NEW YORK – Bright lights, big city, ol’ country hardball.
Madison Bumgarner against Noah Syndergaard with the season on the line. A pair of towering tough guys you probably don’t want to mess with.
Playoff pitching matchups don’t get much better.
Toting his outstanding October resume to the mound, Bumgarner will start for the San Francisco Giants against Syndergaard and the New York Mets in the National League wild-card game Wednesday night.
The winner moves on to face the major league-best Chicago Cubs (103-58) in a best-of-5 Division Series. The loser heads home for the winter.
“It’s going to be an exciting game,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said Tuesday, when both teams worked out at Citi Field. “I mean, this is the fun thing about postseason is you’re going to get great matchups like this.”
It took 162 games to set it up.
San Francisco, the top team in the majors at the All-Star break, struggled badly throughout the second half before finishing with a four-game winning streak. That was enough to hold off St. Louis by one game and secure the last N. .L playoff spot on the final day of the regular season.
New York, the defending N.L. champion, was two games under .500 on Aug. 19 after losing consecutive games in San Francisco. But with slugger Yoenis Cespedes and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera back from the disabled list, the Mets posted the top mark in the majors (27-13) from that point on and jumped over four teams in the pennant race, booking their postseason trip Saturday with one game to spare.
Both teams finished 87-75, and New York earned home-field advantage by winning the season series 4-3.
“Good major league players, when it comes crunch time, they turn it on,” Mets manager Terry Collins said. “So I’m not really sure that momentum going in means a whole lot. Both of us have had to play good at the end – we did.”
Citi Field should be rocking Wednesday night, but Bumgarner, Bochy and the Giants know all about excelling in elimination games and thriving under postseason pressure. After winning World Series titles in 2010, ’12 and ’14, they want to extend their pattern of even-year championships with another run through October.
The last time Bumgarner pitched in the postseason, he saved Game 7 of the 2014 World Series in Kansas City with five scoreless innings on two days’ rest to cap one of the greatest postseason performances in baseball history. His 0.25 ERA in five career outings is the lowest for any pitcher with at least 25 innings in the Fall Classic.
He was 15-9 with a 2.74 ERA and 251 strikeouts this season.
“With us finishing up the way we did, I feel really, really good about our chances,” Bumgarner said.
The 6-foot-5, 250-pound lefty, born in Hickory, North Carolina, started San Francisco’s playoff surge in the 2014 wild-card game by striking out 10 in a four-hit shutout at Pittsburgh – a similar assignment to Wednesday.
“We have been through this before. We’ve been down this road. I like this wild-card thing,” Bochy said. “I love it. I have to. We have a ring because of this wild card and have a chance now.”
The 24-year-old Syndergaard, with long blond locks and the nickname Thor, is no inexperienced sophomore.
The 6-foot-6, 242-pound righty from Mansfield, Texas, joined Bumgarner on the All-Star roster this summer and went 14-9 with a 2.60 ERA and 218 strikeouts over 183 2/3 innings. Featuring a 100 mph fastball, sharp slider and impressive control of several secondary pitches, he won a pair of postseason starts as a rookie last year – including Game 3 of the World Series against the Royals.
In that one, Syndergaard caught everyone’s attention with his first pitch: a sizzling fastball above the head of Kansas City leadoff man Alcides Escobar, who had been on a roll swinging at the initial offering.
“He’s not intimidated by anything,” Collins said about Syndergaard. “He’s not afraid. He wants to take charge. His stuff speaks for itself. I think he’s grown as a pitcher. I think he trusts his stuff a lot more now.”
Syndergaard, for his part, is eagerly anticipating Wednesday night.
“It’s just a dream come true,” he said. “It’s going to be really exciting and I’m looking forward to getting out there and feeling the energy from the hometown crowd. Just having an awesome time.”