KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Mets Manager Terry Collins sat for a postgame interview in a pillbox room in Kauffman Stadium, red-faced, his jawline tight and with a hint of a twitch. He spoke of an emotion that had become a stranger these past three weeks: disappointment.
“Well, we’re frustrated,” he told reporters. “We had a few shots. We got the lead and we lost it, we came back and got the lead again.”
Then the Mets lost their grip again, surrendering a bone-crusher of a ninth-inning home run.
The Mets and the Kansas City Royals, as indefatigable a team as exists in the American League, played a long evening’s journey into night on Tuesday — and then Wednesday — five hours and 14 innings worth. For the first time in several magical weeks, the Mets lost a game that they held within their grasp. Afterward, they looked vacant-eyed.
The Mets had not trailed the Chicago Cubs for a single inning of a four-game sweep in the National League Championship Series. The Royals took care of that on the first pitch they saw, as shortstop Alcides Escobar, the Royals’ leadoff hitter, sent Matt Harvey’s offering soaring to the warning track.
It was a tough, if eminently catchable, ball; outfielders Michael Conforto and Yoenis Cespedes converged and had an is-this-ball-yours-or-mine? moment. Cespedes tried to make a thigh-high backhand catch, an ill-considered bit of improvisation. The ball glanced off his leg and bounced away. Escobar can scoot, and he had all the license he needed to race around the bases for an inside-the-park home run.
It was stunning and a hint of what was to come. For the Mets, in the hours that followed, were not done in by bleeders and mishaps by bit players. Their stalwarts, Cespedes, Harvey, Jeurys Familia and David Wright, the soul of this resourceful team, gave Game 1 away.
“It seemed like they put pressure on us every inning,” said Wright, who made a killer of a 14th-inning error. “We saw all game just how they clawed back into it.”
Much like the Royals, the Mets are difficult to flatten. They scored a run in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings — including a line-drive home run by Curtis Granderson — and took a 3-1 lead.
(Note: Earlier this year, I referred to Granderson, who is having a terrific postseason, as a geriatric outfielder in possession of a bad contract. I have sacked my analytics department and have set to erasing my hard drive. In another week, I will be prepared to deny that I wrote any such words.)
But that two-run lead soon disappeared, and it was Harvey, the Mets’ ace, who gave it back. In the bottom of the sixth, he quickly surrendered a double, a single and a sacrifice fly and with the score now 3-2, and the tying run on second, Harvey faced Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas, who stood there, holding his hands loose and low.
Harvey pitched. Whap! Moustakas rapped a single and tied the game.
Harvey is the most examined of the Mets pitchers, watched as closely as if he were a specimen under the microscope. He has pitched long into his recovery year from elbow surgery, now piling up innings like cords of wood. The unmistakable sense is that his season has taken a toll on his velocity.
He survives on guile. His fastball, that get-out-of-my-face beauty, sits in the dugout, its engine turned off.
Inside Edge analyzed his pitches Tuesday and reported that he threw his fastball just 37.5 percent of the time, the lowest percentage of his career. He exceeded 95 miles an hour on just a single pitch. “I didn’t feel great,” Harvey acknowledged afterward. “I didn’t have my best stuff.”
And yet and despite and whatever, the Mets entered the bottom of the ninth inning with a one-run lead. They were like cat burglars set to escape from Kauffman Stadium with a surprising cache of jewels. Jeurys Familia, their dominant reliever, stood on the mound. He had not given up a run in the postseason.
Familia got an out and watched Alex Gordon, an arch-professional hitter for the Royals, settle into the box. Familia possesses a 98 m.p.h. fastball and a concrete-heavy sinker. For some reason, he tossed a quick, trick pitch.
“He tried to quick-pitch me and left the ball right there to hit,” Gordon explained after the game. “With a guy like that, you can’t miss pitches that he gives you to hit.”
Gordon hit that pitch 438 feet to straightaway center field. The game, once again, was tied.
“As soon as I let that pitch go, I say, ‘Oh man’,” Familia said.
If the first nine innings reminded Americans why baseball is their beautiful game, the next five perhaps reminded Europeans why this game can feel inexplicable and endless.
Hitters stopped hitting and offered one homely swing after another. It was as if the Mets, in particular, decided to channel their hitless mid-July selves.
In the 12th inning, the Mets’ Senor Timeless himself walked into the game. Bartolo Colon is all about ease and skill and calm, and for two innings he kept the Royals off balance, repeatedly swinging off the wrong foot like so many awkward dancers.
In Colon’s third inning, however, disaster visited, or at least its first cousin. That same Escobar, who caused so much trouble in the first inning, hit a grounder to Wright. The ball ran up the third baseman’s wrist, hit his midsection and plopped to the dirt. Wright picked it up and whipped a sidearm boleo throw to the first baseman.
His aim was off, and Escobar reached base on an error. A single, a walk, a sacrifice fly and Escobar scored. The Royals had won the first game.
Not long after, in the locker room, Wright stood and steadily, quietly, answered every question about his bruised and battered evening.
He suffers from spinal stenosis, a condition that could cut short his career. You wondered, as Wright stood there at his locker, answering questions with his midsection wrapped like a mummy in elastic bandages and ice, if his injury had yipped this evening. He has played every game of the postseason, and the grind is considerable.
“I got an in-between hop and the ball came up on me,” he said, by way of analysis and not excuse. “I tried to rush the throw a little it. It’s obviously a tough one to swallow.”
This was a single game in a seven-game series. Nearly a half century ago, the Mets and their Hall of Fame pitcher, Tom Seaver, dropped a tough World Series opener to the Baltimore Orioles. That was the last game the Mets lost in that series.
That said, the postseason can prove a capricious mistress. Toss her gifts to the wind and there’s no assurance she will toss another your way. Collins was asked about the botched outfield play in the first inning.
“Yeah, it should have been caught, but didn’t, wasn’t caught,” he said.
It was a should-have, didn’t, wasn’t sort of evening. Now the Mets must return to that field 19 hours later and try to set it right against an impressive opponent.