Sunday, May 20, 2018
Sports

It turns out, these Royals aren't the Cubs

Terry Collins stood there in the dugout in this 1970s throwback of a stadium and thought through his fifth-inning predicament. His string-bean ace, Jacob deGrom, was on the mound, tossing in the mid-90s, with off-speed stuff that darted here and there like a drunken firefly.

DeGrom had just begun the fifth inning by walking the leadoff man; against this relentless Kansas City Royals team that's like sticking your finger in a wood chipper. Still, all postseason long, this kid pitcher had pulled off Houdini escape acts.

"We've been sitting here raving the last two series that he's gotten himself out of trouble," Collins said afterward. "I just thought it was time we could ride Jake and see if we could get him out of that inning."

Here's what happened: Single, Single and a tied score, 1-1. Then deGrom calmed himself and got two outs and began to tug at the escape hatch.

Single, single, single. Three more hits and now it was 4-1 in the Royals' favor. The World Series itself was about to tilt two games to none in Kansas City's favor, a handsome, if not yet insurmountable, edge.

The Royals are like that persistent dog that chews and chews and chews, and eventually your couch has no legs to stand on. You get two strikes on them and your pain has only begun. They begin hacking and fouling off a half-dozen pitches and whacking seeing-eye ground balls for base hits. As their centerfielder Lorenzo Cain put it, "We shorten up and lock in."

Collins, the New York Mets' fine manager, spoke after the game of "perfectly placed grounders" by Royals hitters in a manner that suggested he expected this would even out. Maybe. Or maybe this is just the way the Royals roll. You walk over to Cain, who stands by his locker and is quick to say that deGrom is a fine pitcher.

But ...

"Me? Personally? I saw deGrom real well, windup and stretch," Cain said. "Guys just lock in, you know?"

You have to take his word. Because to walk across the carpeted hallway to the Mets' locker room was to find a lot of guys who didn't lock in on much of anything in Kansas City. Having spent four games battering the Chicago Cubs, they could not figure out how to slap so much as a clutch single up the middle.

Yoenis Cespedes, the Mets' sometimes slugging star, has swung at pitches a foot outside and at eye level, expanding his strike zone until it's the size of Kips Bay. Rookie Michael Conforto is a fine power-hitting prospect who has not hit since the October moon was in a different house. His batting average is .050.

Conforto's rival for playing time is Michael Cuddyer, a thoughtful man and a professional hitter. Unfortunately, Cuddyer's bat has died. He has come to the plate 11 times in the postseason and he has a single hit.

It was not as if the Mets faced an ace at the top of his game on Wednesday night. Royals starter Johnny Cueto has long black-and-gold dreads and spins and shimmies on the mound like a latter-day Luis Tiant. But since coming over from Cincinnati, he had started 16 times for the Royals before Wednesday and compiled a 6.16 run earned run average.

Yet from first shimmy to last in Game 2, Cueto cast a spell on Mets batters. He finished with a complete game. The Royals are return invitees to this World Series ball, and evidence of their intensity of purpose is clear. They lost last year in the seventh game, as San Francisco Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner gave a pitching performance for the ages.

The Mets arrived in Kansas City with a fine collection of strong young arms. It's perhaps fair to wonder, though, if a prolonged season has taken a toll. New Yorkers being New Yorkers, the quality of the Royals registered as a thunder strike of revelation. As the Royals kept ratcheting open the game, eventually to a 7-1 lead, my fellow provincials began to type disbelieving words.

"So ... it turns out the Royals are good," one New Yorker tweeted to me.

This was a classic New York epiphany in which we suddenly realize that good, quality things occasionally happen outside our metropolitan region.

None of which is to suggest that this series is overy. On Friday evening, the Mets will send Noah Syndergaard, their 100-mph lightning-bolt thrower of a pitcher, to the mound.

As New York fans no doubt will make a rollicking madhouse of Citi Field, a reversal cannot be ruled out. Even history offers hope. The 1986 Mets lost their first two games at home and came back and won in seven. Except, well, if Syndergaard gets off to anything less than a smashing start, it could be more over than it appears. — New York Times

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