KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Maybe he could feel its symptoms coming on like a drawn out cold: First the equivalent of a tickle in the throat, then a runny nose, then full-body chills. It was fatigue, and it would have been a perfectly acceptable excuse for what happened to Jacob deGrom in Wednesday night’s World Series Game 2.
Before Wednesday, deGrom had already thrown 211 innings this year, including the playoffs, 63 more than he had ever before worked in a professional season. And fatigue was the favored explanation for why he hadn’t been quite so dominant in his second and third playoff outings as in his first, even though he won all three.
“We’re hoping that extra rest is going to make a difference tomorrow night,” said Mets manager Terry Collins on Tuesday, of the fact that deGrom would be working Game 2 on seven days’ rest.
Did it happen because deGrom was tired? Perhaps. Was it because the home plate umpire, Mark Carlson, maintained a strike zone that was sometimes model slim? Maybe.
“It’s easy to make excuses that, ‘Hey, it’s the workload, it’s the days off, it’s the youth on the big stage,’” said Collins. “I’m not going to say that.”
There was, to be sure, another factor involved: a Royals offense that essentially refuses to swing at a ball without making contact with it.
Look back through deGrom’s playoff starts prior to Game 2. In Game 1 of the NLDS against the Dodgers, he threw seven shutout innings, inducing 24 swings and misses. In Game 5 against Los Angeles, batters swung and missed 15 times. In Game 3 of the NLCS against the Cubs, they swung and missed 19 times. On Wednesday? DeGrom threw 94 pitches, and Royals hitters swung and missed at three of them.
“Jake came out throwing the ball great,” said Mets third baseman David Wright. “They just grinded him out.”
This is what the Royals do to even the best pitchers. “What’s going on isn’t a fluke,” said Royals reserve outfielder Jonny Gomes. “What’s going on is practice. What’s going on has been going on.”
DeGrom did begin with four scoreless innings, but in the fifth all that contact turned into something without the necessity of even a memorable blow. A walk, a single, a single, a groundout, a lineout, a single, a single, a single and a groundout turned a 1–0 Kansas City deficit into a 4–1 lead.
“I just didn’t make a pitch when I needed to in the fifth,” deGrom said.
That lead would prove more than enough for the Royals because of the man they had on the mound and the way he attacked the Mets. In his last outing, against Toronto nine days ago, Johnny Cueto walked off the field screaming into his glove after allowing eight runs in just two innings. Over the past three months, he has only rarely looked like the ace the Royals thought they were acquiring from the Reds at the trade deadline.
On Wednesday, Cueto would produce exactly as many swings-and-misses as deGrom had, but the results would be very different. Through eight innings, Cueto allowed only two hits—both to Lucas Duda—on 107 pitches. Surely, it seemed as if he would be done for the night, but Royals manager Ned Yost sent him out for the ninth to the delight of the fans in Kauffman Stadium who had been chanting his name. As a song by LMFAO played, he danced over the first-base line. Then he finished off his complete game, the first by an American League pitcher in the World Series since Jack Morris in Game 7 in 1991.
Conventional wisdom held that Tuesday’s shocking loss for the Mets in a game they had led in the bottom of the ninth inning wasn’t all that devastating because deGrom would present such a clear advantage over Cueto the following evening. But while deGrom threw harder and had nastier stuff generally, Cueto used his better.
“He threw three or four pitches for strikes on any count,” Wright said. “Hitting’s all about timing, and he disrupted it.”
Said Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland: “If Johnny stays on the attack, if he’s not trying to miss bats and nibbling early in the game … I’m not going to say he’s going to pitch a two-hit shutout, but he’s going to give you a pretty good chance to win.”
Wright was not surprised by the performance. “You expected to see the Johnny Cueto that we saw in Cincinnati for so many years,” he said. “And that’s a tough one. And that’s exactly what we got tonight.”
There are many very good reasons to invest in recent trends: who might be tired, who might be hurt, who has had some bad starts, who is missing lots of bats and who is not. But sometimes, such a focus leads you to miss the fundamentals, and the fundamentals suggested that Cueto has been one of the best pitchers in baseball for five years now, and that the Royals’ lineup is built to hit with a relentlessness that someone like deGrom had never before encountered.
As it turned out, the fundamentals were what really mattered in Game 2.
“We got [Cueto] for a reason,” said Eiland. “Every team in baseball wanted this guy at the deadline, for a reason. We saw that tonight.”