Sunday's Top 5: Hey, starting pitching is important

Jake Arrieta entered Game 2 of the NLCS Sunday riding a 13-game win streak. The Chicago Cubs had won the previous 15 games he started. Cubs fans expected to win this game and head back to Wrigley Field even with the New York Mets. Noah Syndergaard, however, had something to say about that.

1. The bottom of the first inning. Before we get to Syndergaard, let’s review the first inning. Arrieta had allowed just six first-inning runs all season, and he hadn’t allowed three runs in any first inning since his rookie season in 2010. Three batters into the game, it was 3-0. Curtis Granderson led off with a hard ground single to right. David Wright, 1-for-19 in the postseason, then doubled over the head of Dexter Fowler on a 2-1 fastball clocked at 94 mph to score Granderson.

Three notes there:

— Fowler could have/should have made the play. He got a bad read on it and then got twisted around and misjudged it. Overall, the Cubs are a solid defensive team, but Fowler isn’t a strength; his minus-12 Defensive Runs Saved ranked fourth-worst among center fielders in 2015, and his minus-35 over the past three seasons ranks worst.

— It was a bad pitch, middle of the plate.

— Arrieta’s fastball velocity was down a bit all night, due either to the weather or just the fact that it was his 36th start and he has pitched nearly 90 innings more than he did the past season. Overall, his fastball averaged 93.0 mph, his lowest average velocity since his first two starts of the season and 1.5 mph less than his season average.

That brought up the red hot Daniel Murphy, and he golfed out a 1-2 curveball just inside the right-field fair pole for his fifth home run in seven postseason games.

“The ambush early got us,” a still upbeat Joe Maddon said postgame. It’s hard to fault Arrieta with the pitch: Murphy dug it off his shoetops (it’s the red dot below the strike zone):

What can you say? It’s players such as Murphy who make the postseason impossible to predict. Murphy has had the best week of his life, with two home runs off Clayton Kershaw, one off Zack Greinke, one off Jon Lester and now one off Arrieta. Murphy hit one home run all season against a left-hander; he has three in the postseason. It’s Pablo Sandoval hitting six home runs in the 2012 postseason, when he hit 12 all regular season. It’s David Freese hitting .397 and knocking in 21 runs in 18 playoff games for the Cardinals in 2011. It’s Cody Ross hitting five home runs and driving in 10 runs for the Giants in 2010. It’s Scott Spiezio and Bucky Dent and Gene Tenace. You can’t predict baseball, and you sure can’t predict October.

2. Noah Syndergaard. Meanwhile, Syndergaard was locked in while pitching three days after his one-inning relief appearance in the Division Series clincher and eight days since his previous start. Unlike with Arrieta, Syndergaard’s fastball velocity was a tick up from his regular-season average: 97.1 to 97.6. Good luck.

A key subplot of this series was how Cubs hitters would fare against the high-octane fastballs of the Mets starters. After going 1-for-13 against Matt Harvey‘s fastball, the Cubs went 3-for-14 against Syndergaard’s heater, though they were 1-for-11 until Fowler blooped a one-out single in the sixth and Kris Bryant knocked Syndergaard from the game with a double off the left-field wall with two outs.

Not only does Syndergaard throw in the upper 90s, but he also showed good fastball command. He threw 61 fastballs out of 101 pitches and moved the ball around the strike zone:

The Cubs swung at 29 of the fastballs, a much more aggressive approach than they took against Harvey, and they missed seven of them (24 percent) and fouled off 13. They’re going to see more heat in Game 3 with Jacob deGrom going for the Mets.

3. Curtis Granderson. He singled in the first. He robbed Chris Coghlan of a home run in the second. In the third, he led off with a walk. He stole second — Arrieta allowed the fourth-most steals in the majors, so while the Mets were last in the NL in steals, Granderson said after the game that part of the game plan was to run on Arrieta if the situation arose. After Murphy was intentionally walked with one out — an odd move by Joe Maddon considering cleanup hitter Yoenis Cespedes was up next — Granderson stole third with Cespedes batting, which put him in position to score on Cespedes’ infield single. Granderson in the postseason: .375/.448/.458 with four walks and just one strikeout in 29 plate appearances by a guy who struck out once every 4.5 PAs in the regular season. Murphy has been locked in, but so has Granderson, delivering quality PAs every time up.

4. Mets bullpen. Give Terry Collins credit. He didn’t wait too long to yank Syndergaard and removed him after the Bryant double. Knowing he didn’t want to use Jeurys Familia for more than three outs, Collins knew that meant he’d have to use the middle guys. Jonathon Niese struck out Anthony Rizzo, and then Addison Reed and Tyler Clippard tossed scoreless frames. Familia closed it out. Keep this nugget in your back pocket, however: Reed, Clippard and Familia had zero strikeouts. Balls in play will eventually result in hits.

5. Players in ski masks. Nothing screams postseason baseball like players in ski masks! With a game-time temperature of 45 degrees and a wind chill that drove it into the 30s, it wasn’t a comfortable night for players or spectators. Yes, it was unseasonably cold in New York, but the World Series might go into November. I promise I won’t rant all postseason about the weather if this continues, but it’s sad baseball’s most important games of the season are often played in its worst weather. Baseball is not meant to be played in near-freezing temperatures.

Anyway, kudos to the pitchers: I think they were all out there in short sleeves, so I won’t overreact … for now.

It’s off to Chicago for the next two (hopefully three) games. As Maddon said, it’s still a simple road for the Cubs: “We’re looking for several one-game winning streaks.”

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