Daniel Murphy extends his 'time,' homers in fifth straight playoff game


Daniel Murphy extends his 'time,' homers in fifth straight playoff game

Hey Cubs, you’re not alone -- even Daniel Murphy’s New York Mets teammates are in disbelief over his performance.

The second baseman continued a terrific postseason on Tuesday night as he homered in a playoff-record tying fifth straight game and singled during a key rally for the Mets, who are within one victory of a World Series berth after they defeated the Cubs 5-2 in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series at Wrigley Field. Murphy also established an all-time club postseason home run record with his sixth home run as the Mets took a commanding 3-0 lead in the series.

“He’s on another planet right now,” Mets reliever Tyler Clippard said.

A solid hitter throughout his career (he boasts a .288 average in seven seasons), Murphy hasn’t been known for his power. Prior to 2015, when he hit 14 homers, Murphy only had 48 round-trippers in his first 3,081 career plate appearances -- an average of one every 64.2 trips to the plate.

But this postseason has seen Murphy -- who’s headed for free agency next month -- perform at a new level. Before Tuesday, Murphy had homered five times in 29 plate appearances in the playoffs, delivering key blow after blow for the Mets. The team’s previous mark for a single postseason was four, shared by Carlos Delgado (2006), Mike Piazza (2000) and Rusty Staub (1975). Murphy’s six homers is the most in a baseball postseason since Nelson Cruz tied the all-time mark with eight for Texas in 2011.

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“It’s his time,” said closer Jeurys Familia, who pitched a perfect ninth for his third save in three games.

Murphy’s been so good he’s reached the point where it’s surprising to see him retired. But that’s just what the Cubs did in the first inning when Kyle Hendricks threw three straight sinkers past Murphy for a strikeout.

The next time up, however, they weren’t so lucky.

Hendricks left a 2-1 sinker up off the outer edge and Murphy planted it in the center field bleachers for a tie-breaking solo homer. The blast ties him with Carlos Beltran, who also homered in five straight postseason games for the Houston Astros in 2004.

“I've watched a lot of baseball over the years, I don't think I've seen anybody put on this kind of a show on this stage like he has so far,” Mets manager Terry Collins said. “I mean, even the guys in the dugout, they're baseball guys too and they're saying the same thing.

“Question is who is this guy? I mean, he's been unbelievable. So hopefully he just keeps it up for certainly a few more games.”

Murphy said he hasn’t tried to put too much thought into the ride, he merely wants to enjoy it. If you were just handed the keys to a Porsche, would you question it?

[MORE: Lifelong Mets fan Matz stands between Cubs and elimination]

But Murphy attributes much of his success to hitting between David Wright and Yoenis Cespedes.

“I'm in the best spot in the lineup you could possibly be in, in between those two guys,” Murphy said.

Wright’s just as dumbfounded as the rest of his teammates. Murphy -- who also homered in the first inning of the first two games of the NLCS off Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta -- has become the topic of conversation in the Mets’ dugout.

And why not?

His homer off Hendricks on Tuesday helped him surpass Piazza’s all-time club postseason record. Whereas Piazza hit five homers in 22 playoff games for the Mets over two postseasons, Murphy has done it all in eight games.

And he’s hit ‘em off Arrieta, Lester, Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke.

“It's ridiculous,” Wright said. “We were talking in the dugout and being here in Chicago, should have given the shoulder shrug to (Michael) Jordan after that last one. It's fun to watch. Being a hitter, I understand how difficult it is to do what he's doing, to continue this hot streak for 10 days or whatever it's been. I mean -- it's impressive doing it off these pitchers. It's fun to watch.”

[ALSO: Mets pounce on Cubs to take commanding 3-0 lead in NLCS]

The team on the other side isn’t enjoying Murphy’s run as much.

“We have to do something to take it back,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said.

But as Maddon confessed, it doesn’t seem to matter who’s on the mound for the Cubs -- Murphy has everything working in his favor. During a seventh-inning at-bat against Travis Wood, Murphy fouled off five fastballs between 92-94 mph before he got just enough of a slider to hit it past the mound for an infield single. Kris Bryant retrieved the ball and double clutched his throw, which allowed Murphy to beat it out and put runners on the corners for the Mets with one out. New York, which led 3-2 at the time, scored twice to extend its lead to three runs.

“He was on everything leading up to the slow roller,” Maddon said. “From my perspective, it's pretty much it doesn't matter who is pitching right now. Obviously, if you look at the line of pitchers that he's hit home runs against, he's just in one of those moments.”

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Ricky Gutiérrez played in the Majors from 1993-2004. He played shortstop for the Cubs from 2000-01 and later signed with them again in June 2004. 

However, Gutiérrez never got back to the Majors with the Cubs, who sent him to the Red Sox the following month. His final Major League game was with the Red Sox on Oct. 3, 2004, the final game of the 2004 regular season; he didn’t play in the 2004 postseason. Gutiérrez was subsequently signed and released by a few other teams, including the White Sox in 2005.

Gutiérrez holds the distinction of being the first Cubs player to hit a regular season grand slam against the White Sox (July 12, 2001). In his two seasons with the Cubs, he tied for the Major League lead in sacrifice bunts both years (16 in 2000, 17 in 2001) which was odd since he had a grand total of 18 sacrifice bunts in his 847 career games NOT in a Cubs uniform. He also had uncharacteristic power with the Cubs:  21 home runs for Chicago in 272 games, 17 home runs with everyone else (847 games).

What Cubs fans probably remember most is what Gutiérrez did against them. On May 6, 1998 he had the lone hit (many dispute it should have been ruled an error) for the Astros off Kerry Wood in Wood’s 20-strikeout masterpiece at Wrigley Field (Gutiérrez was responsible for two of the strikeouts). 

Later that season, on June 26, the number 20 and Gutiérrez were again connected when he had a 20-pitch battle against Bartolo Colón, which ended in a strikeout. It remained the last plate appearance in the Majors of at least 20 pitches until Brandon Belt flew out on the 21st pitch of an at-bat against the Angels' Jaime Barria on April 22, 2018.

Gutiérrez’s nephew, James Jones, played 14 seasons in the NBA for the Pacers, Suns, Trail Blazers, Heat and Cavaliers.

2019 encore for Jesse Chavez?


2019 encore for Jesse Chavez?

On July 15, Brandon Morrow recorded his 22nd save of the season with a scoreless inning in San Diego. It wound up being the last time he pitched in a game for the Cubs in 2018. 

Four days later, during the All-Star break, the Cubs made a move to bolster their bullpen, acquiring Jesse Chavez from the Rangers in exchange for minor league hurler Tyler Thomas. It wasn’t even the biggest trade they’d make with the Rangers that month – a little over a week later they dealt for Cole Hamels. 

Despite pitching nearly half the innings, Chavez was almost as valuable as Hamels.

2018 with Cubs IP fWAR
Jesse Chavez 39.0 1.1
Cole Hamels 76.1 1.5

Chavez made his Cubs debut on July 21; from July 21 through the end of the season, 187 pitchers tossed at least 30 innings. 185 of them had a higher ERA than Chavez, while 184 of them allowed more baserunners per 9 innings.

Best ERA, July 21-end of season

(minimum 30 innings) IP ERA
Blake Treinen 32.1 0.56
Jesse Chavez 39.0 1.15
Blake Snell 61.2 1.17
Trevor Bauer 35.0 1.29
Trevor Williams 71.2 1.38
Robert Stock 36.0 1.50

Fewest baserunners per 9 innings, July 32-end of season

(minimum 30 innings) IP BR/9 IP
Blake Treinen 32.1 5.85
Blake Snell 61.2 7.15
Jesse Chavez 39.0 7.15
Jacob deGrom 93.2 7.49
Scott Oberg 30.2 7.63
Josh Hader 33.1 7.83

But how did Chavez transform into one of Joe Maddon’s best bullpen arms down the stretch?  According to Chavez, his own transformation started on Mother’s Day.

Chavez entered a game in Houston with a 5.48 ERA in a dozen appearances, but pitched three innings with no hits, no walks and four strikeouts. From that point through the end of the season, he posted a 1.70 ERA and 0.892 WHIP. 

Chavez points to a change in arm slot which resulted in better consistency and a slight jump in velocity. A glance at his release point charts show that consistency, and he added roughly one mile an hour to his fastball.

"It's kept me more consistent in the zone," Chavez said. "Things have been sharper, velocity has been a lot sharper. I was huffing and puffing trying to get a 92 (mph fastball) out there and it wasn't coming.

"Next thing you know, I dropped it and it's right there, and I'm like, 'something's wrong here.' But I just took it and ran with it."

Jesse Chavez 2018 four-seam fastball velocity

  Average Max
Prior to May 13 92.6 mph 94.6 mph
May 13 on 93.6 mph 95.7 mph

Can Chavez be valuable in 2019?  The 35-year old reliever posted the best ERA (2.55), WHIP (1.059) and walk rate (4.5% - nearly two percent better than his previous best) in 2018, and he continued to get better as the season went on. 

He’s a former starter who can pitch multiple innings if needed, and that’s a valuable thing - especially for a manager like Joe Maddon, who uses his pitchers in a variety of ways. It’s unlikely he’ll have a second consecutive career year.

But he’ll likely be well worth the price tag; he only made $1 million in 2018, and even with a slight raise he should be very affordable. There’s definitely room in Maddon’s bullpen for a pitcher like Chavez.