NEW YORK — Every pitcher once dreamt about taking the mound in the World Series for his favorite team, as he lay in his childhood bedroom. Perhaps only one, however, had done it on the very night before his World Series debut: Steven Matz, the 24-year-old rookie who started Saturday evening’s Game 4 for the New York Mets.
Matz began Saturday, which was Halloween, by giving out candy to morning trick-or-treaters who rang the doorbell of his parents’ home in Stony Brook, Long Island, where he still lives. Then he made the hour-long drive to Citi Field. Once there, he pitched about as well as he might ever have imagined. He completed five innings and allowed two runs on seven hits. He even struck out five members of the contact-hitting Royals, after Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom before him had whiffed only two. As he jogged off the mound in the sixth inning, with a 3–2 lead, it seemed as if he was on the verge of a fantasy come true; those childhood dreams, of course, always end with a win.
Kansas City though, is the type of team that shatters dreams, not with a single concussive blast but with repeated taps from a tack hammer. The Royals again mounted one of their late-inning, small-ball rallies. This time they scored three runs in the top of the eighth to take a 5–3 lead that would prove final and give them a three-games-to-one lead in the series. It also put them one win away from their first championship since 1985.
For the Mets, there was plenty of blame to go around. Daniel Murphy, the hero of the Mets’ first two playoff rounds, took some of it. Murphy is now just 3 for 17 at the plate in this series, but on Saturday his defense was the issue. With one out and men on first and second in the eighth, and the Mets’ lead still 3-2, the second baseman allowed a bouncing grounder from Eric Hosmer to skip underneath his glove and the game to be tied.
“It’s frustrating because we put ourselves in position to win a ball game today, and I misplayed it, and there’s no excuse for it, and we lost a ball game because of it,” Murphy said.
Murphy’s miscue was not the only factor. The managerial decisions of Terry Collins might also be criticized and likely helped to create a situation in which a single error could come with such a cost to begin with. In the bottom of the fifth, two batters after Michael Conforto, Matz’s fellow rookie, had clubbed his second home run in as many at-bats to give the Mets a 3–1 lead, Collins might have pinch-hit for his young starter and removed him from the game. He kept him in.
“After the home run I thought I’d let him hit,” Collins explained. Matz lined out hard to center, but the real damage came in the top of the sixth. He would throw only five more pitches on the night, allowing Ben Zobrist to double and then Lorenzo Cain to single Zobrist home to cut the deficit to one. Collins’s decision backfired, in a way that would ultimately reveal itself two innings later.
Collins’s second questionable decision came in the fateful top of the eighth, which he opted to begin with setup man Tyler Clippard instead of turning to the normally dominant closer Jeurys Familia for six potential outs. That call was actually impacted by another move Collins had made the night before, in Game 3, when he had Familia pitch the ninth even though the Mets had a six-run lead, perhaps to allow him to wash the taste of the game-tying homer he’d allowed to Alex Gordon in Game 1 from his mouth.
“A little bit,” Collins admitted, when asked if the fact that Familia had worked the night before kept him on the bullpen’s bench at the start of the eighth. “A little bit.”
After inducing Alcides Escobar to ground out to him, Clippard walked Zobrist and then Cain.
“We talked about doing two innings with Jeurys,” Collins said. “So we thought we’d start with Clippard, and if the go-ahead run gets on, we’ll go to Familia. And when he walked Cain, we said, ‘We’ve got to go to Familia.’”
But even for a dominant closer, entering a game with two men on base is a far different proposition from doing so at the start of an inning. First came Murphy’s error, then back-to-back singles by Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez. The Mets’ night was essentially over.
“We couldn’t stop the bleeding,” said Collins, though he’d had a hand in starting it.
You can certainly assign blame to Murphy for the loss, and to Collins, too. But you shouldn’t stop there. You also have to blame Jenrry Mejia, who was supposed to be the Mets’ closer this year, for testing positive for the steroid stanozolol not once but twice, receiving an 80- and then a 162-game suspension and depriving the Mets of a second, badly needed bullpen power arm.
Then you have to blame Sandy Alderson, the team’s general manager, for not adequately replacing Mejia, perhaps leading Collins to stick with Matz a little too long and to a situation in which the eighth inning never seems safe.
And then, of course, you have to blame the Mets’ owners, Fred and Jeff Wilpon, for their Bernie Madoff-aided parsimony that deprived Alderson of the funds he might have devoted to such a reliever, even though he runs a team in the nation’s richest market.
In other words, even though it seems simple to pick scapegoats for the Mets’ current predicament, it’s actually complicated. Mostly, the blame for the Mets loss on Saturday has to fall on their opponent, who again proved their relentlessness, and their ability to create a win out of very little—in Game 4, out of a rally built on a walk, a walk, an error, a single and a single.
“It’s a team that just looks for a little crack,” Kansas City manager Ned Yost said. “If we find a little crack, they’re going to make something happen. It’s amazing how they do that.”
On Saturday, the Royals again found several fissures, both specific and systemic, in the Mets, and they again turned what seemed a certain win for New York into a late-inning defeat. The glare of morning hasn’t quite arrived for the Mets. They’ve still got Harvey, deGrom and Noah Syndergaard set to start the next three games, after all. But their dream certainly seems to be nearing its end.