I’ll admit it: there was a moment, however brief, when I was sure that game two was a lost cause just as game one had been.
When Michael Conforto slammed a ball at the left field wall and Lorenzo Cain came out of nowhere to make a catch that, on top of all the other luck the Royals have been privy too, seemed downright unfair, I was sure, for a brief moment, that the Royals were simply too much. They were unbeatable, unassailable, invincible, not even worth taking on.
I couldn’t help think of a Calvin and Hobbes strip, wherein Calvin is kicked off his swing by Moe, the schoolyard bully. Walking away, Calvin thinks to himself, “Years from now, when I’m successful and happy…and he’s in prison…I hope I’m not too mature to gloat.”
That’s how I felt about the Royals as Lorenzo Cain robbed what would have been our young Conforto’s fifth consecutive time on base to open the season. I cursed them; I clenched my fists; I wanted to throw something but didn’t have anything replaceable at hand.
And it didn’t help that, through the first three innings, we did a whole lot of nothing against Chris Young, who is plenty infuriating in his own right.
Then came the fourth, and before you could say Daniel Murphy had two hits yesterday, Neil Walker was putting us on the board and moving memories of Murph to the backs of our minds. It’s been two games, but I’m growing to quite like young Mr. Walker, he of the power from the five spot and the dependability at second base. He’s just the kind of player all good teams need to play second fiddle to your temperamental superstars and your overpaid veterans: the gritty, dependable, everyday guy who makes the plays you need and gets the hits you want.
But hold on: I’m starting to sound like the ESPN booth droning on about the Royals, America’s team, the scrappy underdogs who were never the most athletic guys out there, but when the going got tough the Royals got going, so they went out there and they worked harder than everybody else, and they trained their bodies, hearts, and minds so that they always knew what to do out there on the field, and as Eric Hosmer was coming home he was using complex physics equations and psychological laws to calculate that Lucas Duda couldn’t possibly throw home on time, because that’s just the kind of guy he is, he’s a true ROYAL—
I’ve had just about enough of the Royals, as you can probably see. And what’s more, I’d had more than enough of the Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN broadcast crew, which meant the good-humored camaraderie of Gary, Keith, and Ron was all the more welcome, especially as the trio was calling a game that was shaping up very well for us.
While Walker was putting us on the board in his quiet, unassuming way, Thor was doing what he does: namely, pitching so awesomely that all normal baseball logic ceased to apply. The Royals, who NEVER STRIKE OUT, struck out nine times against Syndergaard, twelve overall. Runners at third with nobody out didn’t score — a cardinal sin of Baseball on the part of the Royals, but the SNY crew is too good to resort to nonsense like that. Players who don’t go down easy went down on three pitches. Pitches that you could’ve sworn were ticketed for up the gap and rolling to the wall were exploding into d’Arnaud’s mitt.
Thor was pitching his game, in short, and if this was indeed his game, and he can keep up anything close to it going forward against the comparatively paltry lineups of most of the National League, we’ve got a helluva year to look forward to. And I don’t see any reason why not.
Then came the seventh: Thor was out with 92 pitches, and Jim Henderson was in. Jim Henderson. Scott Rice. Greg Burke. LaTroy Hawkins. Jose Valverde, Kyle Farnsworth, Jason Isringhausen. We’ve seen a million of these guys. But never, as far as I can remember, have we seen such an effective debut by a player largely presumed to be a feel-good project: 1-2-3 inning, two by strikeout, hitting 97 on the gun and topping it off with a dirty slider. Maybe that bridge to Familia that we’ve all heard is overdue for maintenance is just fine after all.
We hit but didn’t score as the later innings continued. We got a scoreless eighth from Addison Reed, whose mechanical, repeatable motion filled me with confidence even if his 93 m.p.h. fastball looked like a bowling ball coming to the plate after having watched Thor for six innings, and on came Familia for the ninth.
Yes, Familia blew three saves in the World Series. One, as far as I can remember, was truly his fault. When you’re playing the Royals on a hot streak, you give up tying runs on weak infield grounders and mistimed throws: it’s just something you do. But Thor had disposed of the Royals’ hot streak on Familia’s behalf, and now Jeurys needed only to finish the job.
It was almost eerie, as the ninth began: Mets ahead 2-0, Lorenzo Cain at the plate, the series at stake. The count went to 3-2.
“Lorenzo Cain, who famously walked on a 3-2 slider against Matt Harvey,” said Gary Cohen.
Well, it’s a new year, the past is done, and apparently, Familia hadn’t gotten the memo. He threw a sinker. His most lethal, most unhittable pitch. It was down, out of the strike zone. Cain swung anyway. He had no shot. The brief parallels with the final game of 2015 disappeared immediately, and d’Arnaud gunned the ball around the infield casually.
That’s when I knew we’d be fine.
We still had two outs to get, but come on. This was Jeurys Familia, and these were the Royals suddenly bereft of the magic that had propped them up in October. Familia faced Hosmer. Hosmer hit an easy grounder to second. Walker bobbled it.
And again, the Mets drove home the point that they were no longer the sloppy-fielding 2015 runner-ups. In the time it took Mets fans all over the country to gasp, Walker regrouped and fired to first. Got him by a stride. Two down.
Kendrys Morales came up as the Royals’ last hope. He chopped a swinging bunt in front of home plate.
2015 effectively ended on an errant throw from Duda to d’Arnaud. The best part of 2016 began with a perfect one right back.
d’Arnaud to Duda. Routine play. And thus, the game went to the books.
So that’s it: we’ve taken on the Royals, the perfect team, the team America seems to root for, and split two games with them. We’ve held them to three earned runs over those two games. We’ve got pitching, and away from Kansas City and closer to home, we’ve got an offense to go with it as well. And what’s more, we’re coming home. Friday, Citi Field, 1:10. That’s when the magic begins.
And now that we’ve left Kansas City with a win, call me crazy, but the spell seems to be broken, just a little bit. Maybe we’ll run into the Royals somewhere down the line, and maybe they’ll be a cellar dweller. I won’t gloat; in fact, I’ll probably root them on. On any other day, there’s nothing wrong with a genuine group of scrappy, battle-worn underdogs. Nothing wrong with a real-life America’s Team.
I just happen to prefer the Mets.