New York’s finest

Daniel Murphy rightfully gets the headlines, but pitching is key to New York's success

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CHICAGO — There was a halfhearted effort, of course, to talk curses because these are the Chicago Cubs and to talk about the Cubs without curses is like talking Peanuts without mentioning Snoopy. The curse of choice this time around was the Murphy Curse, which has some silly but fun “Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy” providence about it.

Murphy was the name of the goat Billy Sianis brought to the 1945 World Series, which led the Cubs to ban the goat, which led Sianis to put on the way-too-famous Billy Goat curse.

The Cubs’ next real chance to get back to the World Series was in 1969 and they were famously stuffed by the Miracle Mets. The general manager of that Mets team was Johnny Murphy. And the broadcaster — though I have no idea what role he is supposed to play in the curse — was Bob Murphy.

The next chance for the Cubs: 1984. That’s when they reached the NLCS against the San Diego Padres. It was a best-of-five series, and the Cubs won the first two games. Then they went to San Diego and dropped the next three games to lose the series. The San Diego stadium was, of course, Jack Murphy Stadium.

There are no obvious Murphy connection to the Cubs’ playoff losses in 1989 … or ’98 … or 2003 … or ’07 … or ’08. But there sure was one in ’15. The New York Mets’ second baseman, Daniel Murphy, inexplicably turned into Roy Hobbs. “Home runs, triples, singles, anything he wants to hit, he hits,” the fictional sportswriter Max Mercy said of Hobbs. “I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s incredible. Anything he wants to do, he does. I mean, how can somebody play that well that came from nowhere.”

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Yeah, it was like that. Murphy did not quite come from nowhere like Hobbs; he had proven over several years to be that beast known as “moderately above-average big league hitter.” But in this series (and the last) he was unstoppable. He homered in all four games during the Mets’ sweep. He cracked line drives time after time, no matter who was pitching, no matter if it was a lefty or right, hard-thrower or crafty, none of that stuff mattered. On Wednesday, to put away the Cubs, Murphy cracked four hits, the crescendo when he faced the one and only Fernando Rodney. The one and only Fernando Rodney throws two pitches — a mid-90s fastball and a low 80s changeup. The way it works: You are looking for one, and he throws the other.

Well, Murphy went up there looking for the Rodney changeup, and Rodney instead threw one of his mid-90s heaters. That should have meant game over for Murphy. Instead …

“I just swung,” Murphy said. “And then, when I hit it, I said, ‘Oh my goodness.’”

Yes, he really said: “Oh my goodness.” Then he drank a tall glass of milk, helped an elderly couple across the street, and in a nearby hospital, little Timmy woke from a coma with the news that Daniel Murphy had indeed homered, just like he promised. “I knew he’d do it!” Timmy shouted, and Timmy’s father and mother, who had been going through rocky times, looked into each other’s eyes and realized they still loved each other, and on the celebratory walk back the happy family ran into a stray puppy without a home. “Can we keep her?” Timmy’s adorable sister Lucy asked, and of course they could, thanks to Daniel Murphy.

“What will we name her?” Timmy asked, and everyone looked at each other and laughed for there was obviously only one answer.

“Spiegelmarsh,” they all said in unison.

The Murphy Curse is entertaining but of course, like all other curses, is stupid. The Mets smothered the Cubs from the very first inning. The Cubs never led in the entire four-game series. They were helpless against those young New York pitchers, and they made a lot of mistakes — particularly Kyle Schwarber in the outfield — and they never did figure out a way to get Daniel Murphy out, though the Dodgers couldn’t unravel that mystery in the previous series either. For four games, the Mets thoroughly outplayed the Cubs, and there was no curse or question about it.

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The real question, the one that everybody around baseball asks these days, is this: What kind of team performs well in the playoffs? The Mets provide a fascinating possibility.

This is a fundamentally different time for baseball general managers and managers and owners. For a hundred or so years, the system demanded that they build teams that would hold up over the long season. Until 1969, the teams that won the most games in each league automatically went to the World Series. For 25 seasons after expansion, the teams that won the most games in their division — there were four divisions — would need to play just one “championship series” to get to the World Series.

In that environment, the goal was to win 100 regular season games — the AVERAGE number of victories for World Series teams (adjusting for the shorter 154-game seasons before 1961) was more than 100 victories per season.

Well, there are different ways you build 100-win baseball teams but all those ways center around consistency, equilibrium, balance. You win 100 games by being great at some things but you must be pretty good at everything. Think about the Casey Stengel Yankees or the Bob Gibson Cardinals or the Earl Weaver Orioles or the Sparky Anderson Reds or Tigers. They had different strengths, but they had few weaknesses — you couldn’t afford many weaknesses to win so many games over a long season and through a grinding pennant race. You were pressed to build COMPLETE teams.

Since 1995, when the first Wild Card was added, the average World Series team has won about 94 games per year. That’s obviously down. And in the four years since the second Wild Card was added, the total has dropped down to 92. The downward pressure isn’t hard to figure out. Ten teams now make the playoffs. The goal is not to build complete teams that win charged pennant races. The goal is to build teams that can win 90 games and reach the postseason and then can ride one or two overpowering strengths through the playoffs.

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The Giants are one model, though the toughest one to copy. The Giants have not won 95 games in a season this entire decade. But they won three World Series. They won the first with starting pitching and a different hero every night (Cody Ross, Juan Uribe, Edgar Renteria, etc). They won the second with an unhittable bullpen and the offensive stylings of Marco Scutaro and Pablo Sandoval. They won the third because Madison Bumgarner went into light speed.

All along, they were steadied by terrific defense and the brilliant consistency of catcher Buster Posey and the dependability of manager Bruce Bochy, but the larger point remains: The Giants were not built to win 100 regular season games. They did not score enough runs. They did not pitch consistently enough. But they sure knew how to win in the playoffs.

The trouble is: Nobody can quite figure out how to repeat the Giants’ kind of success. It is too subtle. How can you predict who will be the next postseason Cody Ross or Marco Scutaro or Edgar Renteria? How can you take a very good pitcher like Madison Bumgarner and turn him superhuman in the postseason?

The Kansas City Royals offer another possibility: They win with great defense, hitters who put the ball in play and three closers at the end of the night. Teams around baseball are indeed trying to copy that, though it isn’t easy.

The Toronto Blue Jays offer another possibility: Lots and lots of veteran hitting power, almost all of it right-handed. They will bludgeon you with Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion and Troy Tulowitzki. The Chicago Cubs offer a younger and more versatile version of that; they too will hit mistakes out of the ballpark and that’s tough to overcome.

But it is the New York Mets who offer a different look at the future. The Mets won 90 games this year, fifth-most in the National League. They are deeply flawed — they don’t get on base, they are not particularly athletic, they do not play good infield defense, they have shaky middle-relief. But they have some equally obvious strengths. They hit the longball. They have an emerging closer.

And more than anything, the Mets have four power starters in an era when NOBODY has four power starters, an era when starting pitching is supposed to be less and less important.

Look at the arms of those Mets starters. Noah Syndergaard topped out at 101 mph this year. Matt Harvey topped out at 101 mph this year. Jacob deGrom topped out at 99 mph this year. Steven Matz, the lefthander and least experienced of the group, topped out at 97 mph this year.

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Now, obviously those are top speeds, not where they normally pitch. Still, there has never been a team in the history of baseball that had four starters who could throw that hard. If throwing hard was all they could do, it would be daunting enough to face them. But against the fastball-loving Cubs — Chicago had won all seven regular season games against the Mets — all four pitchers were able to mix in tantalizing changeups and breaking pitches. That made New York all but unbeatable; the Cubs’ hitters never stood a chance.

With four pitchers like that, the Mets basically have a reset button no other team in baseball has. If, as the old saying goes, “momentum in baseball is tomorrow’s starting pitcher,” the Mets ALWAYS have momentum. Go ahead and try to win four out of seven games against deGrom, Harvey, Syndergaard and Matz.

Of course, to win the Mets also have to score runs — and this year, Daniel Murphy has basically taken care of that. He has hit .421 with seven homers and a 1.026 slugging percentage; all of these things are mind-boggling. The Mets cannot expect Murphy to keep this going through the World Series. Then again, they never could have expected it to last THIS long so at this point Sports Illustrated might want to keep the Sportsman of the Year cover handy.

Finally, a last word about curses. Without Daniel Murphy, the Mets would probably have lost the series to the Los Angeles Dodgers. If that had happened, and the Dodgers then beat the Cubs, I suspect we’d be hearing about an ancient Yasmani Grandal curse. There are an infinite number of curses in the Cubs’ past. But it looks like there are a lot of wins in their future.