NLCS 2015: Classic Showdown With Mets’ Original Rival

(Neil Miller/Sportsday Wire)

The black cat is ready to cast its spell.

Longtime Mets fans wouldn’t be surprised if some superstitious fans attempt sneaking a black cat into Citi Field this weekend and dare to run it past the Cubs’ dugout.

Its historical perspective goes back to 1969, when the baby bears from Chicago first stood in the path of the Mets as they ascended to a Miracle. There was a crucial series at Shea Stadium with the Cubbies late in the year – the first season of split divisions, and the Cubs were lodged in the original NL East – and out of nowhere, a black cat suddenly appeared in front of the Cub’s dugout, and before darting by, it stopped and stared in at the players, an omen of sorts according to legend.

It ran past and around Cubs third baseman Ron Santo in the on-deck circle, and then disappeared under the stands.

The spell had been cast on that 9th of September. The cat never appeared again, but it served notice as the Cubs collapsed in the last month of the season, going 8-17, while the Mets sailed past them on their way to a 100-win season and eventually their first World Championship.

And here we are again, Cubs vs. Mets, this time for the chance to represent the National League in this year’s World Series. Two teams that actually mirror each other in some departments, playing each other for the first time as postseason opponents.

Perhaps uniquely, this NLCS does not feature a villain in either corner. While fans of each properly cast aspersions to the other as the enemy, both teams are likeable. Both teams have surprised many by getting this far this year. Both teams consider themselves the underdog, albeit buffeted by the confidence of getting to this level of success. And both shield legacies of frustration and futility, particularly in recent years, while the Cubs certainly take the blue ribbon of impatience, having been thwarted in their quest for the Golden Fleece since 1908.

This classic matchup pits the Big Apple vs. Second City. And just in case you were wondering, Chicago earned the nickname of “Second” City because the city they are now opposing is recognized as “First.”.

It is also a battle of wits between two very good friends. When Mets skipper Terry Collins was piloting the Angels (1997-99), his bench coach was Joe Maddon. “I’m very happy for him,” admitted Collins at the NLCS lead-off presser.

“I’ve known (Maddon) a long time,” Collins said of his NLCS counterpart. “Back then, bench coaches were just kind of guys you’d run an idea by. It was also the start of the computer age in baseball, and Joe was into computers. So I hired him as my bench guy, and he always had an idea, always had a thought, and nobody was more thrilled than I was when he finally got a chance in Tampa Bay. I’m real proud of him.”

And now he gets to try and beat him.

Game 1 Starters have been announced, Matt Harvey for the Mets and Jon Lester for the Cubs.

The reigns have been removed from Harvey’s bit. “I think everybody’s had enough of that ordeal. I’ll be the last person to bring that up again,” said Harvey the day before Game 1.

So you can forget about innings limits, and pitch counts. Just count effective innings. Harvey is even anxious to get two starts in the NLCS. “I couldn’t be happier and I’ll be ready for it.”

Collins is glad he’s got the embattled Ace ready to go. “He was the first one in my office wanting to pitch game 5 (of the NLDS).

“What he went through the last month has been difficult for him because deep inside, this guy is a tremendous competitor. He loves to be in the big games. Physically, I think he’s fine. Mentally, I think he’s fine. I think it’s the right choice. I think he’s ready. He’ll pitch well.”

If you ask Collins who will be pitching Game 2 on Sunday, his name is “I don’t have a Game 2 guy yet.”

It might just depend on how Noah Syndergaard wakes up on Saturday. “I know he threw over 100 pitches warming up (in the bullpen before entering Game 5 of the NLDS against the Dodgers). So if he’s still tender (on Saturday), he’s probably not going to be the Game 2 guy.”

Lefthanded rookie Steven Matz is the choice if Thor is sore. Collins said as much. But then again, Bartolo Colon and Jonathon Niese are also alternatives, although both have proven invaluable out of the pen since the season ended.

Niese has acquired a new appreciation for members of the bullpen. “It’s not easy. I can’t say enough about (Jeurys) Familia. (Getting a six-out save was) not something he was used to doing. But he stepped up and got it done.”

Look for Jacob deGrom to go in Game 3 on normal rest when the series shifts to Wrigley Field on Tuesday night. After that, it could be Thor if he indeed gets pushed back, or perhaps Matz if Syndergaard ends up getting the ball on Sunday.

A lot will be made about the Cubs’ dominance over the Mets in the regular season, taking all seven games at both Wrigley and Citi Field. But that was before the trade deadline, when the Mets remade themselves with several significant deals, bringing in the likes of Juan Uribe, Kelly Johnson, Yoenis Cespedes, and later, Tyler Clippard, and subsequently, Addison Reed.

They’re a different team now, so all of that pregame prattle goes out the window, the benefit of having the organization depth to make those deals.

“You have to have a fundamental core of players,” GM Sandy Alderson noted. “Successful teams, whether they’re big market, small market, large payroll, small payroll, (know) you’ve got to develop your own players. That’s the currency we deal with. That’s how trades are made. At the deadline I think we traded something like 11 (minor league) pitchers. (If) we don’t have that inventory, we’re not able to make those deals.”

And now it’s time to see the benefits of that inventory control in action. Buckle up. Game 1 is hours away.

Cue the cat.

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