Star-studded Mets and Padres square off in wild-card round
New York — For two teams that finished second fiddle in their divisions, the Padres and Mets bring an awful lot of star power into the playoffs.
Manny Machado, Juan Soto and Yu Darvish on the San Diego side.
Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom and Francisco Lindor for New York — just to name a few.
A couple of baseball's biggest spenders, one from each coast, primed to square off in a best-of-three National League wild-card series at Citi Field beginning Friday night. Two wins earns a Division Series date with the powerhouse Dodgers.
"This is not playing the long game here. This is the short game," Mets manager Buck Showalter said. "It's a different time of the year."
No doubt, both clubs feel the pressure and urgency that comes with knowing one bad weekend means the sudden end of a promising season filled with big expectations.
San Diego entered with eyes on winning the NL West and — even though Los Angeles ran away with the division title — the Padres stamped themselves World Series contenders by acquiring Soto and All-Star closer Josh Hader in a huge splash at the Aug. 2 trade deadline.
They didn't take off on the tear some anticipated, but the Padres (89-73) won enough to earn the second NL wild card despite finishing 22 games behind the Dodgers.
"We have some great characters on this team," Darvish said through a translator. "It's a fun clubhouse."
Powered by Pete Alonso and big league batting champion Jeff McNeil at the plate, New York (101-61) sat atop the NL East for all but six days this season.
But even after leading by 10 1/2 games on June 1 and seven on Aug. 10, the Mets were unable to hold off the Braves. The defending World Series champions snatched away their fifth straight division crown and a first-round playoff bye on the strength of a head-to-head sweep in Atlanta last weekend.
New York must shake off that major disappointment — fast.
"Yesterday's news," said Lindor, the switch-hitting shortstop who set a career high with 107 RBIs this season as the Mets won the second-most games in franchise history. "We've got to focus on what's in front of our feet."
The Padres went 4-2 against New York during the regular season, taking two of three at Citi Field in July even before acquiring Soto, Hader, Josh Bell and Brandon Drury.
"We should feel good about that. It does not apply in this series," manager Bob Melvin said. "You try to bring that momentum with you. But it's a different ballgame now."
With a wide array of dancing pitches, Darvish (16-8, 3.10 ERA) has dominated the Mets and will start Game 1 against Scherzer (11-5, 2.29) in a marquee matchup.
Darvish was the NL pitcher of the month for September after going 5-1 with a 1.85 ERA. The right-hander from Japan is 5-0 with a 2.56 ERA in eight career starts against New York, allowing only one run and six hits with 15 strikeouts over 14 innings in winning both outings this year.
"I think that was luck," Darvish said. "I'm going to try to be not too, too excited and not too amped up."
Left-hander Blake Snell and hometown star Joe Musgrove follow in the rotation for the Padres — one of the few opponents that might be able to match New York's multiple aces at the front of the rotation.
The 38-year-old Scherzer said he's fully healthy after oblique issues landed him on the injured list twice this year. The three-time Cy Young Award winner is 7-6 with a 3.22 ERA in 26 postseason games (21 starts).
"It's going to take everything out of us to be able to move on," he said about the Padres. "They've got a lot of ways to beat you."
New York has not committed to a Game 2 starter and it sounds as though the result of Game 1 could determine whether deGrom or Chris Bassitt starts next. Showalter said deGrom, a two-time Cy Young Award winner who scuffled down the stretch, has been dealing with a blister that shouldn't be an issue by the time he pitches.
The hard-throwing Hader struggled after arriving in San Diego from Milwaukee, but Mets righty Edwin Díaz has arguably been baseball's best closer this season.
The crowd at Citi Field gets revved up when he comes in from the bullpen to his popular entrance song "Narco" by Blasterjaxx & Timmy Trumpet. But it's on the mound where Díaz really lets loose, with a 1.31 ERA and a whopping 17.1 strikeouts per nine innings.
Regardless of which team is trying to protect a slim lead, fans are sure to see some wipeout sliders and serious heat.
After rain soaked New York City for days this week, the sun emerged Thursday and both teams worked out for an hour under a clear sky at Citi Field. Nice weather is forecast all weekend, though night-time temperatures around 50 degrees could feel a little chilly to San Diego players.