Thursday, November 5, 2015

World Series: Game Five

I've put off writing this entry for a few days because it's our last baseball entry of the year, and I'm going to miss baseball season.  My favorite months for sports are September and October, mainly because I can enjoy college basketball and football without getting too upset.  Once we get into November, college basketball begins, and for me that is a much more serious endeavor.  So I'm always sad to see the World Series come to an end -- it means that playtime is over, and complaining about Duke and UNC isn't far behind.

Some baseball seasons are better than others, of course, and on paper this was a pretty boring season.  There weren't any interesting pennant chases to speak of during the regular season.  The N.L.C.S. was a four-game sweep for the Mets.  The A.L.C.S. went six games, but I never felt like Toronto was going to overcome the 2-0 hole into which it fell at the beginning.  And the Royals wrapped up the Mets in only five games.

And yet -- and yet -- those bald facts are somewhat misleading.  In their divisional series with the Astros, the Royals were down 2-1 in games and 6-2 in runs heading into the 8th inning in Houston.  At the time, I thought that series was over.  But the Royals stormed back with five runs in the 8th, and two more in the 9th, for a 9-6 victory.  In Game Two against the Blue Jays, the Royals were down 3-0 going into the bottom of the 7th -- and Blue Jay pitcher David Price had retired 18 Royals in a row.  The Royals put up five runs in the 7th, and rolled to a 6-3 victory that blew the series open.  Against the Mets they were down 4-3 in the 9th in Game One -- only to win 5-4 in 14 innings.  In Game Four, they were down 3-2 going into the 8th -- but won 5-3.  That's four come-from-behind victories in the playoffs -- and each one significantly changed the dynamic of the series at issue.

Furthermore, by this point, observers had noticed the Royals' ability to make great late-inning at-bats -- to drag out games, fouling off pitch after pitch -- to put pressure on the other team's defense.  Down the stretch, neither the Astros, the Blue Jays, nor the Mets had been able to get off the field in the late innings without giving up key runs.

So in the last game of the year, the Mets' fans put their hopes in Matt Harvey -- their starting pitcher.  They needed him to do the sort of thing that Madison Bumgarner did last year for the Giants, when he gave up one run in 21 innings -- finishing the Series with two wins and a Game Seven save.  And for eight innings, Harvey was magnificent -- giving up zero runs and only 4 hits, with 1 walk and 9 strikeouts.  So it is not surprising that the Mets crowd pleaded for Harvey to pitch the ninth -- or that Harvey wanted to do so himself.  After all, the Mets bullpen had already blown two saves in this Series.  The huge cheer when Harvey came out of the dugout for the ninth was one of the biggest of the year.

But Harvey was more tired than he or the Mets' fans realized.  He got two strikes on the very dangerous Lorenzo Cain -- but couldn't retire him.  Cain reached on Harvey's second walk of the game.  By this point, the Royals had figured that the Mets could do nothing to stop them on the base paths, and Cain quickly stole second.  Meanwhile, Met manager Terry Collins decided to let Harvey pitch to at least one more batter.  That batter was Eric Hosmer, who was 3-20 in the World Series up to that point.  Now, however, Hosmer whistled a double over the head of Michael Conforto in left.  Cain trotted home to make the score 2-1, and the Royals had the tying run on second with no outs.

Collins replaced Harvey, bringing in ace closer Jeurys Familia.  But I think everyone who had watched the playoffs knew that the Series was pretty much over.  It doesn't do much good to bring in a relief pitcher against the Royals if the tying run is on base -- they don't need hits to get that run home.  Sure enough, Mike Moustakas hit a grounder to first -- and Hosmer zipped over to third.  Now, with Salvador Perez at the plate, the Mets brought the infield in to cut off the tying run at the plate.  A strikeout would have been huge here -- the Blue Jays had two big strikeouts at the end of Game Six of the A.L.C.S. when they had the tying run at third and the winning run at second.  But the Royals don't strike out in these situations.  Instead, Perez managed to poke a soft grounder toward the left side of the infield.  David Wright, the Met third baseman and perennial All-Star, bravely cut in front of back-up shortstop Wilmer Flores to make the play himself.  With no one covering third, Hosmer danced toward home.  Wright looked at Hosmer -- freezing him about 60 feet from the plate -- and then zipped a throw to first in order to nail Perez.  Hosmer broke for the plate.

Now this should have been the end of the game.  Met first baseman Lucas Duda had the ball with enough time to throw out Hosmer.  But Hosmer knew that it would take an almost perfect throw, and first basemen aren't often required to make perfect throws with the entire season on the line.  Duda's throw went wild, Hosmer slid home, and the game was tied.  The Royals had needed two runs to extend the game.  They had gotten them with only one hit.

And so, for the second time in the Series, the teams went to extra innings.  I never thought the Mets were going to score, and it didn't look as though they thought so, either.  The Mets were a great story this year -- a fun, dramatic team who parlayed some amazing pitching and the offensive spark of late-season pickup Yoenis Cespedes to the National League Pennant.  But the Royals knew how to pitch to Cespedes, who batted .150 in the Series, and who left Game Five after he fouled a ball off his knee in the bottom of the 6th.  And the Royals had figured out the rest of the Met attack as well -- in the last 21 innings of the season, the Mets got only five runs and 10 hits.  The Mets no longer had the spring in their step that had carried them so far.  They looked cold, and tired, and beaten -- a team simply waiting for the coup de gras.

The end came in the 12th inning.  By this time, the Mets were down to Addison Reed, who is normally a set-up man.  Salvador Perez -- who batted .364 for the Series and got the MVP Award -- led off the inning with a bloop single to right.  Perez was replaced by the speedy Jerrod Dyson, who promptly stole second.  Alex Gordon's grounder advanced Dyson to third.  And then the Royals sent up pinch hitter Christian Colon -- a guy who played only 43 games all year, and who had no other at-bats in the 2015 post-season.  Everyone was expecting another grounder, but Colon laced a single to left, scoring Dyson and putting Kansas City up 3-2.  At this point, the Mets fell apart a little bit, and the relentless Royals led 7-2 before being retired in the 12th.  The season had gone on too long for everyone except Kansas City and its fans, and it was a relief to watch the Mets go down quietly in the bottom of the inning -- thus triggering a well-deserved celebration by the Royals.

No one believed in Kansas City last year -- but it took an all-world performance by Bumgarner to keep them from the title.  This year, they had stormed to the best record in the American League, and had gotten better and better as the playoffs went on.  In the last two seasons, their record in the post-season is a blistering 21-9, and the Giants are the only team to beat them.  It may seem lucky on paper, but it doesn't feel like luck when you watch them.  The Royals are very deserving champions, and they gave this post-season a significance that we will remember for some time.  Next year, we'll instinctively yell at our favorite players for not running out a grounder, or for swinging at a bad pitch, or for making a silly play in the field -- and we'll wonder whether, in the age of sabermetrics, these type of old-school concerns are still relevant.  But then we'll remember the Royals, and recall that there are still benefits to playing the game with smarts, hustle, and fortitude.

World Series:
Kansas City beats New York 4-1

1 comment:

  1. This was a rough baseball season, but your reports were great.