, head to World Series

CHICAGO — There wasn't anything Joe Maddon could do Wednesday, maybe short of channeling Dan Johnson, "highly disappointed" to watch his first season with the Cubs end, the 8-3 loss completing a sweep that sent the Mets to an unexpected berth in the World Series.

Certainly the Cubs got further than anyone, even the always optimistic Maddon could have expected, at least a season ahead of their reconstruction plan. But as has been the case for the previous 106 years, they didn't get far enough. Their last World Series championship is still in 1908, their heartbreak ongoing.

"You don't want to let the fans down,'' Maddon said as fans chanted his name on one side of the field while the Mets celebrated on the other. "I don't feel like we let them down, but you want to take it all the way.''

For Maddon, it was still a wildly successful whirlwind first year in Chicago, as he opted out of his contract with the Rays, signed a five-year, $25-million deal with the Cubs and took them to within four wins of their first Series appearance since 1945.

"It's one of those things that happens to somebody else but never happens to you,'' he told the Tampa Bay Times. "That's exactly what this is all about. You always wish other people well, friends that you meet, that get an opportunity and take advantage of it, but it's never you. So all of a sudden it was me this year. And I'm very grateful.''

One issue for the Cubs in the NLCS was good pitching continuing its century-long winning streak over good hitting.

"It's not so much to be disappointed in our performance," Maddon said. "They were that good for four days, man."

Yes, the Mets were that good at making the Cubs look that bad in the National League Championship Series. All the chatter about the Back to the Future II movie prediction, and breaking the curses of the billy goat, the black cat and Bartman, gave way to the grim reality of their play. In the four games, the Cubs scored eight runs, their hitters posting a .164 average (21-for-128), striking out 37 times.

"Seriously, I mean that was as good as we're going to see for four consecutive games,'' Maddon said. "It wasn't about us doing anything badly or wrong, it was how good they were.

Worse for the Cubs, former Ray Jason Hammel put them in a huge early hole, allowing a three-run homer to Lucas Duda with two outs in the first, then a solo shot to Travis d'Arnaud. Maddon yanked Hammel in the second, but the deficit grew to 6-0, and they could not do much to close the gap. NLCS MVP Daniel Murphy, hitting a stunning seventh homer over his past six postseason games, pushed the margin to 8-1 in the eighth. A two-run shot by Kris Bryant in the eighth was the Cubs' only return salvo.

Shortly thereafter, the Mets were celebrating their first World Series appearance since 2000, awaiting the winner of the Blue Jays-Royals series.

"Ya gotta believe," Mets third baseman David Wright said, borrowing a phrase from Mets' lore. "Ya gotta believe. I can't stop saying it. We're going to the World Series."

Another product of the series was some validation — for the Rays' way and that of other teams — that player development can still be the foundation to success.

For the Cubs, it was primarily a core of promising young position players such as Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Javier Baez, Jorge Soler and (currently injured) Addison Russell, none of whom are older than 24.

"This is just the beginning for these guys," Maddon said before the game. "They're very skillful. They're very athletic, their work ethic is spectacular. They're highly accountable, and they're not looking for any kind of entitlements. They're really a different set of cats.

"And this is all based on, like I said, scouting and development is where it begins."

For the Mets, it was a stable of young power arms — a fearsome foursome of Stetson's Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard and Game 4 starter Steven Matz, none older than 27 — who not only starred during the season but have dominated in their first postseason action.

"The thing I'm amazed at is they've gotten better as the season has gone along," TBS and Mets TV analyst Ron Darling said. "They've all been pushed to places they've never been before, and they're getting better. I think that's really the shocking thing. We're not seeing any of the atrophy that you might see with a lot of other young pitchers."

While teams such as the Rays focus on building around young pitching through the draft and development process, Mets general manager Sandy Alderson said his club just kind of ended up that way, armed with four top starters and more.

They drafted Matz as a high schooler in 2009 (second round), then Harvey as their first-round pick in 2010 out of North Carolina, and they used a ninth-round pick on deGrom, a DeLand native who was primarily an infielder for the Hatters. They added Syndergaard (and catcher Travis d'Arnaud) in a December 2012 trade with Toronto for veteran knuckleballer R.A. Dickey and two others.

"As (they) emerged, we realized what we had as opposed to having a grand design," Alderson said in the dugout before the game. "Our goal was always to develop good players, and the fact that it turns out we've done it primarily with young pitching was really just a function of what we had. And fortunately we've held on to them, and they continue to perform and excel."

That ascension and success also illustrates, for any team, the value of procuring and producing young talent, whether to keep it or to use it to make other moves, as the Rays have also done.

"I think player development is critical to any team," Alderson said. "The successful teams, whether they're big market, small marketed, large payroll, small payroll, you've got to develop your own players. That's the currency with which we deal. That's how trades are made. … So I think it's a strategy, and maybe more pronounced for some teams, but ultimately if you don't develop your own players, you're going to come up short at some point, either on your own team or in the trade market."

There was more to the Mets' rise, including the in-season acquisitions of Yeonis Cespedes, Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson and bullpen help, after they staggered through more than half the season with an offense as impotent as the Rays' was then. But from July 25 on, they led the NL in runs and homers and went 41-24.

Murphy has carried them in the postseason, hitting .529 (9-for-17) with four homers in the four -game sweep.

"I've not seen anything like this, I don't think, ever,'' Maddon said. "I saw (Barry) Bonds in the 2002 World Series where you did not want to throw a baseball to him as a pitcher. Right now it's just incredible.''

Murphy, who hit only 14 homers during the season, didn't have much of an explanation for his playoff production.

"I really can't explain it,'' he said. "It's just a complete blessing. And that's the only way I can describe it.''

Teammate Curtis Granderson did him one better: "I'll get a chance to tell people I played with Babe Ruth.''

Mets manager Terry Collins, a baseball lifer, was emotional over finally getting to the Series, noting Wednesday would have been the 73rd anniversary for his parents, who have both passed away.

"I'm sitting there thinking tonight, holy c---, now you're in it after all these years,'' Collins said. "It was worth the wait. It was worth all the work.''

Contact Marc Topkin at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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