4 things we learned from MLB playoff openers: It's on Jacob deGrom to save the Mets' season

Gabe Lacques

Blink, and it could be over.

For all the talk that Major League Baseball’s best-of-three wild-card weekend would somehow be fairer than the one-game playoff that preceded it, Friday’s Game 1s and Saturday’s impending, potentially decisive Game 2s tell a different story.

With the Game 1 winner statistically favored to prevail at least 75% of the time in a best-of-three series, Friday’s losers need answers – and quickly. With three road teams breaking serve and stunning the higher seed, fortunes have already shifted dramatically in St. Louis, Toronto and New York.

Will it be two-and-through come Game 2? A look at the most crucial factors as Tampa Bay, St. Louis, Toronto and New York aim to stave off elimination:

Padres-Mets: This could all end tomorrow

It was a pairing worthy of breaking the bank, of committing a record $43.3 million per season to one player, to drive the club payroll so high that they named a luxury tax threshold after an owner.

Scherzer-deGrom. DeGrom-Scherzer. The Cohen Tax. The marquee New York Mets.

Enjoy it while you can – perhaps no longer than a few more hours.

For six full months, the Mets looked every bit like the elite franchise owner Steve Cohen intended they’d be, right up until Cohen and the boys flew down to Atlanta last week seeking to ensure their first National League East title in seven years.

They're still searching for their first win of consequence.since

And after Max Scherzer – he of the three-year, $130 million contract – produced a night of historic home run embarrassment, the most vaunted Big Apple pairing since Biggie and Puff may soon be no more.

Max Scherzer gave up four home runs in Game 1.

Saturday night, Jacob deGrom will take the ball against the San Diego Padres in a must-win situation. This code red of a Game 2 (7:37, ESPN) comes after the Padres slugged four home runs off Scherzer in a 7-1 throttling, in Game 1 of this wild-card series most unbecoming of a juggernaut.

Yet these mighty Mets were relegated to this shootout round because 101 wins were one too few to win the East. And after Josh Bell, Trent Grisham, Jurickson Profar and Manny Machado all homered, loudly and longly, Scherzer was on the losing side for a third consecutive playoff start.

It was most unsettling when combined with the fact Scherzer gave up a pair of home runs and four runs in 5 ⅔ innings of his must-win start at Atlanta a week ago.

And now, deGrom – who offers no solace on several fronts.

After all, deGrom followed Scherzer’s start in Atlanta by yielding three bombs of his own, in a loss that put the Braves on the brink of their division title. He made just 11 starts this season due to a shoulder issue.

And should he fail to beat the Padres Saturday night, deGrom is free to go.

Not once did he waver from his intention to opt out of his contract, not even after a scapula injury delayed his 2022 debut to Aug. 2. Hard to blame him: The two-time Cy Young Award winner struck out at least nine batters in eight of his 11 starts. The price of poker has only gone up since he signed an extension with the Mets, and it’s not unreasonable for deGrom to expect a Scherzer-esque per annum.

The big question: Will Cohen ante up? The Scherzer-deGrom pairing barely had two months together; signing deGrom long term would give them two more years to more properly dominate foes.

But that will be Cohen’s call to make. You wonder if this year’s experience might give the massively rich man pause to blindly scratch another enormous check, this one to a 34-year-old with recent injury woes.

After all, it didn’t work out so well toward the end this year. And only deGrom can make sure it’s not all over Saturday night.

Mariners-Blue Jays: Down in a hole

Rogers Centre was supposed to be a house of horrors for visiting teams this month. Instead, the Blue Jays can pick any one of three unsettling sights from their Game 1 pratfall against Seattle.

Was it ace Alek Manoah losing all command of his fastball, hitting the first batter he faced, putting the Blue Jays in a 3-0 hole before their devastating lineup could even grab a bat?

Perhaps it was Mariners ace Luis Castillo carving those bats figuratively in half, inducing a parade of weak contact and pitching shutout ball into the eighth inning?

George Springer gets hit by a pitch in the eighth inning of Game 1.

Or perhaps they’ll lose sleep at the thought of trying to hit Mariners reliever Andres Muñoz, he of the 103-mph fastball and 93-mph slider, which he deployed to retire five of six batters he faced?

The greatest lesson from Friday’s 4-0 loss? The Mariners are a team you do not want to fall behind against, a concept that heaps a little more pressure on Saturday’s Game 2 (4:07, ESPN) for Toronto.

No, facing these Mariners is like an arm-wrestling match: Give them an edge and they will gradually increase the leverage in their favor, until you look up and a bullpen far superior to yours has taken over for the dominant Castillo.

Yet the Blue Jays will scarcely have time to sleep before they’re face-to-face with elimination and old friend Robbie Ray, the lefty who leveraged Toronto success into a $115 million deal with the Mariners.

He’s not quite as consistently dominant as Castillo, though he can punch batters out with even greater frequency. The Blue Jays now have no choice but to meet the moment – lest they dig a hole from which they’re unable to emerge.

“You expect them to come out with the same energy, the same mentality, the same focus,” says Blue Jays interim manager John Schneider, “and just understand that you ran into a really good pitcher today for seven-plus innings and a really good one after that in Muñoz.

“Flush it and move on. They're going to be ready to go.”

Rays-Guardians: No offense, but…

Should they lose Game 2 Saturday at Cleveland (12:07 ET, ESPN2), the Rays would fail to reach the AL Division Series for the first time since 2018. Their success over the past three seasons has been extremely pitcher-centric, which is a great way to live. Yet it’s fair to wonder after their 2-1 loss to the Guardians in Game 1 if their bats are finally too feeble to prop up a great pitching staff.

Tampa Bay finished 12th in the AL in OPS, 11th in runs, ninth in on-base percentage – all worst among AL playoff teams. Friday, they managed just three hits off Shane Bieber and Emmanuel Clase, who fulfilled a manager’s postseason fantasy: Ace pitcher hands ball to untouchable closer; everyone drive home safely.

Guardians reliever Emmanuel Clase celebrates with catcher Austin Hedges after beating the Rays.

Yet the Rays were complicit in that. Jose Siri’s opposite-field homer off Bieber provided the only run and was one of just seven balls that left the infield. Bieber and Clase combined for nine strikeouts.

Even in better times, things were relatively lean. On the way to their 2020 World Series runner-up finish, the Rays scored three or fewer runs in nine of their final 18 playoff games. They did have Randy Arozarena, who hit an absurd 10 home runs between the ALDS and World Series.

Oh, they still have Arozarena, but not that Arozarena. This one finished the regular season with just two homers in his final 118 at-bats over 30 games. In Game 1, he struck out three times and flew out to left to end the game.

“I trust Randy will get going. He's highly motivated,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said after Game 1. “It wasn't just Randy. A couple guys need to contribute.”

Or else it will be a quick and very quiet exit.

Phillies-Cards: Two outs, never found

It wasn’t just the stunning, gut-punch collapse the Cardinals endured in yielding six runs in the ninth inning of a 6-2 loss to the grateful Phillies. It’s also the dire situation closer Ryan Helsley’s injury-related pratfall leaves them for Game 2 (8:37, ESPN2).

Helsley was asked to record five outs by manager Oli Marmol; the first three came cleanly.

The final two never did.

The game ended with the Phillies’ stunning rally aided by a wild Helsley, who got the first out in the ninth and then went single-walk-walk-HBP, as a jammed finger likely led to a total loss of command. Helsley went to get X-rays and perhaps other imaging immediately after Game 1.

And what now?

Helsley is likely down, probably out for Game 2. Top set-up man Giovanny Gallegos needed to get five outs of his own. 102-mph man Jordan Hicks was even leaned upon for 12 pitches. Meanwhile, steady but unspectacular Miles Mikolas will get the start, and it would be a moderate surprise if he saw the seventh inning.

It will be a challenge to stitch nine high-wire innings together in a do-or-die game, particularly when Phillies ace Aaron Nola (or is it Zack Wheeler?) will likely string a set of zeroes atop the Busch Stadium scoreboard.

“No one is going to feel sorry for us. Tell you that,” says Marmol.

No need for sympathy cards. But an upright, effective set of relievers would be more than welcomed.