Is It Over for the Mets?

World Series - New York Mets v Kansas City Royals - Game Two
Photo: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

After every World Series game, brothers and resident New York Mets nuts Benjamin Wallace-Wells and David Wallace-Wells will be chewing over what happened — in this case, a pitching duel turning into a marathon of Royals singles (and therefore runs).

David Wallace-Wells: Well, that was pretty brutal.

Ben Wallace-Wells: I’m starting to think the series just may not be about the Mets. The Royals were amazing. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a baseball team that seems so ideologically devoted: All of the unified defensive shifting, each batter suppressing the desire to be a hero and simply making contact. Do you remember that Tom Verducci story from the ALCS, in which the Royals’ advance scouts had noticed that whenever David Price took a deep breath before pitching he threw a change-up? There has been a John Henry quality to Harvey and deGrom in the first two games. They are up against some sleek futurist machine. 

DWW: Their lineup has definitely been impressive, though mostly I’ve been impressed with its balance — it’s incredible how successful you can be just by assembling nine merely above-average hitters. I mean, these guys really aren’t that great, even if they’re all pretty good. Of course, the Mets are so much worse. If the Royals look like a robot-army of identical Stormtroopers (those distinguished by beards, like Hosmer and Moustakas and Gordon, seem to shave with their Braun razor at the same setting), the Mets look more like themselves in June, when they fielded a cleanup hitter batting .170 and a No. 5 hitter batting .179 — hey, remember when the Mets sucked? We laughed then, but is there anybody in this lineup right now you’d trust significantly more than John Mayberry or Eric Campbell? Every time David Wright comes up to bat in the first inning of these games it feels just as likely he’s going to give a dramatic retirement speech as get a hit. Did Tom Verducci say last night it takes him five hours just to loosen up his spinal-stenosoid back enough to swing a bat? I wouldn’t be surprised if he sneaked over the border for Gordie Howe treatment before Game 3.

So, okay, the Royals have slaughtered us offensively. But I’m not sure how impressive their pitching has been, and not just because up until a couple of weeks ago I could never tell Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto apart. It was at that point you helpfully described Volquez as a 30-year-old 20-year-old pitcher, meaning a guy who has really promising stuff but has never really figured out how to pitch; Cueto is more like a 30-year-old 40-year-old pitcher, a crafty wizard-y pitching weirdo — Bartolo Colón if Colón could still hit 94. I especially like when Cueto takes off his cap as he leaves the field, exposing his do-rag. Has anyone else in baseball worn one of those since about 2002? And is there any doubt that underneath is a giant bald spot, the long dreads a lovable overcompensation?

Cueto’s complete game is probably going to be talked about for a long time, judging by the fact that the last World Series complete game got an otherwise mediocre Jack Morris to the threshold of the Hall of Fame. (He deserves it for the mustache, but not the pitching.) But does it mark me as a pathetic Mets homer to say I’m still wondering just how much better Cueto actually was than deGrom? Yes, I know, the final score was 7–1, and the Mets managed only two hits — or, should I say, the lovable Okie-faced lug Lucas Duda managed two, both of them almost cheat hits, against the shift. But truthfully, nobody on either team made hard contact all night; it felt like every hit in that disastrous bottom of the fifth stayed in the infield or just barely leaked out of it. Juan Lagares almost snagged a soft line drive to short center (certainly he would have, if the light rain hadn’t taken a few feet off of it); and had Céspedes been playing center, as he did in Game 1, he actually might’ve nailed a couple of those Royals runs at the plate (with his busted shoulder Lagares barely hit the cutoff man). Cueto kept the Mets off balance for nine innings, it’s true (though, Jesus, could the announcers maybe have focused a little less on the quick pitch?), and deGrom left some pitches out over the plate in key spots, yes, but ultimately it felt like just a couple of squibs squeaking past our junior-varsity middle infield that turned the game. 

Baseball fans used to see destiny in those breaks, or fortitude, “clutch hitting,” grit, and all that bullshit. In the stathead era, we’re supposed to see them as small-sample-size phenomena, probably outliers and ultimately meaningless. But so what do you do as a smart fan in a seven-game series, preposterously invested emotionally in what is by definition too small a sample of baseball for anything to mean anything? I’m going to just call it bad luck and pray it turns. Remember, the Mets lost the first two in 1986. Then again, that’s also what happened in 2000, when Roger Clemens tried to murder Mike Piazza with a bat splintered handily into a shiv. The problem with these Royals is they don’t even have a villain like that. I mean, how can you hate Salvy Pérez?

BWW: What you do as a smart fan in a seven-game series is the same thing you do as a casual fan in a seven-game series: You hope for individual heroics! Last year the stathead line for a month was that the Royals weren’t actually any good, that Ned Yost was just stacking fluke on top of fluke in some kind of teetering Seuss-style tower that, because of the small samples involved, might get them the World Series title, more or less entirely on luck. And that nearly happened. But then Madison Bumgarner intervened — Bumgarner, the Giants’ amazing left-handed condor of a pitcher; Bumgarner, the mountain man who in high school once dated a girl also named Madison Bumgarner — and single-handedly won three games for the Giants, and that was that. 

If you were to pick the players in this series capable of such a performance, you’d start with three Mets: Syndergaard, deGrom, and Harvey. And for all the Royals’ slappy balance, the lineup most likely to set off on a long, Blue Jays–like run of homers and doubles is clearly the Mets. Maybe Céspedes’s left shoulder is not quite as bad as it looks. Maybe Duda goes on a run like he did when the Mets turned their season around early in August — nine home runs in eight games, a one-man destruction of the Washington Nationals. Maybe d’Arnaud and Conforto hit like they did during the late-summer surge, when they looked like two of the emerging offensive stars in the league. Maybe someone prevails upon Daniel Murphy to abandon his Dialogues of Strike-Zone Metaphysics with the home-plate umps (“Was that at the knees, or just below? Where in fact do my knees end? What are knees?”) and zero in again on the just-okay stuff flying out of the Royals’ pitchers hands. (I’m actually with you on deGrom and Cueto: They both missed their spots badly in that fourth inning, and the Mets couldn’t do much with it, and the Royals kept stringing together singles that were not hit especially hard, and that felt like the difference in the game.) I’m not incredibly optimistic that the Mets find their timing and their swings when they come back east. But you hope for a couple of dominant performances in the vein the Mets always depended on: power arms and home-run swings. The Royals are throwing Yordano Ventura and Kris Medlen the next two nights. There is hope.

DWW: I remember that streak from Duda. It was right after you traded him to my fantasy team.

BWW: Speaking of power: What have you been making of Alex Rodriguez’s new turn as an aspiring Tim McCarver? I realized last night that though I’ve heard him speak often over the years, it was almost always with the camera on his face and physique, which lent everything he said a forbidding certainty. This series his voice — a little meeker and less sure than I remembered — has been piped into the booth, and I’ve been enjoying his obvious fascination with the craft of hitting as much as his effortful battle to sound decent on air. “The synopsis is,” A-Rod said last night, realizing that his analysis of deGrom’s ability to vary his pitches both vertically and horizontally had dragged on too long and trying to move toward a summation. Then he lapsed into perplexing jock speak, in giving advice to hitters facing the Mets ace: “Pack your lunch. It’s gonna be a handful.” (“Of what?” Adam Sternbergh wondered on Twitter. “A handful of lunch?”)

But that’s been one pleasure for me: the anti-stathead nature of this series. All of the men deemed dinosaurs have had insights to offer. Harold Reynolds has been pretty sharp on how much the infield shift perplexes infielders and makes them work against ingrained habit. A-Rod has supplied a nerdy helpfulness. And in the background there’s Ned Yost, some throwback Yoda from the California coast, stroking the cleft in his chin and making sure that Mike Moustakas is positioned exactly where Yoenis Céspedes will hit the ball, and that all of the Royals singles come in a row. 

DWW: Was that A-Rod speech before or after Verducci rolled out the one-liner “Daniel’s been turning the batter’s box into a Murphy bed,” which he’d presumably been crafting since last Thursday? I’m going to cherish that one in a little natural-history museum I keep of absurdly overdetermined broadcaster exclamations. I legit cried when Al Michaels belted out his famous Lake Placid line in Miracle, which got its name from it, and I literally can’t stop laughing whenever I think of Adrian Healey at the end of a Netherlands victory in the 2008 European Cup: “It’s a Dutch oven, and the French are toast!” I like to think he knew nothing of the cookware and was praising Ruud van Nistelrooy for pulling the blanket over the head of his opponents and farting.

But I’ve always loved Rodriguez. In sports, I can’t resist a hated man. Even better, he’s the greatest hitter of his generation, and yet he always looks on the verge of tears. That voice, too, always quavering — what is this gladiator longing for? And then there’s that painting of himself as a centaur, or whatever, hung above his bed where other athletes put mirrors. For my money, though, I might prefer Chris Archer as active-player sideline reporter. When they turn to him in the postgame, I think, This man is definitely stoned

But let’s talk about power pitching. As everybody has already noted, the major feature of this series so far is that the Mets’ strikeout pitchers can’t actually strike anyone out. Even 20 years ago, this would not have seemed so unusual — those days, aside from the occasional Pedro or Randy Johnson, pitchers struck out less than a batter an inning, and you could win a Cy Young without ever blowing a fastball by a hitter. But watching the Royals bat against deGrom (and Harvey) was like watching someone bowl with the bumpers on — the whole method by which pitchers get outs seemed to have been taken entirely off the table. But pitchers did used to get outs on batted balls, didn’t they? It wasn’t just that Sandy Koufax frightened hitters into running away — there was actually a way to induce ground balls hit at fielders, right? So … how? Maybe ancient Bartolo Colón knows. And maybe he should start Game 3.

BWW: It does feel like Colón’s time is coming. This weekend is Halloween, and Bartolo already looks like a jack-o’-lantern. Colón feels like the true Met on this year’s team, the most joyous and unlikely player. It’s often said that he does not look athletic enough to be a professional athlete, but that understates things: He does not look athletic enough to be a cop. In Game 1, when he and Lucas Duda tried to corral Alcides Escobar’s gracefully deadened bunt, they had all the elegance of a pair of office chairs rolling down a flight of stairs.

The series started with the melodrama, heightened by Fox, of the death of Edinson Volquez’s father, and it does seem like age has been a quiet theme running through it. The Royals’ young infielders have been bending to every ball, and by comparison David Wright and Lucas Duda always seem to be twisting unnaturally, like giants trying to get out of a Fiat. But I think what has done in the Mets’ pitching hasn’t been a failure of savvy so much as something simpler: a failure of command. Against the Cubs’ free-swinging power, they could get away with inexact placement. Against the Royals’ controlled, exacting swings, they could not. Collins said he wished deGrom had thrown more outside of the zone, and more breaking stuff, but Harvey did that and didn’t look especially good either. Game 3 is Ventura versus Syndergaard, two young guns who throw 100. The good news is that ours is the one who usually can hit his spots.

DWW: But hitting what spots? Last night the strike zone moved so much it was hard to get any kind of read on it — it wasn’t tiny exactly, but where was it? Really, I sympathized with Murphy and his metaphysics, but I also wondered just how ruined I’ve been by a year in which most games have been broadcast with a strike-zone imposed over the standard center-field shot, leaving never any doubt about whether a pitch should have been called a strike. Having it off to the side is almost as bad as trying to watch two games at once, but I swear I can’t tell anymore if a pitch is a strike without glancing over at the box. People used to argue about strikes, sometimes loudly, drunkenly, charmingly. I can’t live without that K-Zone graphic, but now all of the protest you can really muster is a shrug. Which is more or less how I feel about the rest of the series — let’s go, mehs!

Is It Over for the Mets?