The baseball gods smiled upon Queens for the National League Wild Card matchup. It will be the Mets against the Giants at Citi Field with two of baseball’s most talented pitchers going head-to-head with their seasons on the line. It’s hard to conceive a better scenario for baseball than Noah Syndergaard against Madison Bumgarner. With baseball being baseball, they will probably both be knocked out by the sixth inning en route to a 10-8 final.
Nevertheless, the lead-up to the showdown should be exciting. It might be hard to remember the last time there was a do-or-die game with the Mets that featured two pitchers this good. However, there have been a few precedents. In their all-time playoff history, the Mets have played just six games that met this simple parameter: if the Mets lost, they went home; if they won, they advanced. (This does not count the 1999 Wild Card playoff game against the Reds, which counted toward regular season statistics.)
Syndergaard vs. Bumgarner immediately vaults to the top of the discussion of the Mets’ best win-or-go-home showdowns, but which others would be in the mix? Not all of them are Ollie Perez against Jeff Suppan, after all.
1973 NLCS: Tom Seaver vs. Jack Billingham
Everyone remembers Seaver, but Billingham was a terrific pitcher in his own right for the “Big Red Machine.” While the offense was the star of the show, Billingham was an All-Star in ’73, leading the league in starts (40), shutouts (seven), and innings pitched (293.3). Seaver took home the Cy Young Award that year but Billingham received a couple first place votes as well, good enough for him to finish fourth in balloting.
Seaver and Billingham’s combined WARP of 12.6 (9.6 for Seaver, 3.0 for Billingham) is the highest of any do-or-die Mets playoff game, including Syndergaard vs. Bumgarner (11.2). Seaver does the heavy lifting, but Billingham was still the Reds’ ace. It was the coda of a thrilling NLCS where the heavy underdog 82-win Mets some took down Cincinnati’s vaunted 99-win powerhouse in a best-of-five. The Reds had forced a decisive Game 5 with a 12th-inning victory in Game 4, leading to the Seaver vs. Billingham finale.
The superior talent prevailed. With the score deadlocked at 2-2, the Mets knocked Billingham from the game in the fifth with a two-run double by Cleon Jones. Seaver went 8.3 innings of two-run ball before some walks led Yogi Berra to call on Tug McGraw to seal the 7-2 victory. He did just that and the crowd went crazy, storming the field.
1988 NLCS: Ron Darling vs. Orel Hershiser
The more fan-friendly choice would be to tab Ron Darling’s 1986 World Series Game 7 start against Bruce Hurst. Unfortunately, while Hurst was no slouch with a 2.99 ERA and that ended in an iconic win, it would have been a much better showdown if it was Roger Clemens pitching for Boston. Alas, it was not. So the more thrilling Darling matchup has to be a loss, when the Mets were tasked with somehow stopping the sensational Orel Hershiser in Game 7 of the 1988 NLCS. Even though WARP is not as fond of Hershiser and the record-setting scoreless streak he posted during the ’88 regular season, the 10.2 combined WARP between Darling and Hershiser is still quite good.
The Mets had extremely high expectations for ’88 after the fun of ’86, and with 100 wins, they were six games better than the NL West champion Dodgers. It seemed like they had a good grip on the series in Game 4. They were three outs away from taking a 3-1 series lead with Dwight Gooden on the mound. Then Mike Scioscia of all people tied it up with a two-run homer in the ninth. The Mets lost both that game and the next one, needing a five-hitter from David Cone simply to force Game 7.
One pitcher was dominant. The other was not at all. Regrettably for the Mets, the latter was Darling, who was pounded and removed without recording a single out in the second. When the dust settled, the Dodgers were up, 6-0, and though the Mets outlasted Hershiser in Game 3, he recaptured that shutout form from the end of the regular season. He went the distance on a five-hit shutout that ended both the Mets’ season and their hopes of more than a single championship from that overpowering mid-‘80s squad.
2015 NLDS: Jacob deGrom vs. Zack Greinke
Perhaps this marquee matchup was forgotten too quickly. This was another Mets/Dodgers make-or-break showdown, though this one ended in the Mets’ favor. Greinke was phenomenal in 2015 for L.A., posting a 1.66 ERA and finishing just behind Jake Arrieta for the NL Cy Young. Meanwhile, deGrom received down-ballot support for his superb season, proving that his Rookie of the Year campaign from 2014 was no fluke.
The Dodgers had been the favorites over the Mets, whose mere presence in the playoffs was a surprise. The Dodgers’ Game 2 win keyed by an infamous dirty slide was all that kept the series alive as it trudged to a decisive fifth game. Mets fans weren’t happy that more baseball was needed, especially with Greinke on the mound against them, but deGrom was up to the challenge.
Both pitchers allowed the other team to score in the first, and then settled into a duel. Greinke nursed a 2-1 lead until Travis d’Arnaud lifted a sacrifice fly in the fourth to score Daniel Murphy and tie it up. Then the playoff hero Murphy victimized Greinke with a solo blast in the sixth to put the Mets on top. Those were the only three runs allowed by Greinke in 6.7 innings, but deGrom did not surrender any runs after the first, leaving with six frames of two-run ball.
In a rare relief effort, Syndergaard dominated the seventh with two strikeouts. Then Jeurys Familia finished the Dodgers off with a two-inning save, fanning Howie Kendrick to end it.
May Familia end Wednesday night in similarly dramatic fashion.
Photo Credit: Chris Pedota/The Record via USA TODAY NETWORK