NEW YORK -- With a 4-1 victory over the Cubs to celebrate as late Sunday night turned into early Monday morning, the Mets boarded their charter bound for Chicago, where, with two more wins, they could secure their first National League pennant since 2000.
Jon Niese, whose sixth-inning strikeout of Anthony Rizzo foiled Chicago's last serious push to tighten Game 2 of the NL Championship Series at Citi Field, went not to the airport but to his home after Sunday's win. His itinerary is much more complex.
Niese will fly to Ohio on Monday morning, drive to the northwest corner of the state and join his family for his grandmother's visitation later that day. Niese's Game 2 appearance was the first one he's made since his grandmother passed away last week. Her funeral is scheduled for early Tuesday afternoon, after which Niese will make the approximate four-hour drive to Chicago to join the team for Game 3.
Though pitching with a heavy heart, Niese fooled Rizzo, who had been 2-for-4 with a pair of homers against left-handed pitching this postseason. It was the start of 2 1/3 scoreless innings from the Mets' middle men, whom manager Terry Collins has seemed so hesitant to use this postseason.
"It was big," Niese said of closing the sixth for starter Noah Syndergaard, who had just lost his shutout bid. "You wanted to stop the bleeding there. It seemed like they had a little bit of momentum there with [Kris] Bryant hitting that [RBI] double. My job was to stop that momentum, and I was able to do that."
Addison Reed followed with a 1-2-3 seventh. Tyler Clippard then worked around a two-out single to complete the bridge to closer Jeurys Familia, who would be needed for just a three-out save on this night. He notched it with a 17-pitch ninth.
"Our bullpen, we know what we're capable of," Reed said. "And everybody is executing to the expectations that we thought we could."
Before Sunday, however, chances had been limited for that bunch. With obvious intention, Collins has been aggressive in pushing his starters deep and then summoning Familia early, clearly trying to minimize the coverage needed between the two. It's why Familia entered for a four-out save in Game 1, two days after being asked to garner the final six outs of a decisive Game 5 in the NL Division Series.
The only other pitcher to throw in relief that day was starter-turned-one-time-reliever Syndergaard, the one Collins felt most comfortable during a win-or-go-home game against the Dodgers.
Take away Syndergaard's relief appearance and the innings logged by Familia (now 10 1/3 over seven games), and the cumulative numbers from the Mets' bullpen hadn't been good. Over 8 1/3 innings entering Game 2, the rest of the unit had allowed seven runs on 11 hits. Clippard and Reed had both been clipped in the NLDS, and neither had pitched in at least five days.
If anything, Sunday's showing should only boost the chances that both factor into Collins' late-inning mix again soon.
"I was itching to get out there," Clippard said. "It was nice to get into a game like that. … I think more than anything, the reps are the most important thing, just getting out there on the mound and feeling game speed again. I'm a guy who likes to pitch consistently and in the playoffs, you have days off and things mixed in there that you really can't control."