Standing by your man and trusting his gut is one of the most admirable qualities a baseball manager can have. Until or unless even his gut runs out of sustenance. When Jacob deGrom’s gut ran out of sustenance in the fifth inning Wednesday night, Terry Collins was caught flatfoot.
Against these Kansas City Royals, on a night Johnny Cueto’s best side showed up and went the distance, and with a bullpen that was still reasonably fresh except for Bartolo Colon, that’s not the way to get caught. Because Collins got caught just that way, the New York Mets are in an 0-2 World Series hole going to New York for, let’s admit it, three absolute must-win games for the Mets.
For three innings deGrom was Cueto’s equal. For a fourth, the gut deGrom established early enough and often enough in the division series and the National League Championship Series was a little more than enough. For a fifth, the gut ran empty and there was no relief in sight.
No, I take that back. As the Royals tied the game at one in the bottom of the fifth there was Jonathon Niese up and throwing in the Mets bullpen. deGrom had just surrendered a leadoff walk to Alex Gordon, a clean single to left to Alex Rios, and a soft line RBI single to Alcides Escobar.
You couldn’t fault Collins’ faith in deGrom but when you see right before you that all of a sudden these Royals are better than he is, that they’re hitting the ball hard enough while he’s left with nothing of his command other than to pound a strike zone on which these Royals dine, you need another stopper.
“We gave Jake some extra rest and he came out and was looking good, and all of a sudden balls were in the middle of the plate,” the forthright manager said after the loss. “And I don’t know why, but we just aren’t making the pitches we need to make. And we can sit here and it’s easy to make excuses that, ‘Hey, it’s the workload. It’s the days off. It’s the youth on the big stage.’ I’m not going to say that.”
“I felt like my stuff was good. I just wasn’t locating very well,” deGrom said.
Maybe deGrom’s a better pitcher than anyone in the Mets bullpen but even the greatest pitchers in the game are only human often enough and the greater teams will exploit it if allowed. And here’s what the Royals were allowed from that point forward in the fifth:
* Second and third as Mets first baseman Lucas Duda made a diving stop of a Ben Zobrist smash with his only play at first.
* A shallow fly out by Lorenzo Cain on which the two Royals baserunners couldn’t think about moving up.
* Eric Hosmer’s floating liner into center field on which Rios and Escobar could both come home for a 3-1 lead.
* Kendrys Morales lining a single to right on which Hosmer was able to reach third.
* Mike Moustakas shooting a grounder through a Mets shift into right center for a single sending home Hosmer.
Niese after warming up most of the inning took a seat. Collins was going to be reminded the hard way about what can and often does happen when you warm up a reliever, don’t bring him in, then warm him up again a little while later and bring him in at last.
Because after Hansel Robles, one of the Mets’ lesser-sung bullpen bulls, got through the Kansas City sixth in order and with a little help from his friends—especially Yoenis Cespedes stealing at least an extra base hit from Rios with a leap against the wall to catch Rios’s high drive—Collins brought in Niese for the seventh.
Niese dispatched the Royals readily enough around a one-out walk to Lorenzo Cain. Considering the earlier warm-up during which Niese probably threw enough pitches in the bullpen to equal a three-inning-plus game assignment, it should have been the only inning Niese could work successfully.
But Collins sent him out again for the eighth. And watched with a full house in Kauffmann Stadium and who knows how many million in front of television sets as Niese’s tank ran empty and the Royals—who aren’t exactly renowned for showing mercy to empty relievers—battered him for a three spot.
Duda’s inability to reach Moustakas’s leadoff bounder into right didn’t exactly help, but he’d been playing toward the hole against Moustakas. But after Niese fought Salvador Perez back to a full count after opening 3-0 against the Royals’ catcher, Perez rifled a line drive over the infield and into the corner to set up second and third for Gordon. And Gordon smacked one off the glove of Mets shortstop Wilmer Flores—whose oft-criticised defense until now had been almost spotless—and into left for what proved an RBI double.
Then Collins hooked Niese in favour of Addison Reed, and Reed, too, couldn’t resist trying to pound the strike zone. All that got him was late-game sub Paulo Orlando sending a fly to left that Cespedes caught near the track, deep enough to score Perez, and Escobar sending an RBI triple over the head of center fielder Juan Lagares.
It didn’t matter when Collins hooked Reed for Sean Gilmartin, who’d figured out going in that pounding the zone wasn’t the way to keep these Royals from getting frisky. Keeping the ball away from Zobrist got a measly grounder to shortstop, keeping it away from Cain got a towering pop fly that Daniel Murphy could haul down behind second base for the side.
Too little, too late. The Mets were probably lucky to pry a run out of Cueto to open the scoring in the first place, which they did in the top of the fourth. Curtis Granderson wrung Cueto for a leadoff walk, Murphy wrung Cueto for a one-out walk, and—after the Mets kept first and second on Cespedes’ smash to third, on which Moustakas could toe the pad to force Granderson but throw pulling Hosmer off the pad at first—Duda dropped a looper in for an RBI single.
They were probably lucky to get that much. So were the Royals. From the moment they acquired him from Cincinnati at the non-waiver trade deadline, Cueto’s been a yin-and-yang proposition. He opened his Royals tenure with a horrific skid, straightened out near season’s end, owned the Houston Astros at home in the division series, and was beaten senseless by the Toronto Blue Jays in Toronto in the American League Championship Series.
Now, starting at home, the multi-delivery Cueto was the owner again. “He threw three or four different pitches for strikes in any count,” said Wright. “And then he kind of keeps you off balance with the quick pitch. And then he kind of takes his time a little bit. As a hitter, it’s all about timing. He disrupted it tonight, for sure.”
He also saved the Royals’ vaunted bullpen following a Game One in which that pen worked eight of fourteen innings. With Noah Syndergaard due to tangle with Yordano Ventura—whose talent is equaled only by his combustibility, and who’s liable to be on a very short leash in Game Three—that isn’t exactly good news for these Mets no matter how good Syndergaard is.
Not that Wright, for one, is necessarily worried. Coming back from two games down in a World Series is historically difficult but not impossible. A rather rambunctious Mets team did just that in 1986.
“Now’s not the time to hang your head,” said the Mets’ captain. “We’ve certainly won four games before, numerous times during the regular season and during the postseason. We’ve just got to get it done at home . . . Even if you have a short memory, we just beat an excellent Cubs team four games in a row. Hopefully we can use that home-field advantage to our advantage and go take care of business at home. These guys are playing excellent baseball, so we know it’s going to be a challenge. They took care of their home field. We need to take care of ours.”
If they do that, though, they’ll have to figure a way to pin Cueto back in Kansas City, where he’s scheduled to start a Game Six if there is a Game Six. In the interim, it wouldn’t hurt if someone pins Collins to an immovable spot and reminds him that sometimes you just have to go against your gut.