KANSAS CITY, Mo. — With the Mets, it always comes down to pitching. The main reason team captain David Wright chose to forego free agency and sign a contract extension three years ago when the team was terrible was the promise of their young pitching. The reason the Mets managed to stay in the NL East race in the first half of this season, when their batting order was full of Triple A players, was their stellar pitching. And the reason they have a chance to bounce back from a devastating, gut-punch of a loss in Game 1 of the World Series is—let’s all say it together—pitching.
More specifically, it’s Game 2 starter Jacob deGrom, the fluffy-haired flame-thrower who has been New York's best postseason starter. After the team's 5–4, 14-inning loss to the Royals in Game 1 at Kauffman Stadium, the visiting clubhouse was somber. But the reminder that deGrom, who is 3–0 with a 1.80 ERA in his first postseason, will be on the mound on Wednesday night—against Kansas City’s Johnny Cueto—clearly lifted some spirits. “That’s right, it’s Jake tomorrow,” said Michael Cuddyer, who struck out in all three of his at-bats off the bench in Game 1. “That’s always good news. We’ll be fine.”
At times, deGrom has lived up to his “deGrominator” nickname, as in his seven-inning, 13-strikeout performance that beat the Dodgers in the opener of the NLDS. At other times he has been equally impressive with his resourcefulness. His pitches didn’t have nearly the same electric movement in Game 5 against Los Angeles, but but he managed to limit the Dodgers to two runs over six innings anyway in New York’s 3–2 win. The Mets will gladly take either version in Game 2, which they badly need in order to shake off the disappointment of seeing closer Jeurys Familia, who had been unscored upon in the postseason, cough up a 4–3 lead in the ninth by surrendering a one-out, solo home run to Alex Gordon.
“He doesn’t give up home runs,” New York manager Terry Collins said of Familia, “so we were all shocked by it. We’re frustrated. We didn’t have a lot of opportunities, but we had a few shots.”
The Mets' only had one real shot in extra innings, when they put two runners on with two out in the 11th after a bunt single by Juan Lagares and a walk to Curtis Granderson, but Wright struck out swinging against reliever Ryan Madson. New York struck out nine times in extra innings alone as its offense virtually disappeared.
In October, the Mets haven’t looked like the team that had the highest-scoring offense in the National League after the July addition of Yoenis Cespedes. Granderson’s solo homer in the fifth, a laser to right, was one of their few well-struck balls all evening and their only extra-base hit. They will need larger contributions from two key hitters, Cespedes and rookie leftfielder Michael Conforto, who have struggled in the postseason. Conforto drove in a run with a sacrifice fly in Game 1, but he has only one hit in 17 at-bats in the postseason. After going 1-for-6 on Tuesday, Cespedes, who is playing with a shoulder injury that required a cortisone shot, is 10-for-40 with 13 strikeouts.
Royals starter Edinson Volquez limited the Mets to three runs in his six innings, which is about all Kansas City asks of its starting pitchers because of the depth and quality of its bullpen. The Mets scored just once against Danny Duffy, Kelvin Herrera, Luke Hochevar, Wade Davis, Madson and Chris Young. “We felt like we should have had more against Volquez,” said New York's starting designated hitter, Kelly Johnson. “One of the keys for us is being productive against their starters before they get into that ‘pen.”
They will have a chance to do that against Cueto, a trade deadline pickup from Cincinnati who was expected to be the Royals’ No. 1 starter but who instead has been their biggest puzzle. Cueto was so-so in his first postseason start for Kansas City, allowing four runs on seven hits in six innings against Houston, then pitched eight strong innings, giving up just two hits and two runs in the Game 5 closeout of the Astros. But in his last start, Game 3 of the ALCS against Toronto, the Blue Jays shelled him for eight runs in two innings. “What happened in Toronto, happened in Toronto,” Cueto said through an interpreter on Monday. “That’s over with. We’re here in the World Series. I’m not thinking about that. Toronto is not here in the World Series and now it’s time to play baseball.”
Royals manager Ned Yost has no idea which Cueto he will get in Game 2. His personality is as quirky and unpredictable as his delivery, and Yost has made sure to slot him in Royals home games because he has shown a tendency to let visiting crowds negatively affect him. The Mets' mission is to make sure their bats negatively affect Cueto in Game 2. If they leave Kansas City with a split before they head to New York for three games, they will have cleansed the bad taste of the Game 1 loss. “If we grind out our at-bats, stay selective at the plate, we’ll be fine offensively,” Wright said. “We don’t need to do anything special, just do our job.”
If they do, they feel quite certain that deGrom will do his. “There’s one thing with this club I almost never worry about,” Collins says. That’s right: pitching.